Planning Health Expenses

The number and variety of sophisticated services equine veterinarians can provide for horses have grown greatly through the years. How much of these services you choose for your horses usually depends on how much money you want to spend, and what is available in your area. This is true of preventive care, prepurchase exams, and emergency treatments.

Preventive Care--Worth the Cost

Even when specialized services are not required, keeping a horse properly immunized and dewormed must be figured into your horsekeeping budget, especially if you are in an area where frequent deworming is necessary or there is a need to immunize for several endemic diseases.

Julie Wilson, DVM, Dipl. ACVIM, University of Minnesota, suggests that between $400 and $600 be budgeted for routine veterinary work per year. An owner can get by for $400 if he or she does some of the vaccinating and deworming, but that generally won't cover all costs if those tasks are handled by a veterinarian.

"What I tell our veterinary students," says Wilson, "is that they should work with their clients with an emphasis on preventive medicine." This means that the veterinarian would visit the horse at least on an annual basis to give him a physical exam. Such an exam might turn up problems that can be corrected before becoming critical. The annual visit, she adds, would also be a time for routine dental care. Another part of the exam should evaluate shoeing and look for possible lameness.

There are ways to reduce even these routine costs. Most veterinarians have a "farm call" charge and might also add a mileage charge. If a number of horse owners, owning only one or two animals each, form a "cooperative," they might be able to save money while saving their veterinarian's time.

For example, at certain times of the year, owners with only one or two horses might trailer their horses to one central location to meet the veterinarian for routine shots and deworming. It is a win-win situation. It will be cheaper to trailer the horse for a few miles than to pay the farm charge plus mileage to each place. The vet also wins because he or she can deal with a larger number of horses at one time and not be saddled with empty travel time.

In some cases, owners take on some of their own veterinary duties in order to save money. This is something to be approached with caution. Remember, the veterinarian has spent years learning how to treat various ailments and just where and how to give a particular shot, plus what to do if there is an adverse reaction. Having the veterinarian on the scene for routine procedures also enables you to ask specific questions about your horse and his needs, thus getting additional value for your money.

Seeking immediate veterinary help when there is a problem also will normally save you money. Many veterinarians complain about being called in days after an injury or illness occurs when that injury could have been treated more effectively in the very early stages. However, by the time the owner decides the problem is too big for them to handle alone, it has reached a more serious state, which is also more expensive to treat and puts the horse's health at greater risk.

There is an old adage all horse owners should remember: "Never step over a dollar to pick up a dime." The "dollar" in this instance represents getting immediate help while the "dime" represents putting off calling the vet in the hope that everything will be okay in another day or two.

Prepurchase Exams

A prime example of the owner making decisions on how much money will be spent is a prepurchase examination.

The examination can be as basic as listening to the horse's lungs and heart, examining eyes and teeth, and checking the legs for soundness. The soundness phase of the examination might merely involve watching the horse move at the walk and trot, plus palpating the legs, with perhaps an X ray of each front foot. In some locales, this cursory examination might be performed for as little as $75. The X rays would run about $25 per view for a total of $50, with another $25 added for the general examination. In this scenario, the potential buyer perhaps wanted only to know whether the horse was in good general health and showed no signs of being foundered.

Contrast this with the examination that might be conducted on a Grand Prix jumper, world-level dressage horse, or stellar racehorse. The potential buyer might want every limb joint to be X rayed, with the ante going up to $35 to $45 per view for the larger pictures, such as of the stifle area.

An endoscopic examination might also be desired to make certain that there are no problems with the respiratory system. Add another $125 or more for that procedure. Plus, the buyer might desire a complete blood workup. For each additional X ray and procedure sought, the price for the exam goes up. It very quickly can climb to several hundred dollars. Yet, if the buyer is planning to pay $100,000 or more for the horse, the more expensive prepurchase examination is money well spent.

Plan for the Worst

Economics and emotions mix when there is an emergency. This is why it is good sit down with your veterinarian in advance and decide the limits of your expenses. For example, colic surgery can cost around $5,000 including hospitalization and other expenses incurred during the recuperative period.

If the horse in question is a valuable stallion, broodmare, or performance horse, the decision might be an easy one. Do the surgery. But, what about that trail horse that you bought for $2,500 last year? Can you justify expenses that might reach $5,000 before all is said and done? Sometimes the answer is no. And rather than allowing the horse to suffer during a period of indecision, it is best to have decided beforehand what the process will be--surgery or euthanasia.

There are ways to protect yourself, and your horse, in the event of a medical emergency--insurance.

