Owning your own horse can be one of life’s most fulfilling experiences. The bond between you and your horse can grow to be a lifelong connection like no other. Horses are fascinating and mysterious creatures. What we get from them in return is even better than what we put in.
All those rewards, however, require that you give your horse the commitment he deserves. This means both with time and financial responsibility. Caring for a horse is no easy task. If you are coming into this expecting an easy answer, there isn’t one. Horse care is comprehensive and ever evolving. What may work for one horse, may really not work for another; but don’t worry!
If you have found your way to this guide and you truly want to have success in horse ownership, read on. This is a very exciting time! You are about to enter into an absolutely unmatched partnership with an equine that has a unique sense of intelligence, beauty, strength, and communication. If you provide your horse with the right balance of care, you will have a happy, healthy partnership for years to come.
Chapter 1: Proper Stabling
Before you will be able to provide your horse with any kind of care, you need to have a stable in which to house him. He needs to have his own dry, comfortable, sheltered place in which to stay when he is not able to be outside. This may seem obvious at first, but it is very important to keep note of the specific elements of a proper stabling environment for your horse.
Size. Consider the amount of time your horse will spend in the stable. Is there constant access to the outside? If the answer is yes, then your horse simply needs a sheltered space that is dry and out of the elements. If not, how often will you be able to let your horse out? Use these factors, as well as your horse’s size, to determine how big of a stall you will need. 10 feet x 10 feet should be your minimum consideration, unless you have a miniature breed. Plenty of miniature ponies are happy and comfortable in 8 x 8 or 9 x 9 stalls. Allow all the way up to 15 feet x 15 feet for Stallions and horses over 18 hands.
Build. Be certain the stable you choose for your horse is well-built and well-maintained. Check that the walls and floors of your stable are solid and free of rot or other problems. What kind of flooring is there? Whether it’s dirt, sand, wood, concrete, it needs to be flat, have proper drainage, and have a corresponding system in place for cleaning and disinfecting. Inspect the roof for leaks and be sure there are none. Is there a window or other opening that lets in light? Is there a way for air to circulate inside the stable? Are the partitions to the stalls floor to ceiling, or are they shorter, allowing your horse to socialize? These are all important things to check before stabling up your horse for the first time and will help him stay happy and stress-free.
Bedding. Once you have a good stable for your horse, your next task is to have the right kind of bedding as well. Like with flooring, there are many choices out there. No matter what you ultimately decided on, the objective is to give your horse something to cushion and absorb, avoiding hurt knees and joints. Good bedding will also form an insulative layer for your horse and keep him comfortable and clean. Straw is the cheapest and most common type of bedding used in stables and along with hay, is a good bet. Other less common options include wood shavings (although they create more dust), shredded paper (if you have enough), rice hulls, and peat moss. Again, no matter which you choose, you need to have a system in place to clean and replenish it.
Safety. Once you have created a suitable environment for your horse to be in, make it a regular habit to maintain all safety standards in your stable. Keep an eye out for splintering planks, protruding objects, or busted latches. Avoid unnecessary clutter or trash. Keep an appropriately sized fire extinguisher on hand at all times. It is also a good idea to have a first aid kit available, for both horses and humans. Being prepared can make all the difference.
Chapter 2: Feeding Your Horse
What is the right way to feed a horse? A properly balanced equine diet is crucial to the development and long-term health of your horse. RIght on target with human diets, horses need a blend of 6 different nutrients for optimal health. They are proteins, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, and water. Understanding how to balance these nutrients and feed your horse does not have to be overly complicated as long as you follow a few basic guidelines.
Roughage. Be it hay, wheat, barley, oats, or any other form of roughage, an average horse will need to consume 1%-3% of its own body weight in roughage per day. This is your horse’s main source of nutrition and high in carbohydrates and protein. Letting a horse out on a good pasture will help meet his nutritional needs. Even if your horse spends a lot of time in a stable, have the appropriate amount of hay available at all times so your horse can mimic its natural grazing patterns.
Feed. If, for whatever reason, your horse isn’t able to get enough nutrition through your grain of choice, it is common to supplement with commercial grade feed. Actually, many horse owners choose to use at least some commercial feed if not simply for the convenience. Most feed is comprised of a careful balance of all your horse’s essential nutrients except of course, water. This “complete package” is why many people choose to use commercial feed, so they can be sure their horse is getting exactly what he needs.
Vitamins and Minerals. Another crucial element of your horse’s nutritional makeup is that he maintains the appropriate vitamin and mineral levels in order for his body to function. Serious vitamin or mineral deficiency can cause sickness, disease, and even death. Fortunately, horses synthesize most of these necessary nutrients on their own, so a deficiency is not likely. This is especially true if you are using commercial grade feed, which is fortified with vitamins and minerals. Likewise, if your horse isn’t receiving any kind of commercial grain, you may want to consult with your veterinarian about the right way to make sure your horse is getting enough of both.
