Sharing your life with a horse can be a rewarding experience, but it includes the responsibility of caring for your equine companion for life.
Your horse depends on your love, care and commitment, which you can show through grooming, petting, riding and the occasional treat. With good care, your horse can live 35 years or more. Keep these general horse care considerations in mind:
Routine horse care is a significant and ongoing expense
The purchase price a horse is often much less than the cost of maintaining a horse for a year. Make sure you are realistic about your ability to afford quality care before you acquire an equine companion.
Horses need a regular supply of food and water
In most cases, they need to have hay or pasture throughout the day, with additional grain feedings twice a day. An average-size horse will eat about 20 lbs. of food a day and drink at least eight gallons of water. Because their stomachs are relatively small and their digestive systems surprisingly delicate, horses need to nibble or graze throughout the day, rather than have one or two meals a day.
Provide plenty of roughage
Many pleasure and trail horses don’t need grain: good-quality hay or pasture is sufficient. If hay isn’t enough, grain can be added, but the bulk of a horse’s calories should always come from roughage.
Horses are meant to eat roughage, and their digestive system is designed to use the nutrition in grassy stalks. A horse should eat one to two % of their body weight in roughage every day.
Horses who spend much of their time in stalls aren’t doing much grazing, but their natural feeding patterns can be replicated by keeping hay in front of them for most of the day. They can nibble at it for a while, take a break and snooze for a while, and then come back to it, keeping some roughage constantly moving through their systems.
Feed grain in small amounts and often
If you feed your horse grain, give it in multiple smaller meals rather than one large one. Most horses are given grain twice a day for the convenience of their human caretakers. If for some reason you must give your horse a large quantity of grain, consider an additional lunchtime feeding. Small, frequent meals not only are more natural for the horse, but they also allow the horse to better digest and use their food. When a horse is fed too much at once, the food isn't digested as effectively.
- Every horse has different needs. Consider both their size and the amount of work they do when deciding how much they need to eat.
- Consider the amount of hay or pasture your horse gets: Horses who are grazing on good pasture the majority of the day don’t need much hay, if any. Horses who don’t get much turnout or aren't on good pasture will need more hay, whether they are inside or out.
- During winter or drought, supplement pasture grazing with hay. When the grass is thick and lush, you can cut back or eliminate hay rations completely, depending on available pasture.
- With grain, less is always more, so start with a minimal amount and adjust as necessary. You’ll find the right balance of pasture, hay, and grain for your particular horse’s needs.
- If the amount of work your horse is doing changes, be sure to adjust their food ration.
Change feed and feed schedules gradually
Whenever you make a change to your horse’s feed type or ration size, make the change incrementally. Sudden differences in the amount or type of feed can lead to colic or founder.
If you’re changing the amount of feed, increase or decrease each meal a little at a time, over several weeks if possible. One method for changing the type of feed is to replace 25% of the current food with the new food every two days, so that in six days the horse is eating l00% of the new food.
Measure feed accurately and feed consistently
Start off measuring your horse’s feed by weight using a kitchen or postal scale, or by using the scale at your local feed store. Once you figure out how much your horse’s typical ration weighs, measure that portion at feeding time using a scoop, coffee can, or whatever suits your needs.
The average thousand-pound horse who relies on hay for all their forage typically eats fifteen to twenty pounds of hay per day. Most hay is dispensed in flakes; however, the amount of hay in a flake can vary greatly, depending on the size of the flake and the kind of hay. If you don’t know how much the bales of hay you are feeding weigh, you can use a bathroom scale to check, then feed that portion of a bale that your horse needs.
Don't feed immediately before or after exercise
Ideally, you should wait an hour or so after your horse has finished a meal before riding them. If you’re going to do something really strenuous, it should be closer to three hours. A full digestive system gives the horse’s lungs less room to work, and makes exercise much harder on them. In addition, blood flow is diverted away from the digestive organs during periods of exertion, so gut movement slows and colic may be a real danger. When feeding a horse after work, let them cool down completely—their breathing rate should be back to normal, and their skin should not feel hot or sweaty.
Stick to a routine
Horses thrive on routine, and their amazingly accurate internal clocks make them much better timekeepers than their human caretakers. Horses should be kept on a consistent feeding schedule, with meals arriving at the same time each day. Most horses aren’t harmed by an abrupt change in schedule, but for horses who are prone to colic, a sudden change in routine can be more than an annoyance and might be enough to trigger a colic episode.
Horses need hoof maintenance and veterinary care
Plan to hire a farrier (blacksmith) every six to eight weeks for routine hoof trimming or shoeing.
At least once a year, your horse will need to be vaccinated against tetanus and other diseases. The veterinarian will also provide routine dental care. Keep in mind that medical emergencies, which are always an unfortunate possibility, can cost several thousand dollars to treat.
Be aware of parasites
Since horses are constantly exposed to intestinal worms from the ground they graze on, they must be on an anti-parasite regimen as prescribed by your equine practitioner. Carrying a heavy burden of worms can cause serious illness or death in equines, so regular and timely treatment is crucial to your horse's health.
Don't forget about shelter
Horses need constant access to a dry, safe, comfortable shelter to protect them from rain, wind, and snow. In warm and sunny weather, the shelter you supply will provide your companion with much needed shade and relief from biting insects. At a minimum, you should have a well-constructed, three-sided shed into which your horse can retreat at all times. You will need to remove manure from the stall or shelter every day.
Horses need exercise
To supplement the exercise your horse will get when you ride him, he should have a paddock or pasture in which to relax and stroll. No horse should spend all day confined in a stall, except on a veterinarian's recommendation. The pasture should be bordered by safe, sturdy fencing that will keep the horse safe and secure. Barbed wire is not an acceptable fencing material—it has been the cause of many serious injuries.
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