Prevention for the Masses

Veterinary care doesn't come cheap. While conscientious horse owners realize that disease prevention is ultimately cheaper than disease treatment, when you have five, or 15, or 50 horses to care for and limits on your budget, you need to look closely and think carefully about where to best spend your hard-earned dollars in order to obtain maximum protection for minimal cost. Here's how several horse owners and caretakers address that issue.

Dental care
You can save money on disease prevention, dental care, and hoof care for multiple horses, but only if you inspect your horses carefully and frequently, consulting your practitioner as to the best schedule. 

Disease Prevention

Vaccines and dewormers remain efficient and effective options for reducing or eliminating the risk of various diseases. However, the particulars of what is given and when varies according to the types and needs of individual farms.

At Michigan State University (MSU), Paula Hitzler, BS (Animal Science), manager of the Horse Teaching & Research Center, oversees the daily care of 90-120 Arabian horses ranging from weanlings to 38-year-olds, with the majority currently under four years. It's a big and expensive undertaking, one in which costs must not exceed a prescribed annual budget. (Editor's note: Keep in mind with Hitzler's management techniques that most managers are not in a university setting with immediate access to a veterinary teaching hospital.)

Explains Hitzler, "I have to be conscious of how much I'm spending and if I'm getting my money's worth from a disease control perspective. I try to keep on top of the latest in research--if something is effective that I should start using or if a disease is becoming a bigger problem in our area--so I know where I can cut back or expand."

Hitzler vaccinates against Eastern equine encephalomyelitis (EEE), Western equine encephalomyelitis (WEE), West Nile virus (WNV), tetanus, influenza, rabies, and rhinopneumonitis.

"Most of these diseases don't have a good cure rate," she says. "While the effectiveness of influenza and rhino vaccines are questionable, some of our show horses get a lot of exposure, so I feel a little safer in using those."

Hitzler does not vaccinate against equine protozoal myeloencephalitis (EPM). "I don't know how effective the EPM vaccine is. Until it's 100% effective, it doesn't make sense for us to spend that much money vaccinating when the incidence isn't very high."

All the adult horses receive annual vaccinations at the same time, she says. The foals have a separate protocol.

Deworming is done year-round, with separate schedules for different age groups: Foals are dewormed monthly, 1- to 3-year-olds are done every eight weeks, and horses over three are dewormed every 10 weeks.

Hitzler and her students administer the vaccines and dewormers, which she buys in bulk from wholesale distributors. If you administer your own vaccinations, make sure you are prepared to deal with adverse reactions and that medications are acquired from a reputable dealer. Use the proper vaccines for your situation based on your veterinarian's advice. Make sure you dispose of syringes and needles properly.

Anne Stahl, owner/trainer/instructor at Rosehill Farm, a private dressage training facility in Northville, Mich., houses about 18-22 horses between four and 24 years of age; she owns two, and the rest belong to students. Stahl employs more intense vaccination and deworming protocols to assure the greatest protection for her charges and liability protection for herself. Most of the horses there train heavily and show frequently, hence are under more stress; as the barn owner, Stahl could be vulnerable to legal action if a horse became ill.

"We vaccinate every two to three months per our veterinarian's recommendation, to ensure maximum protection," Stahl says. "Besides the EEE, WEE, tetanus, flu, and rhino vaccines, we also vaccinate against West Nile virus, Potomac horse fever, rabies, and EPM. All horses are done at the same time."

The veterinarian administers the vaccines and bills the students directly, sparing Stahl billing obligations.

Deworming is done every two months with alternating dewormers--one of the common dewormers and a dewormer that also protects against tapeworms. Additionally, Stahl checks fecal samples every two or three months to ascertain if any horses are more susceptible to parasites. "Those horses are either dewormed more often or given a stronger dose," Stahl reports.

All horses are dewormed at the same time by Stahl or her staff. "We don't allow the owner to give the dewormer," she says. "This way, we can make sure that every horse is on the same dewormer at the same time while monitoring to make sure the horse didn't spit it out."

