Editor’s note: This is the final installment of a four-part series on Shiner Ranch in Idaho’s Lemhi Valley. It focuses on using horses to deliver hay to livestock.
The Shiner Ranch near Lemhi, Idaho has a lot of cattle and traditionally fed them with horses and wagons or sleighs in the wintertime. “We’ve fed a lot of cows with 4 horses, and we’ve sometimes used what is called a hydrafork,” said Dean Shiner. “It is mounted on a big sleigh and is like a backhoe with grapples that you can grab the hay with. It was originally made for grabbing loose hay, but we used it for round bales. You can’t use it for big square bales because that keeps ruining the teeth, but it can grab the round bales and tear them apart so you can feed them like loose hay. The big square bales can just be flaked off as you feed, but this special fork made the big round bales easier to feed,” he explains.
Horses have always been a major part of their ranching operation and their lives—the Quarter horses for riding and taking care of cattle on miles and miles of rangeland, and the draft horses for pulling hay wagons and sleighs for feeding all those cattle during winter. It takes about 22 tons per day to feed 1000 head of cattle. Winters are long and cold, and depending on the weather, their cattle are generally fed hay from mid to late December until early May. No matter how cold the weather, a good team of horses will always “start” on a cold morning, unlike some tractors!
Dean prefers to use a sleigh rather than a wagon, but some winters they don’t get quite enough snow for their sleighs. The county road is another obstacle; it goes right through the ranch and whenever it snows, the road gets plowed, making it impossible to go across it with a sleigh.
For most of the feeding, the Shiner uses wagons. “We built several wagons using the frames of ¾ ton pickups. That way you have the brakes and springs and also have some cushion. Those truck beds make pretty good wagons. We can haul 4 big bales on those and feed about 200 cows per trip. This has worked for us for many years,” he said.
“I’ve always liked feeding with horses. I’d just as soon catch a team, harness them up and go feed cows, no matter what the weather, rather than go get in a pickup or tractor. I always felt more like I accomplished something, with the horses, and it’s a satisfying effort,” Dean said.
You have to drive a team conscientiously, however. “If you get stuck in the snow or mud with a pickup, it doesn’t know it’s stuck. If you get stuck with a team, they know they are stuck and then the next time you get into a situation where it’s a little bit tough pulling, they think they are stuck and get balky. You have to use your head and be a little bit careful about not getting them stuck or you can ruin a team pretty fast.” It’s important to keep them encouraged and confident, and don’t get them discouraged.
“If you never get them stuck, and they can always pull whatever you hook onto, and it’s amazing how strong they can be and the more confident they are. They know that if you hook them on and think they can move it, they have faith in you and they will give it their best try. But if you get them stuck a few times—which I have done—it takes a while to get over that hump, to where they have trust and confidence in you again. There is nothing more disgusting than getting in a half-tight spot and not really overloaded and all of a sudden the horses quit you because they think they are stuck. It’s best to avoid that problem to begin with, by never getting them stuck,” Dean said.