Managing a Horse on a Tight Budget
Most horse owners do not own horses as a business, or with expectations of generating household income from them. Rather, owners are more intent on maximizing the amount of pleasure or involvement per dollar spent. Saving money when it comes to horse ownership is always important, but even more so when the economy is down and people are struggling with everyday bills. Keeping the horse healthy is a very important part of keeping costs down.
Veterinary care can be an expensive part of horse ownership, but owners can help keep this cost down. Having a good working relationship with the local veterinarian so he or she understands what the owners can handle will help reduce needed vet visits and aftercare.
Horse owners can sometimes save money by caring for a wound themselves, with veterinary direction.
Work up a management plan with your vet that allows you to do as much as you are comfortable with and have the vet help you gain confidence with new aspects, such as administering prescribed injectibles. If the vet normally comes to your place to work on horses, you might haul the horse to the vet, thereby saving the vet farm call charge.
Fecal Test and Deworming
Internal parasites rob the horse of feed nutrients and are a leading cause of colic. Following a deworming program that consists of testing for parasites and deworming with the appropriate amount and type of product is important. Making use of fecal tests can indicate which parasites are actually present, making for a much stronger deworming program. This test can range in price from $11 to $15. Not every horse in a paddock needs to be fecal tested, but a random few that live together will provide good information about the group. If a group of horses has a low parasite load, the treating veterinarian might suggest you postpone deworming, leading to substantial savings if multiple horses are owned.
Visiting with your vet about a deworming and fecal exam schedule will help owners determine what is most appropriate for their stocking load and management style.
It is also important to deworm according to the horse's weight. Using a weight tape (which can be obtained at many feed stores or through a feed company) will give you a more accurate indication of weight than just guessing. An important part of parasite control includes reducing the re-infestation rate. Cleaning pens or stalls daily will prevent the horse from having contact with manure, where parasite larvae live.
Composting manure before spreading over fields will help to kill existing parasite larvae and better prepare the manure for spreading. These steps will reduce the need for chemical control while maintaining a healthy horse at a reduced cost.
Just as humans need vaccinations, our dogs, cats, and horses need them to remain healthy. Vaccinations are usually given on an annual basis, although some are given more often.
It is far less expensive to protect your horse with a vaccine rather than treat a disease or lose a horse. Discuss a vaccination schedule for individual horses or a group of horses with your vet to give you a great plan to maintain the health of your horse or herd.
Giving your own vaccinations can help save money, but only do so under the guidance of a veterinarian--proper storage and handling of vaccines is important, otherwise they can become inactive, or worse, unsafe. Always remember that vaccines are typically refrigerated and need to be handled properly and used by the expiration date or your horse might not be protected.
Any new horses coming onto the property should have up-to-date vaccination information to reduce the risk that any diseases will be brought onto the property. Quarantining new horses for 30 days is always advised so that disease is not introduced to the resident horses.
Nutrition and Dental Care
Providing proper nutrition is an important aspect of maintaining a healthy horse. When making any changes to hay or grain, do so over a 7- to 10-day period. If new hay is purchased, feed only 25% or less of the new hay mixed with 75% or more of the old hay, increasing the amount of new hay daily over several days until all new hay is fed. Feeding quality hay and/or concentrated feed on a regular schedule and at least two times a day can decrease the chance of colic.
With hay and grain costs rising, many people are paying a premium for each, so it is important to make the best use of these feeds. Many horse owners waste money by overfeeding their horses.
Horses should be fed according to their weight and body condition, not just in armfuls of hay and coffee cans of grain. A horse needs 1% to 2.2% of its body weight in hay per day, which translates to 10 to 22 pounds of hay, per day, for a 1,000-pound horse. Use a bathroom scale or food scale to weigh the amount fed to bring excessive feeding under control.
Evaluating the horse's body condition is a valuable way to determine if the horse is maintaining itself on its current or new feed. See a body condition score chart.