At Kikkuli Farm in Lindell Beach, British Columbia, owner Margaret Evans breeds Thoroughbreds, primarily for racing, but also for pleasure and competitive riding. Evans, who owns nine horses, has her veterinarian administer her horses' annual shots. She says, "They are vaccinated for equine flu, tetanus, encephalitis (Eastern and Western strains), and West Nile virus. They are also inoculated against strangles. To save on time and veterinary expenses for the farm call, all horses are done at the same time." An added bonus: While there, the veterinarian performs a visual health check of the animals.

Evans administers the dewormers herself every three months, again all at the same time. "If they are all done together, no one gets overlooked or forgotten," Evans states. "I rotate three different dewormers to give full extent of coverage." To ease the pain of shelling out $180 all at once for nine tubes of dewormers, Evans buys one at a time and saves them until she has all nine.

At Oak Haven Belgians, a breeding farm in Fremont, Ohio, owner Michael R. Stone, DVM, protects his 54 Belgian horses (stallions, broodmares, recipient mares, and young stock) by vaccinating against EEE, WEE, tetanus, flu, strangles, Potomac horse fever, and West Nile virus. "Strangles and infectious diarrheas can shut down a breeding operation and cost you many times over what the prevention costs," he says.

Because labor is a major factor not only from a cost perspective but also just as a matter of time, Stone finds it less time-consuming, less labor-intensive, and consequently less costly to vaccinate horses at the same time of the year. "I do all my preventives based on the time of the year," Stone explains. "Nothing is based on the age of the animal or gestational month." All new arrivals are given a series of two vaccines and dewormed regardless of history.

Stone uses the calendar approach to deworming. "Everything two years and under is dewormed on the even months," he states. "Older horses are dewormed in January and July. We alternate between ivermectin and Quest Plus."


Foregoing regular veterinary oral exams for adults which are not in training and don't appear unhealthy (i.e., thin, weight loss, dropping food, etc.) might not be part of every veterinarian's recommended protocol, but many equine caretakers find that treating dental problems on an as-needed basis adequately addresses their horses' health concerns while preserving their veterinary budget. Such is the case with the MSU herd.

Hitzler says, "All 2-year-olds we're introducing to the bit have their mouths checked--caps taken off, wolf teeth pulled. Show horses are checked regularly." Preventive dentistry is cheaper than corrective dentistry.

Keeping to his calendar philosophy, Stone has show horses floated in February and touched up in August, while broodmares and recipients are monitored for problems.

At Stahl's dressage barn, an equine dentist checks all the horses at one appointment every six months. "In a situation where horses are working on the bit, we obviously have to make sure everything is comfortable in there," Stahl notes. "We even do the young horses that aren't working yet." Stahl collects checks from clients in advance to pay the dentist.

Also paying more attention to oral health, the Hooved Animal Humane Society (HAHS), which houses and cares for impounded hooved animals (horses, sheep, pigs, etc.) in need of rehabilitation, has an equine dentist visit regularly. The group usually has 20-30 horses at the farm, although that number can swell in an instant to more than 100 horses.

"The horses that come to us usually have terrible mouths that may never have received dental care," says HAHS executive director Lydia F. Gray, DVM, MA. "As soon as they're no longer debilitated, our dentist begins to bring them back into shape, a process that may involve numerous visits over the next year or two. Nearly every horse on our property requires dentistry twice a year because of their backgrounds."

Because HAHS is a non-profit humane society, sometimes dentists will discount their services.

Hoof Care

Foot care, like dental exams, is another area where some money-conscious caretakers often will cut back a bit. Show horses often receive more frequent attention, while the periods between farrier visits stretch out more for horses which aren't in training or ridden much.

At Stone's Belgian draft horse farm, show horses are shod and trimmed every six weeks. "But while the blacksmith is here, broodmares and young stock that need attention are selected," Stone says.

Farrier work is done as required for each horse at Kikkuli Farm. "Since some of our horses are geriatric and only have pasture turnout, they may only require occasional trimming," states Evans. "Riding horses are routinely shod every seven weeks; we try to group those that can be done on the same day for time efficiency for our farrier and ourselves."

"We can't trim as much as we need to," says Hitzler. "We try to do riding horses that we use regularly every four to six weeks; these horses need to have well-conformed feet for safety in riding. Broodmares may go as long as 12 weeks between trimming, but all horses' feet are checked regularly and trimmed as needed."

