Horses and Tight Budgets

Horses and Tight Budgets


Here are a few ways to spend less on horsekeeping.

In this shaky economy, horse owners are finding ways to trim costs. David Freeman, PhD, of the Department of Animal Science, Oklahoma State University, says he gets a lot of calls from people wondering what they can do.

"Most people don't want to hear my first words of advice. The easiest way to reduce costs is reduce your number of horses," he says. Horse owners don't want to look at that option, but if keeping horses has a serious impact on your budget, that might be what you have to do.

Most of us prefer to look at other ways to address the challenges. The place to start is to figure out where the money is being spent, looking at areas of waste, duplication, unnecessary purchases, etc. There are numerous ways to save money, but you have to first know where it's going.

Reducing Feed Costs

One of the biggest expenditures around the farm is feed. There are several ways to shrink the feed bill--reduce waste, buy more wisely, and extend your pasture. Bob Mowrey, MS, PhD, an extension specialist at North Carolina State University, says if you use round bales, switch to wrapped bales to protect them from moisture and spoilage. After unwrapping, feed them in an enclosed structure such as a run-in shed, or use a hay tunnel to keep them dry while they're being eaten.

"A hay tunnel is a patented polyethylene product we tested at N.C. State," says Mowrey. "Using a front-end loader on a tractor, or a spear attached to a three-point hitch on the rear PTO (power take-off, a type of drive shaft), you can lift a small round bale and shove it into this container, which protects it from rain and mold. Horses eat from both open ends. This allows more horses access to the hay at once and cuts feed loss and wastage from the typical 30% down to less than 5%."

If you don't have equipment to deal with round bales, you can add a spear to the top of a box blade. "Most farms have a tractor blade attachment (box blade) for scraping the road, plowing snow, etc., and you can put the spear on this," he adds. "The box blade acts like a catch on the bottom of the bale, and the spear is mounted on the top of the blade. Most 30-horsepower tractors can move a small round bale on a front-end loader or three-point hitch. You can't lift it very high to stack the bales, but you can move them around."

Bob Coleman, PhD, extension specialist in the Department of Animal Science at the University of Kentucky, says using feeders helps control waste. "Studies at Texas Tech showed horses utilize 35% more from a feeder, versus no feeder, in a protected area like a shed," he says. Even more is wasted if the bale is outside, subjected to spoilage from weather. Without a feeder, horses pull hay from the bale, step on it, then won't eat it.

"Another thing you can do is feed only the amount they need," says Coleman. The average 1,000-pound horse requires 2% of his body weight in forage (20 pounds) per day. You can't regulate intake using big bales fed free-choice, but you can when feeding small square bales by figuring weight of the bales and daily feeding the proper amount.

Many people overfeed. If they have two horses and 60-pound bales, they often think it's easier just to throw a bale to the horses rather than taking time to portion it out or make it last, says Coleman. But when money is tight, taking time to figure each horse's needs becomes higher priority. "Is an hour of your time worth saving hay at $300 per ton? Some people feed concentrates to try to extend their hay, but this only works if you can control hay intake," he adds.

Another way to save on feed costs is to form a co-op where several horse owners go in together to buy in bulk (by the ton rather than by the bale or sack) at lower prices and share shipping expenses. If you don't want to deal with big round bales, and you must use the more expensive small square bales, it pays to buy large shipments or buy it directly out of the field.

"If you contract 1,000 bales out of the field, this works better for the producer," says Freeman. You and your neighbors can get together and haul it. There are people buying in bulk (at lesser cost) and turning around to sell hay at higher prices to horse owners who only want 10 bales. There is always a savings when buying hay in large quantities.

"Consider building a pole barn to store hay," says Mowrey. "If you can buy hay $2 to $2.50 cheaper per bale in summer out of the field--versus paying more in winter--this savings will build a barn. Twenty years ago an Arabian breeder in North Carolina was using 90 tons a year. Hay at that time was $1.50 per bale out of the field versus $3.50 or more during winter. He paid for construction of his hay barn in less than two years from savings on hay."

A small operation could justify a smaller shed to store 20 to 40 tons of hay--a year's supply for six to 10 horses that don't have pasture. A hay shed doesn't need sides--just a roof with enough overhang to keep moisture from running down alongside the stack.

"A co-op could contribute to building a large hay barn, where hay for farms in your neighborhood could be stored," says Mowrey. This can be a business investment for the farm that owns the land where the shed is built, leasing out space to other horse owners. If you are shipping it in, hay can go to one location to be unloaded.

"This makes it cheaper (per ton) than buying small amounts from a middleman, and you can split it with your neighbors," says Coleman. Working together can often save money, and pooling can create alliances and friendships. This can be a positive spinoff from hard times.

Coleman says, "Your local saddle club might be interested in creating a buying co-op. Horse owners could pay their hay money to the saddle club, and one check from the club could pay for hay." This might be more attractive to a hay dealer or hauler than having 10 people show up with 10 checks.

