HERE ON THE BIG ISLAND – A Horse, of Course – Part I

By Kelly Moran

A Horse, of Course – Part I

“What’s it like to own a horse here?” The question came from a family that was looking at a house on pastureland. I know a little about horses, but Bird McIver is an expert: she’s famous in local equine circles for making fine custom saddles, and for rescuing horses that have been abused or abandoned.

Bird McIver with her horse Bunny
Bird McIver with her horse Bunny

“Keeping a horse is certainly a lot of fun,” said Bird. “There are plenty of horses and horse-people here, and we have some very active clubs. But it’s also more expensive to keep a horse, here, than on the Mainland.”

Take feed, for instance. “A bale of hay that costs maybe six to ten dollars on the Mainland,” she said, “costs forty dollars here, because it has to come over on a barge. And you may have to buy hay, because not every field or pasture on the island has vegetation that can sustain a horse. The soil here is volcanic, so it’s typically deficient. Cows will eat what’s known locally as ‘Wainaku grass,’ but horses won’t touch it. There’s a lot of moisture in that grass, but not a lot of the nutritional components that a horse requires. So, horses here need to be fed and supplemented.”

Bird estimates that it costs the average owner about $225 per horse per month. That includes feed, vaccinations, and “equine dentistry.” (Huh?) “You absolutely should ‘look a gift horse in the mouth’,” she said with a grin. “It’s the first thing to do – check the teeth. Horses’ teeth grow all their lives; they get sharp, and have to be ground down. You also have to ‘worm’ horses every six weeks, here, because we have a year-round growing season and no killing frost. You have to deal with other pests, too. I encourage people to keep chickens near their horses, to eat fly larvae.”

Surprisingly, you may not have to ‘shoe’ your horse. “Horses evolved near timberline,” Bird explained. “If you toughen up their feet, they can go barefoot. But check their feet often, and watch out for foot problems wherever the ground is wet, as it can be, especially in East Hawaii.”

Most horses do, however, get shod. “Horseshoes themselves are not expensive, and they can be shipped here fairly cheaply, in flat-rate boxes from the Post Office. But to do the work – to actually shoe the horse,” declared Bird, “pick a good farrier. Around here, we have certified farriers and we have ‘cowboy shoe-ers.’ Go with a farrier.”

Bird will tell us about buying a horse on the Big Island, in my next blog.