Horses have an undeniable allure. Most children, at some point in their life, ask for a pony or a horse and some never grow out of that desire. But the dream is far different than reality when it comes to owning, or even leasing, a horse. While riding and enjoying the horse is certainly one component, the bigger picture includes how to take care of a horse. And they can be a lot of work.
If you are considering purchasing or leasing a horse, you need to know the reality of how to take care of a horse, from mucking stalls to daily feeding, when to call the vet and schedule the farrier, and how to groom your precious, and very large, pet.
Our goal is to provide the down and dirty facts of how to take of a horse BEFORE you make that investment of both time and money.
Let’s get started…
The dietary needs of a horse are pretty basic: hay/grass and water. Their digestive system requires plenty of roughage, and fresh grass from a pasture or good quality hay is the mainstay of every horse’s diet.
Horses typically eat 1.5% – 2% of their weight every day. For an average 1,000-pound horse, that means 15-20 pounds of hay per day, less if they are able to graze. (A bale of hay typically weighs about 100 pounds and will cost $15-20/bale. That will average out at about $18.35/week in feed costs.)
While you can keep the feeding trough filled throughout the day so that your horse can eat at his leisure, the likelihood of you being able to monitor that is slim, so morning and evening feedings are the second best option. You can supplement the hay with grain, but in small quantities twice per day. Because horses thrive on routine, try to be consistent with both the amount of food you provide and the times of day that you do it.
Water should always be available, even though they may only partake a few times a day. It should be fresh and clean, and in colder climates be careful that their water doesn’t freeze over, making it inaccessible.
Understanding how to take care of a horse means keeping their best interests in mind, even when you want to show them a little extra love. Treats such as carrots and apples are fine, as are cut up melon, pumpkin, and even grapes and bananas. However, don’t overdo the treats and make sure that the pieces aren’t too big, as some horses may not chew before swallowing, which can cause choking. You may also find that excessive treats can cause colic in some horses.
Now that you have the feeding basics down, let’s check and see how to care for a horse and its need for shelter.
Your horse will need two basic things when it comes to housing: some sort of shelter and a pasture. Shelters come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, from lean-tos and run-in shelters to simple stalls and larger barns. It’s important for your horse to have a shelter to avoid the wind and rain (or snow), as well as an escape from a scorching sun. This shelter will have bedding, a feed bin, and a water bucket or automatic watering system.
Needless to say, whatever shelter you have will require maintenance…on a daily basis. Mucking out your horse’s stall is a necessity for their health. It helps to keep them dry and clean, free of worms and parasites. While this isn’t a huge time-consuming process, it will typically take 15 minutes twice a day and require certain tools. At the same time, you can refresh their water (and clean the water buckets) and top up their food bin. Occasionally, the shelter will require a more thorough cleaning, including disinfecting the floor, feed bin, and water source.
Horses need room to roam around, exercise, and feed on grass, so pastures are a requirement. Many horse owners, primarily in suburban and urban areas, do not have the facilities to house their own horse, not to mention that horses like to be around other horses (they are social animals).
Typically these owners will board their horse at a facility where they can get assistance with the care and feeding of the horse and where they can ride in fields/pastures or on trails. This can be quite an expense, and it’s wise to do some research into facilities and prices before acquiring a horse if you will need to use one.
Regardless of whether you can house your own horse or board it out, do make sure that you perform frequent inspections of the pasture. Look for holes, courtesy of gophers and snakes, loose wire fencing, and other hazards.
Horse care involves regular grooming. Brushing your horse gives you some bonding time, while helping to maintain a good coat. It also affords the opportunity to check for cuts, sores or other injuries, as well as ticks.
You’ll do a once over with a curry comb to remove loose hair and then move on to a hard (or dandy) brush to get the dirt off. You’ll finish up with a soft brush to remove any lingering hair from the body, as well as dirt from more sensitive surfaces (like the face and ears). Finally, you’ll brush out both the mane and the tail.
And, while your horse will see a farrier regularly (see section below), you will also need to check hooves for rocks, pebbles and other debris that can get caught in the grooves of the hoof, and for the presence of any fungus.
Grooming is an essential part of how to take care of a horse, but so is exercise…
Exercise is essential to a horse’s well being. It keeps the legs from swelling, joints lubricated, and back and girth regions toned. The amount of exercise will depend on the breed and age of your horse, whether it is kept stabled or has regular access to open pasture, and oftentimes the weather conditions.
