Bringing Your New Horse Home - The Reality
Responsible horse ownership entails a great deal more than just providing proper shelter, feed & water. Horses in the wild have evolved to the point that they can meet most of their own needs quite effectively. Domestic horses rely on us for virtually everything that nature would offer, and supplying that level of care can easily become quite convoluted. I believe it is incumbent on every horse owner to learn as much as they are able about what makes their horse tick. Only in this manner can we be the best we can be for our equine friends.
Very few new horse owners are aware of the basic "survival tactics" that the old pros often take for granted. Experience tells us where & how to stand around a horse, effective ways to deal with a nervous horse & many other techniques that keep both us & the horse safe. It's the little things, like not allowing a horse to get between you & the only way out of an enclosed space; never turning your back on a nervous or agitated horse, not letting a leadrope get tangled around your arm or leg; where to stand when picking up a foot & a myriad of other tips. I suggest taking your lead from experienced handlers, preferably someone who handles horses for a living, as their techniques can be more finely honed than the average owner. Following are just a few of the "minimum care" requisites your horse will need.
Daily grooming allows you to form an initial bond with your horse, & gives the horse something to look forward to. Very soon you will learn how the horse reacts to touch, which can give you hints about their personality & what to expect when the horse is worked. A horse who flinches or snaps at you when the girth area is touched may have had a bad experience when saddled, meaning you could have some issues to get over before s/he can be comfortable being tacked up & ridden. Being watchful of the horse's reactions will also tell you where his/her "spots" are; favouring these spots while grooming is one of the best ways to get on horsey's good side!
A well groomed horse is generally healthier! Not that grooming itself means you'll have a healthier horse, rather the daily attention s/he receives. Horses who are seldom handled can develop minor ailments that left unattended can escalate into major problems. By handling, grooming & working with your horse regularly, you will be in a better position to notice inconsistencies in their behavior or actions that can tip you off to problems sooner.
This can be a very complicated & confusing topic, particularly because there are so many opinions on how best to feed a horse. I look at feeding the same as most other aspects of horsekeeping; by asking myself, "How would that horse best live if s/he were in the wild?"
Some of the guesswork can be reduced by understanding how horses' digestive systems work. Horses have disproportionately small stomachs, so they simply cannot take in enough food to last them all day. They are designed to graze, having small amounts of food passing constantly through their system. My first hint from knowing that is to either allow 24/7 free access to hay, or if that's not an option, then at least space feedings out throughout the day. Four or five smaller portions are far better than one or two big meals. Following is the "Feed Pyramid"; the basic approach to feeding most horses:
Build: Your Base
on Good-Quality Forage
Next: Supplement Your Forage
with Quality Mineral and Vitamin Products
Then: Use Concentrated Energy products as required
Once again, this will not guarantee optimum feed, but it's almost always a good place to start.
Not all forage is created equal. Various grasses contain differing levels of nutrients, sugars, starches & minerals. Understanding this can minimize the chances of incorrect feeding for your horse. Following is a summary of typical food values in some of the most common forage crops. The only way to tell the exact values in any hay crop is to have it analyzed.
||Energy (Calories) (Mcal/kg)
||15 - 18
||6 - 9
||6 - 11
||20 - 26
Most horses will maintain their ideal body score by digesting 1.5 to 2 percent of their total weight in forage each day. So if you have a 500-kilogram horse, s/he should do well with 7.5 to 10 kilograms of hay per day. This is only an average, as many horses can be "easy" or "hard" keepers. "Easy keepers" are those whose metabolisms allow them to survive quite well on considerably less nutrients. This does not mean they should get less forage, but you may have to look for forage that has lower sugar/starch content for them. "Hard keepers" are those who for whatever reason cannot extract nutrients effectively from their food. They can lose weight no matter how much they are fed, always look sickly & often lack energy. These cases are best left to a vet with specific nutritional experience, or a professional nutritionist.
Water is essential to proper digestion, regulation of body temperature, utilization of nutrients, & removal of wastes from the system. Horses should always have free access to clean water, comparable in quality to that required for human consumption. Water intake can vary widely, depending on weather, location, body type & lifestyle. The average is 1 liter for every 10 kilos of body weight; so a 500-kilo horse would need roughly 50 liters of water daily. It's important to monitor water intake, particularly during periods of extreme temperatures (both high & low), immediately following exertion or heavy activity, & during gestation/lactation.
Water containers/systems should be cleaned regularly to prevent loading the horse's system with undesirable bacteria. During peak sunshine hours, algae can form in clean water pails in less than 12 hours, altering the taste to the point where many horses will refuse to drink. When temperatures are below freezing, remove ice from water sources at least twice a day ideally at feeding times when horses are most likely to drink. The following table gives average daily water consumption rates in liters for a 500-kilo horse under given conditions.
|At Rest, or Not Working
||18 - 35
||35 - 45
||45 - 60
|Heavy Work or Extremely High Temperatures
||50 - 80
Horses who do not receive adequate water every day are at risk for colic & other serious health issues. Extremely dehydrated horses can experience renal failure (kidneys shut down) & death.
