My Horse's Vet Bill is <em>How</em> Much?

Determine your equine financial limit before you're in an emotional decision-making position.

Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt/The Horse

Understand the costs of veterinary care before you’re faced with a sick or injured horse

Over the last 20 years I have owned eight horses. Unfortunately, I’ve dealt with serious injuries or illnesses with three of them. My first horse required arthroscopic surgery to remove a bone chip from her ankle. There went $1,500. She later contracted the potentially fatal neurologic disease botulism while in foal. After maxing out my $5,000 in major medical coverage to treat that condition, I made the difficult decision to euthanize her and her unborn colt simply because I couldn’t afford to continue treating a horse that my veterinarian gave only a 20% chance of survival.

My next horse suffered from a rare bile duct blockage that caused recurring infections and damaged part of her liver. We did all we could for her, and again I used every dime of my $7,500 in major medical coverage. As happens with insurance, the pre-existing condition was excluded when it came time to renew her policy. I continued to spend my own money to treat her, but as her conditioned worsened, I knew I was spending hundreds of dollars a month just to prolong her life, and to what end? Eventually I made the difficult decision to euthanize her, as well.

Then came a talented gelding who was in training as a dressage horse. He was progressing nicely but started to become very resistant to my aids, along with showing signs of hind-end lameness. Turns out he had injured his right hind suspensory ligament. Fortunately, it was not a complete tear, so six months of stall rest and about $2,500 worth of platelet-rich plasma (PRP) and shock wave treatments brought him back to soundness. Again, the major medical policy covered much of the costs.

The moral of my stories is that emergency situations are very expensive, and with them come big decisions. It’s important to establish how much you can afford to spend if your horse becomes seriously ill or injured and, especially if you don’t have a large emergency fund for such situations, to purchase an insurance policy. It gave me peace of mind knowing I could try to help my horse without worrying about the bulk of the cost.

In this article we’ll take a look at how much a hospital bill or veterinary treatment might actually cost and why. Our hope is that this information will help you prepare for the future, regardless of whether you’ve insured your horse.

Setting Your Limit

As you can see from my experiences, veterinary bills can skyrocket quickly, so while it isn’t much fun, it is crucial to consider the “what ifs” before you are faced with them. Making a spending-limit decision in the heat of the moment when emotions are running high can be very difficult.

What’s the best way for you to determine your cap? First, have a conversation with your veterinarian about general costs so you have an estimate of his or her treatment prices. Take a look at your own month-to-month finances and savings to determine what you can afford, and revisit it every few years as your horse ages or as you have major life changes such as children, a new horse, or a new job. The total amount you come up with will likely shift as your horse ages. Spending $6,000 on a colic surgery might be more realistic when you’re considering a 6-year-old sport horse than a 22-year-old retiree.

You might discuss with your veterinarian the possibility of setting up a payment plan before it becomes a necessity or explore ways to seek financing (e.g., through health care credit cards such as CareCredit). Some veterinary clinics and companies offer wellness programs that help offset the cost of certain major medical procedures if your horse is enrolled. 

Veterinarians and clinics are often willing to work with you, especially if you have established a relationship with them. However, if you are at a clinic for the first time (in the event, say, that your veterinarian refers your horse to a specialist), don’t be surprised if they ask for at least half the total amount for the procedure or treatment up front. 

The Insurance Option

The instructor who sold me my first horse taught me the importance of equine insurance and major medical coverage in paying for significant health expenses. That financial assistance has made my decisions to pursue full courses of treatment for sick horses an easy one.

Indeed, purchasing a major medical or surgical insurance policy is the most common way to “increase” what you can afford to spend on your horse’s health care. To do so, you must also take out a mortality/theft policy, which is typically priced at a percentage of the horse’s value. A major medical/surgical option typically costs a few hundred dollars a year and usually covers a portion of diagnostics and treatments such as shock wave therapy.

Penny Rose, an agent with Livestock Mutual in North Carolina, recommends insuring animals valued at $5,000 and more. If you own many horses—lesson program mounts, perhaps—and money is a consideration, you should decide which ones are most valuable to the program. Rose says you must look at it from the mindset of, “This is the cream of my crop, and I want coverage on him,” and come to terms with the fact that if you have a loss on the rest, you will need to handle it out of pocket.

Planning for Your Horse's Health Costs

Routine veterinary care accounts for a significant portion of your annual horse ownership spend and is an important part of warding off larger problems. Of course, specific costs vary throughout the country and by practice type (ambulatory vs. university veterinary clinic, for instance), but in general, expect that a physical exam and dental, proper core vaccinations, and strategic deworming will cost you $400 to $600 per year.