Water. Water is the most important thing you can give your horse and for all intensive purpose, is considered the #1 nutrient your horse needs. A healthy, full-grown horse can drink 5-15 gallons of water per day, so be sure to always have fresh, clean water available! Also, it needs to be secured in a way that a playful or overzealous horse can’t tip it over. A heavy metal tub is common, or secure your water bucket to something stationary. Clean the water tub regularly or it will grow bacteria and slime.
Frequency. When it comes to feeding your horse, you have to factor in many conditions such as age, size, activity level, and current health when deciding on the manner in which to feed him. A good rule of thumb, however, is feeding gradually and at intervals throughout the day. Unless your horse is especially gluttonous, have hay available at all times for your horse to graze on. Remember, he will be eating 1%-3% of his bodyweight everyday! When supplementing with commercial feed, this is best split up into 2 or more meals throughout the day. Even though we’ve covered water already, it is important enough to mention that you should always make sure your horse has fresh, clean water available.
Chapter 3: Expert Health Care
Any responsible horse owner will have on hand a trusted equine veterinarian whom they can rely on to provide their horse with preventative care, vaccines, and emergency assistance. While veterinary care may be expensive at the initial investment, it is essential and can save thousands down the road, and a lot of pain and suffering for your equine friend. Sometimes, if your veterinarian does not offer services for hooves or teeth, you may need to seek out a farrier or equine dentist, too. Most equine veterinarians provide comprehensive care though, so this should not be a problem for you.
Hoof Care. As was just mentioned, while most veterinarians trim hooves, if for some reason your doesn’t, you’ll need to get set up with a good farrier to keep your horse’s hooves in good condition. Many horses who get adequate wear on their hooves through exercise may not need their hooves trimmed, or only need to have them trimmed occasionally. Those horses whose hooves do not get enough wear on their own will need to be trimmed as frequently as every 6-8 weeks.
Although tradition dictates that we do so, shoeing your horse is usually not necessary and more and more owners are choosing not to shoe their horses. As a matter of fact, shoeing your horse can actually cause hoof problems rather than eliminate them. Regardless if you choose to shoe or not, consult your farrier or veterinarian and make any changes gradually to give your horse the best opportunity to adapt.
Teeth. A horse’s teeth never stop growing. This is why it’s extremely important that your horse has plenty of hay to graze on throughout the day. This is the best way to keep your horse’s teeth trimmed and healthy. Dental problems, which range from uneven, pointed teeth, to worse off infection and decay, can be an awful experience for your horse and even cause them to stop eating altogether. A horse’s teeth need to be checked regularly and “floated” once or twice a year. Floating is the process in which the points of the teeth are smoothed with a special tool called a rasp or a float. It’s almost like a nail file, and proper dental care is vital to your horse’s well being.
Vaccines and Wellness. Your horse will need an annual examination performed by your veterinarian to make sure he is staying healthy and well. With an untrained eye, you may not be able to spot all of your horse’s problems and some problems don’t have any visible symptoms. Your veterinarian, however, will be able to provide a thorough and expert examination for your horse and will also administer necessary vaccinations. Depending on where you live, your horse may be vaccinated for tetanus, rabies, Eastern or Western equine encephalomyelitis, equine influenza, and rhinopneumonitis (equine herpes). Ask your veterinarian about any other vaccines that are pertinent to your horse such a vaccine for the West Nile Virus. Vaccines, just like with people, are necessary to keep your horse healthy and protect him from contracting a potentially deadly virus or disease.
Deworming. Furthermore, it is important to keep your horse free from worms. Worms are a common ailment for horses and if left untreated, can cause colic, weight loss, and turn your horse’s coat dull and lifeless. Allowed to persist for too long, worms can even be deadly to your horse, so it is imperative that you work with your veterinarian to provide proper deworming for your horse.
Chapter 4: Grooming
Grooming can be such a pleasant experience for both you and your horse. Of all the ways to bond with your horse, grooming him and providing him with his basic care forms a bond and a level of trust that will carry over into all aspects of your relationship. Most horses love to be groomed, it feels good. Grooming also allows you to get to know your horse’s body and what is and isn’t normal. A good horse owner will eventually know just by looking at their horse how they are doing and feeling.
How often you groom your horse depends on a few things. Are you planning to show your horse? Is your horse out to pasture a lot? The weather is a factor in grooming as well. If it’s rainy and your horse gets dirty, you will obviously have to give him a proper grooming. Once you establish a schedule for grooming your horse you will, no doubt, be exposed to an endless variety of tools for grooming him. It can be fun to experiment with different styles of tools and brushes to find something that works best for you, but if you aren’t sure where to start, these are some tried and true basic tools to get you started. Take your time and enjoy the emotional bonding when grooming your horse.