Freeman says the level of success in any cooperative venture depends on how you do business. "A partnership is only as strong as the desire of the various parties to get along together," he says. "In these economic times, many of us will change our attitudes and not be so competitive or so selfish about our own needs. We'll all go haul that hay out of the field, for instance."

Maximize Pasture

Letting horses "harvest" forage by grazing is the most cost-efficient way to feed. "Subdividing pastures and using rotational or controlled grazing can greatly extend it," says Mowrey. "On a normal growth period in North Carolina, we have grazing for about 10 months by doing this. The cost of pasture is less than 1 cent per pound. Cost of hay right now in our region is 11 to 12 cents per pound for small square bales, depending on size, what kind of hay, and what time of year it is. A 45-pound square bale at $5 a bale is about 11 cents per pound. The 600-pound round bales selling at $35 per bale are about 5.8 cents per pound."

In some other areas of the country hay costs are much higher, especially with the addition of freight. Thus, it pays to extend grazing as much as possible. If you can manage your land more intensively, fertilize appropriately, and let horses harvest forage themselves (so that you're managing pastures for nutritional value rather than as turnout areas), this saves a lot of hay expense.

Ask your local extension specialists for advice on soil tests and fertilizing. "Fertilizer is expensive, so you need to fertilize at appropriate rate and at the proper time," says Coleman. "Make a plan. If it's not the optimum time to spread fertilizer, don't spend the money."

Horses are efficient harvesters. "Right now, cost of putting up a small rectangular bale of grass hay is between $3.50 and $4 per bale," says Mowrey. "If you mechanically harvest it, you also lose more nutrients."

Consider Options

You can also save money by pooling resources. "A young trainer starting out should consider working out of an existing barn," says Mowrey. "If a large farm has a hunter operation, a Western trainer might be able to lease 10 stalls from the hunter operation and pay a fee to have those stalls included in the management, cleaning, etc."

If a person wants to go into the boarding business, it might be wise to offer pasture boarding first, without such a tremendous investment in facilities. Then you could gradually build from there. Tailor your dreams and plans to fit the economic times until it becomes more feasible to expand.

There are dozens of little ways to save money, adding up to large savings in the long run. "Pay attention to catalog sales, advertising fliers, and coupons at the feed store," says Coleman. "If something you need comes up on sale, this is a better time to buy it. Some businesses are reducing inventory by lowering prices; if you shop around you might find things you can afford."

Sometimes financial crunches are also times of opportunity.

"It all comes down to having a plan, thinking about what you really need or don't need, and becoming a conscientious consumer," adds Coleman.

Freeman says a huge amount of money is spent on things that have no bearing on horses' health and well-being. "We buy many things to satisfy human desires," he notes. "When you decide to trim expenses, write down everything you purchase. In one column list things you buy for the health of your horse, and be honest about it."

In another column list things that only pertain to your interest with that horse. "This is the hard part to cut out, but most horsemen will realize these are not necessities," Freeman says.

Other ways to cut costs include figuring ways to keep your old equipment running, or you can buy used items if something new is out of your budget right now.

Reducing Travel Expense

Horse owners who go to shows and other competitions will consider traveling less, or they might have to choose events closer to home. "Now is the perfect time for local groups to generate more interest and activities, and to save fuel expenses," says Freeman. "The window of opportunity to participate in activities outside your normal competitive structure may be larger."

The main reason we compete and play with our horses is because we enjoy it. "If we restrict what we do with horses just because we've become accustomed to the competitive end of it and can no longer afford the travel involved, we need to realize there are alternatives, and other events besides those with a point structure, for people to get together and do things with horses," says Freeman. "A renewed interest in community horse events could be a lot of fun.

"I remember when local saddle clubs and weekend horse shows were the big activities," he says. "There's opportunity for increased community development of events, to redesign some of these things. Even if the expense of trying to be the national point leader is now out of our budget, we can figure out new ways to enjoy our horses.

"Reducing travel costs by sharing trailer space has been done in many sports for a long time--like barrel racers going to an event, taking their horses together," he adds. "This will obviously continue, but now you may see more trainers doing it too."

Take-Home Message

"Is it nice, or is it necessary?" is a saying to use when deciding on whether to buy something. There are ways to tighten your belt as a horse owner without giving up your horses or the fun times you have with them. Be innovative, and be honest about your expenditures. h

See article #13302 for more information about veterinary care on a budget.

About the Author

Heather Smith Thomas

Heather Smith Thomas ranches with her husband near Salmon, Idaho, raising cattle and a few horses. She has a B.A. in English and history from University of Puget Sound (1966). She has raised and trained horses for 50 years, and has been writing freelance articles and books nearly that long, publishing 20 books and more than 9,000 articles for horse and livestock publications. Some of her books include Understanding Equine Hoof Care, The Horse Conformation Handbook, Care and Management of Horses, Storey's Guide to Raising Horses and Storey's Guide to Training Horses. Besides having her own blog,, she writes a biweekly blog at that comes out on Tuesdays.

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