I'm at another cross-roads in horse ownership, so I'm taking the issue and turning it into a useful blog post for writers! If you're writing anything with horses or horse-like creatures, grab your saddle and get comfy.
When I moved Calico to the current boarding situation, I knew that the boarding was dependent on hay. The family put aside enough hay from what they could have sold so that all the horses would have sufficient hay for the winter.
Now, as I approach the last month covered in our boarding contract, a count of bales says that I cannot continue the contract as it is.
I need to find another source for hay and possibly need to change locations until the next cut of hay is available.
What does this mean for writers?
Well, in what is probably my 0 novel, I had my characters riding horses all over an alternate history UK with little thought at all to the food situation.
I got around a few things by creating a fantasy horse that was a mixed breed of unicorn and human horse… but really, there was a whole lot of poor - what am I saying? - there was no planning involved. I am ashamed when I look back at it.
If you're going to have your heroes on horseback, or if you're going to have them board their horses at an inn, or if they are demanding quarter at someone's house, or if they're on a "very small" farm - and use horses for ploughing…
Well, these horses need to eat!
What do horses eat? Mostly grass and hay, and often additional grains.
Great! You might think. If we're traveling, the horses can eat grass when we eat.
Is there plenty of grass - not scrub, not trees, not rocks, not desert, but GRASS - at every single place you stop? Have you calculated at least two additional stops during the day besides overnight camping, with about two hours where the horses are untacked and grazing?
Now, if you've got donkeys, you can get away with harsher climates and scrubby weeds. Mules are about the same… but I don't see a lot of heroes galloping off on a donkey or a mule. They likely have a fancy horse of some sort. (I won't go into steeds/stallions, mares and geldings… there is another great article on that here by Mary K. Wilson - who discusses more food issues.)
Onto the hay issue. Hay takes up a whole friggen lot of space, first of all. Your average bale - which is compacted - is usually 14 inches by 18 inches by 50 inches. The average, working, horse will go through about one of these a day. A larger, very hard working horse (what most farmers or knights or heroes will have) may go through up to two or three a day! So, for a month, you'd need about 30 of these things per horse, at minimum.
(There are also larger bales, like round bales, that are stored outside for large herds of horses - but they mold and rot in rainy areas and if they don't get eaten quickly. In a desert setting, however, that's an option.)
Where do you keep them?
Well, if you're stationary, your barn will likely have a hay loft (or you may have a separate building to store hay and grain if you're not a poor farmer or peasant and can afford it.)
But, in a properly rural, temperate setting (where you've got a seasonal change), you're going to have to stock hay for the winter and spring months. Why?
Well, hay doesn't get harvested until about July. (I learned this yesterday.) I thought - and I probably wasn't alone - that hay could be harvested, say… around May or so. I knew there was multiple cuttings of hay… some fields get up to three harvests in a year.
However, those three (and often only two) harvests need to last for an entire year. If you run out in February… well, your horse starves to death. Unlike current culture, where I have the opportunity to call several farms in the area that grow hay as a business, in a high fantasy setting, your characters will have had to plan their hay rations for the whole year - looking at what they needed, what they could produce, and what they could trade.
Hell, even in a contemporary setting, you have to consider your food resources. I am!
If your 5-person adventure party shows up with their 6 horses (really, you need at least one extra horse to carry supplies! I promise you. At least one extra, if not two.) and needs to stay at this poor farmers' or peasants' cottage to rest their battle injuries, you'll be using possibly a month's worth of your hosts' resources in just a few days. (Of course, the human rations are also affected - but that's a little more flexible because one of your heroes might be able to go hunting, right? Too bad horses don't eat meat.) If it's winter or spring, there may no way for your hosts to recover that lost feed - leaving them suffering months later when they cannot feed the animals they depend on to survive.
During times of war, if the peasants or poor have to quarter troops, the same suffering happens. The lasting effects of using other people's resources is hardly covered in fiction and media - but it's what would happen. How good are your "good guys" if they don't realize this? (On the other hand, what a handy way to show how "bad" your "bad guys" are!)
An addendum to this, which I know I need to research (and have no excuse not to have done so because the "research" requires just chatting with the people I board with!) is how much land is needed to grow the hay. If you're mapping villages, fiefs, farms, and countrysides, you need to know how much is farmland, and what is grown where. SOME one in your maps - if not many some ones - ought to have fields and fields of hay!
Because, your lords and nobles and reigning leaders will be collecting portions for taxes (they certainly aren't farming!) Your merchants who use any horse-drawn carriages will be purchasing it (and needing places to store it - consider this in your city settings!). The farmers, of course, will need it for their own animals.
As for me, well, I'll continue to keep you posted on Calico, of course, and share the many lessons I'm learning because she's in my life.
Happy writing! (And riding!)