Curry Comb. A curry comb is a very common grooming tool used to loosen hair, dirt, and other debris. It is usually the first step in a grooming routine. Curry combs come in both rubber and metal varieties and are usually circular in shape. Simply run the comb in a downward, circular motion along your horse’s body and legs.
Dandy Brush. A dandy brush has stiff bristles to remove hair and dirt from your horse’s coat, similar to a curry comb. The bristles are usually made of plastic and are a good way to get debris off your horse. Brush in the direction of the hair growth in short strokes.
Body Brush. After you’ve removed anything that is on your horse’s coat, use a body brush to gently remove any dust or fine particles in the hair and add shine to your horse’s coat. Body brushes come in many styles and have much softer bristles. They are usually the last brush used when grooming your horse. These brushes, especially the smaller ones, are ideal for brushing your horse’s face.
Mane and Tail Brushes. A good mane and tail brush will have wide teeth and is made of either metal or plastic. You can get individual combs for both mane and tail, or get a good combination brush to do the job for both. Brush gently starting at the bottom of the mane or tail and work you way up.
Hoof Scrapers. You will need to scrape or pick your horse’s hooves nearly every day. This is very important and cleans out mud and rocks from his hooves while allowing you to inspect him for any injuries. There are specially designed “hoof picks” as well as metal bristled brushes which do the job well.
Bathing. How often you bathe your horse is again dependent on many factors such as weather, how dirty your horse gets, or if you are showing your horse. Most horse owners agree that regular bathing is not good for a horse and strips him of his natural protective oils. This allows for greater exposure to the elements and a higher likelihood of problems associated with too frequent bathing. An appropriate range is anywhere from once-a-month to once-a-year. Use good judgement in knowing when it’s time for a bath.
Chapter 5: Exercise
Exercise is one of the most important things you can give your horse in order to keep him in peak physical and mental condition. Exercise time is also social hour for a lot of horses, so don’t underestimate the importance of time spent out of the stable exploring, moving, and interacting with people and other horses. If your horse is lucky enough to have frequent access to a pasture, your exercise routine should be fairly simple. If, however, your horse spends a good amount of time in a stable, you need to exercise him daily for about an hour to keep him fit and healthy.
Warming Up. Whether you are going for a ride or sticking to the exercise ring, don’t just rush your horse into his exercise routine. Just like people, horses need time to warm up and stretch beforehand in order to prevent injury. Start by slowly leading your horse around the exercise ring a few times, allowing him to stretch as he likes. Make a few circles leading your horse in both left and right directions to allow him to stretch his neck muscles. Change your pace from a slow walk to a trot, then back again. Allow your horse to warm up in this manner for about 15 minutes.
Lunging. Lunging is a controlled method of exercising your horse without riding him. Similar to what was done in the warm up, you run your horse in a circle in the exercise ring. As you learn different methods of training and exercise, you can incorporate different speeds, movements, and even jumps to challenge both you and your horse.
Riding. Long considered the best way to exercise a horse, simply saddle up and go for a ride! This is a chance for you to reap the benefits of what horse ownership is all about, the ability to have a horse available to ride anywhere, anytime you wish. Who knows what awaits you on your journey, so take your time and enjoy!
Toys. Some horses really enjoy having some toys like a giant ball or another object that can be pushed, nudged, and played with. If you’ve never watched a horse playing with a toy like a puppy or a child, you are missing out! Not all horses will take to having toys, but when they do, oh boy!
Cooling Down. After you are finished exercising your horse and are preparing to take him back to his stable, don’t forget to allow him several minutes of slow walking to cool down his body temperature and slow down his heart rate. Additionally, your horse may now be sweaty or dirty from his workout, so this may be a perfect opportunity to practice your grooming technique!
The information you’ve learned here is just the beginning of what horse ownership is all about. There is so much variety in the needs and environments of all horses, you really have to get in-tune with your horse and trust yourself to know what methods will and won’t work for you. Surround yourself with people who have spent a lot of time around horses, and don’t be afraid to start a conversation about your current grooming schedule, or what your farrier happened to tell you about hoof rot. However, be careful not to fall prey to well-meaning albeit misguided advice. If you are ever in doubt, use your veterinarian as a trusted source of information.
Enjoy your time spent with your equine friend. As you can see, owning a horse is a full-time job, but it is also one that is full of rewards. For some people, owning horses is the only way of life they could ever imagine. No matter what your skill level, take the time to really get to know your horse and providing him with the best possible care will become easier and easier as you both go on.