By Peter Fenton BVM&S, MRCVS
Taking on a horse for the first time can be a big task but if you’ve considered the effort and the costs that go into keeping a horse then you may end up with a great companion to work with, play with and to relax with.
The initial cost of purchasing a horse varies a lot depending on what type of animal you buy and what its intended work is, and can quickly become insignificant when you start to look into the costs of keeping a horse over its lifetime. The cost of livery (stabling your horse) in addition to regular farrier visits, routine vet costs, dentistry costs, insurance, wormers etc has been shown to add up to between £5,000 and £7,000 per year for a diy stable yard and over £10,000 per year for a full livery yard. Given that horses are generally living into their early 30’s then this can represent a significant amount of money. Owners often choose to keep their horse on a DIY scheme which reduces the costs of keeping the horse but also means that that they have the entire responsibility of looking after their horse.
If you decide to go ahead with purchasing a horse or pony then it is a good idea to insure it. This may get you out of making difficult decisions based on cost if your horse has an accident and needs surgery or other expensive treatment. Vets bills can quickly add up if your horse becomes sick so insuring your horse for vets fees will help towards these mounting costs, especially as medicine improves and more advanced procedures are possible.
Horses need access to some form of contained shelter at the very least so that they can be put in if they ever need to be put on box rest for veterinary reasons or very adverse weather conditions mean it is not fair to leave them out, this can include bright sunshine if the horse is pale skinned and to try to avoid flies. They also need plenty of space to have a good run around and are naturally herd animals and will exhibit more normal behaviour if kept with other horses. Horses should not be stood in deep mud for any length of time, especially horses with white ‘socks’ as the delicate skin underneath can easily become infected – this is known as ‘mud rash’ or ‘mud fever’.
Horses need to be wormed regularly to prevent the build up of intestinal worms. These worms can cause severe disease, weight loss and death. Your vet is the best person to advise you on when and how to worm your horse as each horse is different. You can cut down on the amount of wormers that you need to use by doing regular worm egg counts. Your vet can use your horse’s droppings to estimate how heavy your horse’s worm burden is and then tailor your worming plan accordingly. This targeted approach to parasite control is now the preferred method over routine treatments.
Horses require regular attention from the farrier, this is approximately every 6-8 weeks in most cases. Even if your horse does not require shoes it will need regular trimming and your farrier will be able advise you on good foot health. Feet should be picked out on at least a daily basis to ensure that no stones become stuck and to prevent the sole of the foot becoming infected and smelly.
Routine Veterinary Attention
All horses and ponies should be vaccinated against Tetanus. It is an incurable disease that is caused by an organism that is everywhere in the environment, particularly outside. Horses require an initial course of 3 vaccines over the first year, then a booster vaccine is given every two years. In addition, horses can be vaccinated against other diseases such as equine influenza (‘Flu) and ‘Strangles’. Your vet will be able to help you decide whether your horse is at high risk of any of these diseases and therefore whether these additional vaccines are necessary.
Annual Health Checks are a good way of picking up any changes in management that can be changed in order to improve your horse’s health and welfare. Your vet will be able to do these for you at the same time as your annual vaccinations.
Horses should have their teeth checked annually by either a vet or an ‘EDT’ (Equine Dental Technician). Horses’ teeth are designed for rough grazing and they have not yet adapted to the more domestic setting of lush grazing and bucket feeds. They do not use their full range of movement when chewing and can develop sharp points on the sides of their teeth. These can ulcerate the inside of the cheek or the sides of the tongue long before any abnormalities such as quidding (dropping partially chewed food out of the mouth) are seen. Horses and ponies start to lose their baby teeth at around 2 years old and continue to change them until around the age of 5 . It is advisable to check youngsters teeth regularly to ensure that the new adult teeth are growing correctly (and to get them used to wearing the specialist equipment which is needed to allow the mouth to be examined). There is now a great range of dental treatments that can be given to horses and a full yearly examination like our 6 monthly examinations should be given to check for disease or injury.
A large number of horses that we see on a daily basis are now obese. Horses can put weight on very easily as their bodies are designed in a way that they do not need to eat large quantities of nutritious feed or lush grass. They are also designed to run for long periods of the day so if the horse is not exercised regularly it will quickly become fat. Being overweight leads to all sorts of problems; as well as being prone to life threatening diseases such as laminitis your horse will also find day to day life a struggle and is less likely to be able to perform the work that you need it to do. Your vet will be able to advise you on how to maintain your horse at a healthy weight.
Youngsters and horses that have an ‘unknown’ background should only be taken on by experienced horse owners. If youngsters are not handled in a very consistent way they can easily become either very scared or very dangerous, no matter how small the pony is. Horses that have an unknown background may have been maltreated in the past and may be very unpredictable. Leave them to the experts!
If you have not been put off and are still keen to go ahead and purchase your first horse then the first step is to get your potential new horse examined before you hand over your money. Your vet will give the horse a very thorough pre purchase examination which will include testing the heart and lungs, ensuring that there is no evidence of lameness, and making sure that the horse is appropriate for what you intend to do with it (from being a field companion to being an international Three Day Eventer!). The examination also gives you some legal protection in case the vendor has medicated the horse so that you can recoup your costs from them. The benefits of getting a horse vetted far outweigh the financial costs involved and although you may still be struck with bad luck, with the full Pre Purchase Examination you will have done all you can to ensure you buy a well matched, healthy companion or competition animal.