Picture by Claudia Stack
I bought this Quarter Horse cross mare ten years ago for $500, and she has been the perfect family horse. Even at age 20, her coat gleams with health. In this article I share some tips from decades of horse related experience, but please note this advice is not intended to replace the advice of a veterinarian or other equestrian professional. Handling and riding horses carries inherent risk.
Does staying at home have you thinking about getting a backyard horse? Don’t be discouraged by people who say that horse ownership is out-of-reach expensive, or that horses have to live in fancy barns to be happy.
I grew up walking dogs for 50 cents apiece to save enough for riding lessons. Only as an adult did I get a horse of my own. Since then, I’ve kept “backyard” horses for 27 years. They are happy, healthy and even win sometimes at the occasional show. However, I do highly recommend you take some riding lessons before deciding whether to move ahead with horse ownership, AND ALWAYS WEAR AN ASTM RIDING HELMET WHEN YOU RIDE (click here for one source of inexpensive, quality helmets.)!
Check your local zoning regulations to make sure you are allowed to keep horses, and whether there are any guidelines about number of horses per acre. It's good to have at least an half-acre of turnout per horse, but more is better. Keep in mind, horses evolved to move and graze constantly. If possible, provide at least one acre per horse. Also, unless you have 10+ acres of pasture, realize that you’ll need to pick up the manure piles regularly to maximize appealing grass and minimize flies.
- Fencing doesn’t have to be fancy, but it does have to be safe and horse-appropriate. DON’T use barbed wire or high tensile cattle fencing, both types of fencing have mutilated many horses. DO install either solid wood/vinyl fencing, electric “rope,” or electric poly wire fencing. The electric fence option is cost-effective and probably safer than solid wood fencing. Wood fencing requires constant maintenance, and horses may chew on it or run through it (if they are really panicked), while they quickly learn to respect an electric fence.
- Fancy barns with stalls are attractive, but in my experience horses are happier and healthier living in a “run out” situation — that is, being able to come and go from an open stall or a three-sided shelter as they please. Also, allowing them to socialize, whether over a dividing fence or by being in the same field, is important to a relaxed mental state. One French study of horses confined to stalls concluded “confinement in individual boxes imposes spatial and social deprivations that prevent animals from satisfying movement and social needs, for which they appear highly motivated.”
- Your choice of horse will determine your enjoyment for years to come. Choose wisely. Under no circumstances should a novice horse owner get an ex-racehorse or an untrained Mustang! What you save in cost up front you will lose many times over in trainer fees, vet bills and broken bones. Ditto “rescue” horses that have a history of behavioral and health problems. Be strong. It is a lot easier to acquire a horse than to get rid of it.
- If ex-racehorses, BLM Mustangs, and rescue horses are off the table, what kind of horse should you consider? Look for a well-mannered, experienced trail horse, which will often be a Quarter Horse or Quarter Horse cross (you don’t necessarily need a registered horse, but the abbreviation you will often see in ads is “AQHA”, which stands for American Quarter Horse Association, or just “QH”). The seller should be able to provide some background for the horse that shows it is a good family/trail horse. You will probably want to look for a gelding (castrated male horse) in the 6–15 year old age range. Unless you are really heavy, a 14 hand to 15.2 hand horse is a great size for everyone in the family to enjoy. Some professionals will probably be upset with me for revealing this, but horse prices at the lower end of the spectrum have hardly changed since the 1970s. Expect to spend $500 to $5,000 for a well-trained, sound, “babysitter” or “beginner” horse. Keep in mind that high end show experience is NOT what you need.Do not buy a “green” (relatively untrained) horse. Take an experienced horse person with you. If you ask your riding instructor to help you find a horse, expect to pay him/her a commission (20% is standard). Make sure the horse walks on the lead rope without pulling away or crowding you. A well-mannered horse will NOT put its mouth on you, much less nibble or bite. Make sure it will “stand tied” — in other words, you can tie the horse and it will stand patiently for hours, if needed. Ask the owner to pick up the horse’s feet. It should lift them and hold them up quietly for cleaning. It should not kick or move around impatiently. Ask the seller to ride the horse while you watch before you even consider riding it. If the seller will not do that, walk away.