As for the surprises, a colic that requires a farm call could cost a few hundred dollars to treat at the farm. If the situation worsens or becomes more complicated and the horse needs surgery, the price will depend on the type of surgery required and any complications during recovery. It can even be based on what time the horse arrives at the clinic (during normal working hours or during emergency after-hours). 

Basic preventive care will cost about $400-600 per horse per year.

Colic surgery costs depend on the type of surgery required, any complications during recovery, and whether your horse arrived during normal or emergency after-hours.

Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt/The Horse

Anthony Blikslager, DVM, PhD, professor and service chief of Equine Medicine and Surgery at North Carolina State University, reports that at the school’s veterinary hospital, correcting an uncomplicated colic, such as a large colon displacement, on a previously healthy horse can run from $6,000 to $8,000. That estimate increases to $8,000 to $10,000 for more severe cases such as strangulating obstructions and resections, which also have a much higher likelihood of postoperative complications, he says. This includes the hospital stay that can cost anywhere from $250 to upward of $1,000 per day.

On the musculoskeletal side, fixing a fracture can cost as little as $1,500, or it can easily escalate to $10,000 or more for difficult breaks or if complications arise. In addition to the price of the surgery is the price of rehab. Horses with leg injuries often need extensive stall rest. On the surface that might not seem like it would cost much, but you will incur increased hay and bedding costs, medication costs if your horse is on anti-inflammatories or other drugs, and, if you board, the facility might charge more because of those expenses and increased labor. Or, you might pay to board your horse at a dedicated equine rehabilitation center for access to specialized equipment and skilled staff. 

Alternative therapies, such as electrical stimulation, therapeutic ultrasound, therapeutic laser, acupuncture/acupressure, and pulsed electromagnetic therapy, are becoming common choices for rehabilitating injuries. Debra Powell, PhD, assistant professor of equine studies at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College, in Indiana, says these modalities can help reduce pain and swelling as well as increase circulation. With prices ranging from $50 to $250 per session, depending on the therapy, a course of treatment over a month or two can cost several hundred dollars.

Bigger Bodies? Bigger Bills.

Doug Thal, DVM, Dipl. ABVP, who operates an equine practice near Santa Fe, New Mexico, explains that treating horses is expensive partly because of their size. It takes much more drug to treat a horse than it does to treat a dog or a cat. Further, the overhead costs of running an equine business are high and continue to increase, and practices must pass these costs on to the client. 

He also mentions that the trend in veterinary medicine is to specialize in fields such as surgery or internal medicine, which requires the practitioner to pursue additional training and, when it’s time to practice, purchase expensive diagnostic or other equipment. This trend is driven in part by better-educated owners who demand higher levels of care.

Given the reality of what procedures cost, it makes sense to prevent the emergencies we can and be prepared for when the big questions (and bills) hit. Thal suggests the following approaches to keep your veterinary costs in check:

  1. Provide good basic care, such as a clean and safe environment with proper fencing, feed, water, and hoof care.
     
  2. Look into the costs and benefits of equine medical insurance before you need it.
     
  3. Seek a proper diagnosis. “When your horse develops a problem, prompt consultation with a knowledgeable professional for a diagnosis is ultimately less expensive than buying expensive supplements or using alternative therapies without first trying to determine the origin of the problem,” he says.
     
  4. Do not delay! If you wait to call your veterinarian, the problem could possibly progress and become worse. A few of the conditions Thal says require immediate care include colic, choke, foaling problems, eye problems, severe lameness, and complicated wounds—especially those located near joints.
     
  5. Once your veterinarian reaches a diagnosis, get options and estimates. There is rarely only one solution to an equine health problem, and it’s the veterinarian’s job to inform clients of the options and costs and benefits of each.
     
  6. Consider transporting your horse to an equine veterinary facility for checkups. In some cases this is less expensive than the farm call the veterinarian charges to drive all the way to your property.

Again, it’s important to get an idea now for what procedures cost, and Thal recommends maintaining a good relationship and open communication with your veterinarian about your financial limits. 

The Bottom Line

Horses can and will get hurt or sick. Being prepared by establishing a budget and having an insurance policy in advance, taking proper care of the horse, and having a good working relationship with your veterinarian can go a long way toward preventing major problems in some cases and helping you be prepared to afford them in they event they do happen. 

About the Author

Stephanie J. Ruff, MS

Stephanie J. Ruff is the publisher and editor of Arabian Finish Line and managing editor of Arabian Horse Life. She has written for a wide variety of horse publications and is the author of the illustrated children's books Goats With Coats and Antics in the Attic. A lifelong horsewoman, Ruff lives in Florida and enjoys competing in dressage with her Arabian/Dutch Warmblood mare.

Stay on top of the most recent Horse Health news with FREE weekly newsletters from TheHorse.com. Learn More