Regular exercise should be a top priority (remember, horses like routine). Ideally this will happen on a daily basis and be performed by you, caretakers at your boarding facility, or someone you hire specifically for the job.
You will need to establish a pattern that fits your horse. This should include a slow warm up, working up to trotting and light cantering. Once the horse is warmed up you are free to gallop, jump or just spend some time on the trails. For most horses, two hours a day of riding and exercise is enough.
Alternately, lunging is a way to exercise a horse without the need to saddle up and ride. If you choose to utilize this method from time to time, be careful about overdoing it and monitor your horse carefully during its time in the circle. If you don’t have an enclosed lunging circle, you can choose to use a lunge line in an outdoor pen or pasture, with or without saddle.
Veterinary care is a vital component when it comes to how to take care of your horse. Of course you can’t take him to your local vet. Imagine walking in the front door with your half-ton beast! Horses require specialized equine veterinarians, who make house (barn) calls.
Your horse will need regular vaccinations, just like any other pet. Tetanus shots are the primary vaccination, but depending on the area you live in, you may also need to protect against equine encephalomyelitis, equine flu, rhinopneumonitis, West Nile virus, and rabies.
Horses also need to be tested regularly for worms and internal parasites. These are both common health issues for horses that can cause weight loss, lethargy, and colic, among other things. As an added precaution, remember to keep stables clean and regularly disinfected, remove any bot eggs from your horse’s coat and use feed bins that sit up off the ground.
Dental care is another component to your horse’s overall health. Unlike humans, the teeth in horses grow continuously. If the teeth wear unevenly they can develop into sharp points that make chewing difficult. Your vet will need to do a dental check twice a year.
In addition to veterinary care, you also need to know how to take care of a horse and its hooves. Read on…
Horse hooves are constantly growing, much like our own nails. So, how do you take care of a horse’s hooves? With the aid of a good farrier. A farrier specializes in equine hoof care, from trimming hooves, to fitting horseshoes, to dealing with certain injuries.
Contrary to popular belief, not all horses wear shoes. In fact, the prevailing belief is that barefoot is better for the horse in many instances. While horseshoes do protect the hooves, and may be required in certain breeds with weak hoof strength, most pleasure horses can do without.
That being said, it’s advisable to have the farrier out every six to eight weeks to inspect and trim your horse’s hooves. They need to be kept balanced so that they can retain a natural, unimpeded gait.
Should horseshoeing be necessary, know that it is not painful for the horse. The outer hoof has no feeling; only the inner soft part of the hoof is sensitive. Shoes can be nailed or glued on, depending on the needs of the horse and the farrier’s recommendation. Alternately there is such a thing as hoof boots that can be worn when riding the horse.
Guarding Against Weather
Horses tend to tolerate cold weather much better than heat and humidity.
The rule of thumb (especially in California’s Central Valley) is that if you combine both the temperature and the relative humidity percentage and the sum is over 130, keep any exercise to a minimum. If it is over 150, make sure they have a cool place to linger and plenty of shade and forego any riding activities.
In colder or inclement weather you may need to provide your horse with a blanket. Depending on where you live and low temperatures, you have your choice of varying weight blankets, from no fill to light, medium to heavy. Note that many blankets are not waterproof and are more useful indoors or for cold.
Should rain and snow be the order of the day, turnout blankets help to protect them from the elements. Typical turnout blankets have what is known as a belly wrap, securing the blanket tighter to and under the body, thereby allowing less cold air in.
So there it is, the nitty gritty basics of how to take care of a horse. As you can see, making an investment in a horse is more than just money; it involves an enormous amount of time and effort as well. On the flip side, horses can be wonderful companions, full of personality and heart, and a real joy to be around. Most truly are gentle giants.
Because owning or leasing a horse is both a big financial and time investment, it’s wise to investigate the ins and outs prior to making the leap into the arena, so to speak. Seek out local stables, horse owners, or an equine professional to discuss the realities of owning a horse in your area. It’s also recommended that you take riding lessons and spend time around horses at your local stables, so you can learn firsthand what you need to know without endangering yourself or the animal.
Good luck and happy trails….