- Take your time, and call a vet for a pre-purchase exam before you commit to buying a horse. If the seller pressures you to make a decision without a vet exam, walk away. If you really like the horse, it is a common practice to put a deposit down pending a satisfactory vet exam. Be sure to get everything in writing. Also, I always look for a horse that can go barefoot, that is, it does not require shoes. Remember the old saying “no foot, no horse.” Avoid any horse with foot or leg problems. In order to maintain healthy hooves you will need to clean your horse’s feet at least three times per week. During the muddy times of year I spray the bottom of their hooves with iodine spray ($6.50 at the feed store) after I clean my horses’ feet. In this way it is easy to prevent thrush, which makes the bottom of the hoof soft and smelly and can lead to lameness.
- Horses are social animals, but if you only need/want one horse, it should be an exceptionally calm one that doesn’t mind living alone. Ask the seller if the horse has ever been kept totally apart from other horses. Observe how it acts when it is led away from other horses. Does it call to them or try to pull away from the handler/rider to go back to the herd? That is not the one you want. If you bring home a single horse and it paces the fence for days, calling out for company, you will probably have to get him a companion. A old pony or mini horse is a good choice for a companion, provided it doesn’t have health problems. Some people have good luck with goats as horse companions, but that has never worked for me. In my experience, goats have Houdini-like abilities to escape any enclosure, and will destroy your landscaping.
- NEVER turn a horse out while it is wearing a 100% nylon halter. This may seem hard to believe, but your horse could snag the halter on a fence post, or while scratch its ear with a back foot (sometimes they scratch their ears like a dog does). If your horse is wearing a thick nylon halter its foot can get caught and the horse may die from the resulting struggle. If you must turn your horse out with a halter, make sure it is leather (or that it has a leather browband that will break under extreme pressure). In addition, horses that wear a halter 24/7 often develop sores. Better to let them be “naked” when turned out.
- Your horse(s) should have clean water and two salt blocks (one plain white, and one mineral) available at all times. You can buy these two varieties of salt blocks at any feed store. The bulk of your horse’s diet should be grass and/or hay. In nature, horses graze up to 20 hours per day, so you want to keep forage/hay available most of the time. If your horse is an “easy keeper” that does not require grain, give him a high-quality vitamin supplement. If he does require grain, feed a high quality pelleted grain that does not contain corn or molasses. Avoid sweet feeds. You want to keep the carbohydrate/starch intake as low as possible for a healthy GI tract, and also in order to avoid laminitis. Laminitis is a painful condition of the hooves that can be caused by too much sugar, either from feed or early season grasses with a high sugar content. Laminitis can lead to founder, which means intense pain for your horse. It also means expensive treatments, or worse, euthanasia. One cheap “insurance policy” that works well for me is to use the feed supplement Remission year round. Since I have been using it, my “easy keeper” mare has not shown any signs of the slight laminitis she used to get. As a bonus, the biotin and other nutrients in Remission make my horses’ hooves very strong.
- Line up a farrier, vet, feed and hay supplier before you bring your horse home. Get recommendations from your instructor or local horse people. Also, sometimes farriers and farmers selling hay advertise on Craigslist in the “Farm and Garden” section. Once you find a good farrier, treat him/her well. Keep regular appointments (every six to eight weeks), and have the horse haltered and ready when your farrier arrives. Make sure there is a clear, dry area for him/her to work. Pay in cash, and remember your farrier at the holidays! Keep in mind that coming out to trim/shoe one or two backyard horses is not that lucrative for your farrier, when compared with going to a large stable where s/he can shoe all day. Be sure to show your appreciation. Also, to keep things simple, I usually deworm my horses with a paste dewormer (generic ivermectin is available for under $5 at feed stores and online) on the same day that the farrier comes. You can take the guess work out of rotating different kinds of dewormer for different times of year by ordering a very economical one-year dewormer kit such as this one from Valley Vet Supply for $35.99).
- Lastly, make sure you understand how to groom and tack your horse properly, and that your saddle and bridle fit your horse well. It is worth your lesson time to practice tacking up with your instructor. Clean your saddle pads regularly. Check your girth, and then check your girth again! It should be snug enough that you can only just barely slip your hand between the girth and his belly. Make sure that someone else is aware that you are riding, and check in with that person before you start your ride. Let them know how long you expect to ride, and let them know when you are finished riding. That way, they will know to come look for you if you don’t check back. And, whether you ride English or Western, ALWAYS WEAR AN ASTM RIDING HELMET WHEN YOU RIDE (click here for one source of inexpensive, quality helmets.)! Happy trails. (Please note, I am not affiliated in any way with the companies whose products I have listed here.)