I have an SSRS technical blog entry in the works, but after coming back from a late night with an after hours veterinarian visit for my sick mare, I thought I’d post something on the equine side of things. I put this content together a year or so ago when a friend’s parents were planning to move to the country and thought it might be nice to dot their property with a horse or two. Horse ownership is the most amazing combination of joy and frustration, of expense and elation, but it’s never to be taken lightly. And now, for your edification, a collection of my “So you want a horse, eh?” thoughts.
A free horse is never free. Ever.
The cheapest part of horses is often the purchase cost – free horses may be sick, and an expensive horse will still need upkeep.
I learned some basics having horses at home as a kid. I learned A TON taking lessons and boarding – most of my horse care knowledge re: health care, safety practices, herd considerations, etc. came from my boarding & lessons experience. That’s why I so often recommend those options to first-timers. If you get in a good barn, you can learn plenty, and same with a good instructor.
When you are looking at land you plan to keep horses on or even at boarding facilities, you should also make sure there is a vet or ideally vets in the area that take care of horses (not just cows). Large animal veterinarians are getting scarce, especially in more rural areas, and cow vets don’t really know how to care for horses unless they do it regularly. In the southern area of WI there are many equine practices, but further north that drops off dramatically.
Another issue that gets trickier as land values rise: where are you going to ride, drive, or otherwise exercise your horse? Will you have to trailer your horse somewhere, or do you have neighbors that will allow you access to their land? Remember how skittish people can be about liability, and not everyone knows how to behave around a horse and rider. Exercise is just as vital for horses as it is for people. If they are left to languish too long, they will start to forget their training and manners, or work very hard to convince you they did.
Whether your board or have horses at home, you need to account for vet care expenses, to the tune of probably $700 – $1000 per year and quite possibly more. Insect-borne diseases are more serious now than they were 25 years ago, so vaccines are more important than ever, as is regular dental care. There’s a reason that the bumper sticker I once saw is funny: “Horses: not as expensive as drugs, but close.
Horses need their feet trimmed every 6-8 weeks (some more often, very few less often). WI has many farriers, but finding a good one that comes on time and keeps coming back is harder than you’d think. Once you find a good one, you treat them well. Cost is typically $30 per trim, twice that or more if shoes are required. If you board, there are often farriers already coming for other horses that can add you into their rotation. If you keep horses at home, they may have to join a rotation based on that farrier’s route through the area and you’ll have less flexibility in scheduling.
Having horses at home always has certain basic challenges:
Where to buy safe quality hay, where to store, how to haul, and who are my backup sources when there’s a drought or Farmer Bill retires? Growing your own is possible, but it requires a significant capital investment in equipment and/or in hiring someone to harvest, re-seed, and fertilize for you if necessary. Hay is a bulk of a horse’s diet outside of summer if you have pastures, or year round if you don’t.
Horses needs lots of it, it needs to be clean enough that you’d drink it too, and snow in winter or ponds in summer won’t work.
If extra grain/supplements are necessary, you’ll need to figure out where to buy it, where to store it safely away from pests and from horses intent on helping themselves to second breakfast.
There are plenty of fencing options, but barbed wire is not a safe horse fence. Period. No matter what a neighbor, the Amish, or your dear old grandpappy tell you, barbed wire is for cows only. Cows walk around in leather jackets, horses walk around in silken wraps. Some fencing options are more cost effective than others, but I’d recommend steering clear of high tensile wire – can wrap around a panicked horse’s leg and cause nasty injuries. Once you’ve got your fences built, there’s going to be maintenance to consider too. Trees will fall on them, deer will run through them, and itchy horses will scratch on them. If you use t-posts, by all means cap them with plastic. Horses have been known to impale themselves on uncapped t-posts. Not pretty, nearly always fatal.
Some form of turnout is vital to a horse’s well being, and turnout in a pasture is ideal for many horses. However, horse eat grass like children eat food – they eat their favorites first, will eat some of the less appealing stuff later, will NEVER eat some weeds and other weeds can make them sick. Pastures need to be maintained like the crop they are – mowing is helpful, fertilizer may be necessary, rotating your pastures is always good.
Horses are herd animals. If you’re going to have more than one, you need to make sure they can get along and be safe. If you’re going to have only one, you need a buddy animal of some kind (goats, sheep, donkeys, etc.). Non-equine buddy animals provide their own challenges (fencing, different feed, exotic pet care) and may not be very friendly towards you (llamas or alpacas, for example). Cows as buddies aren’t ideal, as a fence that will keep a horse in may not keep a cow in, and now we’re back to the barbed wire problem.
Horses need some form of shelter from inclement weather, and that shelter needs to be safe for them – sheet metal inside must be covered w/wood to protect from kicks, ground must drain away from the shelter, wind must be to their backs, etc.
Health Care at Home
If you are going to have your horses at home, you need to be especially well-versed in spotting a small problem before it becomes a large one. Colic (digestive dysfunction of varying severity) can get very serious in no time at all, so you need to know how to spot it and what to do about it, including when to call the vet. Basic first aid skills are also a must. Another old saying goes “Horses spend every day of their life looking for the place they’re going to die”. No matter how safe the farm, some horse will find a way to get himself into mayhem.
As anyone with pets knows, their needs don’t take a break just because you aren’t home. While finding a dog-or-cat-sitter isn’t usually too hard, finding a horse-sitter is darn near impossible. Get used to more stay-cations or develop a circle of knowledgeable friends with horse care skills.
There you have it, folks. It’s time for bed here, I have a very early morning tomorrow to check on my horse and give her some meds before work. Did I mention how much horses love it when you give them medicine? Or how effective 1,000 lbs of equine is at saying “not gonna happen”?
I still wouldn’t trade it for the world.