There has been a change in the approach taken by insurance companies relative to major medical and surgery costs for horses during the past several years that is a boon to the average horse owner. One can now purchase major medical and surgery insurance for the horse for a reasonable premium--depending, of course, on the maximum limit.

Often, one can buy a major medical policy with a $5,000 limit for as little as $150 per year. That means the insurance company would be obligated to pay the first $5,000 of treatment costs and the owner would be liable for anything beyond that. Of course, if the owner wants the insurance company to pay more of the treatment costs, the premium will escalate as the limit is raised.

This type of policy would not cover routine ailments, but would go into effect when something major occurs, such as laminitis, a serious bone fracture, or colic surgery.

The horse owner might be able to further reduce the insurance premium by accepting a deductible, meaning she or he would pay a certain amount before the insurance company started picking up any of the tab.

If an owner is of average financial means, it can make the difference between deciding to put down the horse or treating it, says Wilson.

Planning for Extra Help

Another tough call for the average horse owner is when dystocia (difficult birth) occurs. If the mare involved is of high value, the first call is to the farm veterinarian. If he or she can't resolve the problem in short order, the second call is to a referral hospital where specialized teams are assembled and on hand when the mare arrives. On the other hand, a mare and foal of lesser value might require sacrifice of one or the other at the farm in order to save either. Again, this is something that should be thought about in advance and discussed with the farm's attending veterinarian.

At the 2000 Society for Theriogenologists symposium, Rolf Embertson, DVM, Dipl. ACVS, of Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital (a referral center in Kentucky), discussed what happens at that facility when a dystocia occurs. His presentation helped make it clear why the bill could be a considerable amount.

First, the hospital maintains on-call teams of neonatal and dystocia specialists. They respond no matter what time of day or night and usually are at their stations when the mare in trouble arrives.

They are prepared to apply one of four procedures--assisted vaginal delivery, where the mare is awake and is assisted to a small or great degree in vaginal delivery of an intact foal; controlled vaginal delivery, where the mare is anesthetized and the clinician is in complete control of delivering an intact foal vaginally; fetotomy, where a dead fetus is removed in pieces from the anesthetized mare vaginally; and cesarean section, where the fetus is removed through an incision in the uterus from an anesthetized mare.

Again, the horse owner should understand that the higher the involvement of care, the higher the resultant bill. Having highly skilled specialists working with state-of-the art equipment is a tremendous boon to the successful outcome of a problem, but the education and hardware involved is expensive.

A dystocia at such a center can quickly become as expensive as colic surgery--in the $3,000 to $3,500 range without ancillary hospital costs. But, unfortunately for the horse owner, that isn't the end. If the foal survives, there is a good chance that it will be compromised in some manner and might be required to remain in the neonatal center for a few days. Thus, a difficult birth and a compromised foal could result in expenses of $10,000 or more.

Once again, everything is relative. If the mare in question is a highly regarded broodmare and the offspring sired by a high-quality stud, the expenses are easily justified. But what about that $2,500 mare the neighbor allowed you to pasture breed to his stallion for little or no stud fee? Again, economics rears its head. Sometimes with a horse of this value, a fetotomy at the home farm by the local veterinarian is the answer. The goal is to save the mare's life at the expense of the foal's instead of losing both.

Fractures fit into the same category as colic surgery and dystocia in creating a decision dilemma for the pleasure horse owner. At a referral hospital, such as Rood and Riddle, fracture repair can begin as cheaply as $1,500 for a simple condylar fracture, and can escalate to $10,000 or more for something much more serious and much more difficult to repair, such as certain types of fractures of the sesamoids.

Horses are expensive to keep, but you can keep the costs down with common sense and attentiveness to any changes in your horse's appearance and attitude. Keeping up with a properly scheduled health care program, planning ahead for emergencies, and being ready to deal with problems as they arise rather than when they worsen will keep your horse in the best possible health. Also, you will then have the best chance of keeping the drain on your wallet to a manageable level.


Sellnow, L. Equine Insurance. The Horse, February 2001, 34-46.

Sellnow, L. Pay Me Now Or Pay Me Later. The Horse, November 2000, 65-72.

About the Author

Les Sellnow

Les Sellnow is a free-lance writer based near Riverton, Wyo. He specializes in articles on equine research, and operates a ranch where he raises horses and livestock. He has authored several fiction and non-fiction books, including Understanding Equine Lameness and Understanding The Young Horse, published by Eclipse Press and available at or by calling 800/582-5604.

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