Most horses do not need grain unless they are in late gestation, lactating, growing, or in hard work. A working horse that maintains good body condition might only require additional protein, in which case a protein/vitamin/mineral supplement might be better than a complete grain.
If grain is needed, it should also be fed by pounds, not cans or volume. The least-expensive bag of grain might not be the least expensive to feed. It is beneficial to feed a concentrate (grain) that gives the most calories per pound as you will be able to feed less with a greater impact. This will save money in the long run, even if the initial cost is slightly higher. For example:
- Concentrate, $16/50-pound bag, divide the $16 by 50 pounds (16/50) to find out what the concentrate costs per pound, then multiply that number by the suggested feeding amount on the bag, $16/50, times 6 pounds/day = 32 cents per pound, or $1.92/day.
- Concentrate at $18/50-pound bag, high in fat (calories), fed at 4 pounds/day due to the increase in calories calculates to 36 cents per pound of feed, times 4, or $1.44/day.
- A protein/vitamin/mineral supplement, low in calories (for a horse that does not need the extra calories) is fed at 1-2.5 pounds per day depending on age and work. If fed at the highest feed level of 2.5 pounds/day, $24.89/50-pound bag, 49 cents/pound, times 2.5, or $1.24/day.
Having a hanging scale or food scale in the feed room so concentrates can be weighed at each feeding can save guesswork and money by providing consistency day to day.
Many people believe feeding grain in the winter helps the horse stay warmer, but hay actually produces more body heat.
Feeding quality hay will save money in the long run. Low-quality hay is usually more mature, giving the horse fewer nutrients. It is usually less digestible for the horse as it is very stemmy with less leaf. Due to the lower digestibility, it requires feeding more hay to maintain body condition.
Storing hay off the ground and under cover will make the entire bale available, whereas hay stored on the ground can become wet and moldy, leading to wastage. Feeding the hay off the ground will help prevent trampling and lost hay, and containing large bales in a feeder will also help save hay from being trampled and lost.
Another way to reduce hay costs might be to co-op with others when purchasing hay, especially if you only need a small amount.
Dental care is very important for the horse to chew its food properly. A horse's teeth can develop points, hooks, and other irregularities due to the fit of the horse's jaw and the continued eruption of the teeth from the skull. Along with leaving the horse unable to chew its food thoroughly, lack of dental care can cause mouth sores, loss of body condition, and colic. An annual floating (rasping of the edges) might be all that is needed to give the horse a proper grinding surface. The expense of having dental care can be offset through nutritional gain and a reduced chance of colic.
An important aspect of horse ownership is hoof care. But many horses that are shod likely would be just as sound barefoot, especially those that spend most of their time in the pasture. Maintaining healthy and balanced hooves requires daily cleaning, and trimming or shoeing every 6 to 8 weeks. Depending on the farrier used and what is needed this can run from $40 to $100 per horse per visit.
There are shoeing or trimming schools available to help the owner feel comfortable with taking over some aspects of hoof care. Utah State University offers a weeklong course for horse owners in May and some shorter courses during the year. These trainings might allow the owner to trim his or her horses several times a year, so long as a certified farrier periodically checks the job being done and shows the owner any areas that might need to be addressed.
Boarding or Backyard?
It will always cost less to keep horses on home property with owners responsible for daily feeding and care. This is not an option for all owners, so some horses have to be boarded at a public facility. This can be expensive, but there are ways for owners to decrease this cost. Many facilities will offer the option for owners to clean their own stall and feed their own horse at a reduced board bill. Others might allow the boarders to help with keeping the entire facility clean and feeding all horses a few days each week to further reduce costs. Discuss your needs and abilities to help the facility management help you make boarding more cost efficient.
The purchase price of a horse is usually the smallest expense associated with horse ownership. Managing a horse for years can be expensive. Owners in a tight economy must look to ways to reduce their expenses and make their management system as good as it can be to maintain healthy horses. Owners can develop skills that allow them to be more involved in their horses' care, reducing many costs involved with hoof and health care.
POLL: University Equine Hospitals