Because Stahl's Rosehill Farm show barn contains 20-some show horses, the farrier comes every week, with horses being put into the schedule as needed. "Some horses only go five weeks, some go eight weeks," explains Stahl. "The advantage of coming every week, if the horse has a problem or throws a shoe or something, is that you know your farrier is coming soon."

Because the farrier is paid at the time of service, owners must leave a check with Stahl. "It is unwise for the barn owner to cover clients' bills," Stahl notes. "Better to put your efforts into getting the checks from the clients for the farrier in advance."

The unique needs of rescue horses mandate monthly farrier visits. Nevertheless, Gray finds ways to economize: "We're on a four-week schedule with our farrier," she says. "This way, horses that have normal feet and only require a trimming see him every other time he comes, but horses with problems are revisited monthly. One cost-saving tip we've employed is the use of our certified journeyman's apprentice for the horses with normal feet."

Other Cost Savers

There are a few other health-wise tips one can employ.

Do-it-yourself wellness--"We check every horse in the herd twice a day for well-being," says Hitzler. Although the advantage here is that a number of students inspect the horse, most people with smaller herds can use the same techniques on a daily basis. "Start at the nose and work to the tail," Hitzler advises. "Is there any nasal discharge; if so, what color? Are eyes bright, or is there a discharge or swelling around the eye? Examine the body for bumps and scrapes. Is this horse walking soundly or is there a problem with his gait? Are there any swellings or injuries on the legs? If any of these things come back abnormal, we bring that horse in for a further exam--taking his temperature, listening to respiratory rate, watching to see if he has much of an appetite. If it's something that looks like it needs to be addressed by a veterinarian, we'll call him at that time."

Hitzler emphasizes that really knowing your horses' bodies and normal behavior helps clue you in to subtle changes. "You have to completely understand the normal behavior of that particular animal," she says, "so when something abnormal occurs, you're on top of it right away. For instance, mild depression may be a beginning symptom of Potomac horse fever. Many times we've caught horses when they're mildly depressed, before they got really bad diarrhea and became very, very ill."

Those who clean stalls, feed, and water horses ought to know what's normal for each horse and watch for deviations in food and water consumption, changes shown in food interest, and changes in the stools. Treating a problem early, before it becomes more serious, can save money in the long run.

Ask your veterinarian while he/she is there--"While your veterinarian is administering vaccines, discuss any changes or problems you've observed right while the veterinarian is there, looking at the horse," advises Stahl. "That's a money saver!" It also avoids a separate farm call.

Get with the program--Says Stahl, "Most veterinarians have a preventive care program that you can become a part of. They usually set it up to be more economical than if you call on an as-needed basis."

Reduce the risk of disease transmission through smart management--"If possible, quarantine new arrivals for at least two to four weeks to protect against infectious diseases," suggests Gray. She also recommends removing manure from pastures to reduce the parasite load and using fly spray, fly masks, and fans in the buildings to keep flies and especially mosquitoes from bothering the horses.

Practice safe containment--"Use appropriate fencing that is all attached correctly," Hitzler says. "Make sure wires are taut and planks aren't broken. Don't keep junk such as old farm equipment in your pastures, or allow sharp protruding objects like broken wood or bent feeders in your stalls. Anything your horse comes in contact with should be kept in good order--that avoids a huge source of problems and expense for the horse!"

Take-Home Message

For cost-effective, but healthy, horsekeeping, sometimes one must use less intensive, less expensive preventive measures--but be reasonable about it. While you shouldn't forgo or put off preventions that ward off serious disease, you might be able to lighten up on the trimming and dental exams of healthy, adult horses, depending on how the horses are used and, ideally, under the guidance of your veterinarian and farrier. Compensate less frequent veterinary or farrier visits by more rigorous monitoring of your horses. When your veterinarian or farrier does make a farm call, make sensible use of their time through "group procedures." Cutting back on costs does not have to mean cutting back on health.

About the Author

Marcia King

Marcia King is an award-winning freelance writer based in Ohio who specializes in equine, canine, and feline veterinary topics. She's schooled in hunt seat, dressage, and Western pleasure.

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

Free Newsletters

Sign up for the latest in:

From our partners