Domesticated horses require regular attention from specialists. Just as regular visits to the dentist, doctor & optometrist are important to your health, farriers & veterinarians are essential to your horse's ongoing health.
A farrier should attend to your horse at least every 6-8 weeks to ensure hooves are trimmed or shod as necessary. Even those experienced with trimming their own horses feel more confident having a farrier look them over occasionally. Failure to properly maintain healthy hooves can cause permanent & irreversible damage to the horse's muscolo-skeletal structure. At the very least, the horse will be uncomfortable & could very well be in pain from lack of proper foot care.
None of us will ever live long enough to see the multitude of medical issues that a vet will be familiar with. This experience alone is reason enough to ensure even apparently healthy horses see a vet annually. A competent vet can spot hints of potential ailments, injuries & maladies that the average horse owner could be oblivious to.
Regular dental care is an important part of health maintenance for every domestic horse. Proper care of teeth can increase feed utilization, maximize horse comfort, and improve the overall health and performance of your horse. Examination of the horse's mouth is an important part of the routine veterinary visit. One of the most common equine dental procedures is floating. Floating is the process of filing or rasping a horse's teeth. Cheek teeth develop sharp enamel points even under normal grazing conditions. The upper jaw is wider than the lower jaw allowing for the formation of points on the outside of the upper cheek teeth and on the tongue side of the lower cheek teeth. When these points become too pronounced, horses can no longer chew properly without inflicting pain. As a result, they can suffer from reduced nutrient intake, be overly sensitive to taking a bit and display marked behavioural changes.
This is a contentious subject for many, but most horses should be protected by at least a minimal inoculation schedule, but not all horses should be vaccinated against the same diseases. First you need to determine what diseases your horses is at risk of, weigh the vaccination risks (every vaccination carries with it an inherent level of risk), & make choices based on those risks. Two examples are tetanus & West Nile Virus. Tetanus is a horrible way to die, & the mortality rate is almost 100%; the vaccination on the other hand is relatively low-risk. So inoculation against tetanus is a "no brainer", just do it. West Nile has not been seen in BC for some time, & the injection itself carries a fairly high degree of risks. Our horses do not leave the property much, and when they do never without our direct supervision. I wouldn't vaccinate my horses against West Nile unless there were recent confirmed cases in areas within 100 kilometers or less. These are only two very brief examples, & are by no means conclusive.
Show horses, or any horse that travels a great deal or is in contact with other horses who do travel, are all at greater risk of infection from a wider variety of diseases. Equine influenza & Rhinopneumonitis are common amongst "road warriors" (horses who travel a lot), so it would make sense to vaccinate those horse accordingly.
Intermittent situations can occur too, such as a strangles outbreak. While there are vaccinations available for strangles, in many cases their effectiveness is limited. As with any contagious disease, proper protection & prevention strategies are essential to controlling an outbreak. I strongly urge you to discuss these topics in detail with your vet.
All horses' intestinal systems are host to parasites. A horse will never be totally free of intestinal parasites; the best that can be hoped for is to manage the infestation levels. When the parasite load becomes excessive, nutritional intake is compromised. Other health issues can arise, some of which can be life-threatening. Horses should be de-wormed at least every 60 days. Foals or new arrivals require more frequent & different types of de-worming. Modern de-worming techniques are varied, but one generally agreed approach is to rotate the types of de-wormers used. Following is an example of a rotational de-worming schedule:
||Example Trade Name
||Panacur Paste, Anthelcide EQ
||Rotectin, Strongid P, Exodus
||Ivermectin or Moxidectrin
||Eqvalan, Zimecterin, Quest
|Repeat above throughout the year
There are five major types of parasites that infest the intestinal systems of horses in North America: Pinworms, Bots, large & small Strongyles, Ascarids (roundworms), & tapeworms. Despite manufacturer's claims, no single de-wormer targets all types of parasites. That is why a rotation in necessary to ensure complete management of parasites. Each of the medications mentioned above have specific targets & kill rates. I strongly urge you to discuss this topic in detail with your vet to determine the best rotational strategy for your horse.
The topics discussed here are by no means complete. There is an almost infinite array of situations your horse will encounter, many of which will require specialized care or attention. Notice how many paragraphs end with something about calling the vet? Whenever I'm in doubt, I call a professional & ask why later. Vet bills usually tend to be cheaper than horses, & prompt medical attention can minimize unnecessary suffering on the part of the horse.
I'd like to leave you with a quote:
"We are responsible forever for that which we tame." - French aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupery wrote that in his novella, "The Little Prince". That was back in 1943 ... things haven't changed all that much since then. When we take any animal into our care, we assume complete responsibility for that life. In domestication, most animals are no longer able to satisfy their own needs, so they become utterly dependant on us to meet those needs. This not a decision that should be undertaken lightly, or without considerable forethought.