If you are new to country living and are just beginning to look for a horse, it is probably time to take a long and honest look at yourself first. Have you any history or experience with horses outside of books and rental stable adventures? If answered no, then let me introduce you to owning a horse 101.
No, you don’t have to be John Wayne to have a horse. But you do have to be able to walk up to a big old horse in a brave manner and take charge of the animal even when the animal will not appear to be in favor of having someone take charge of it. This is easy when you have people around you in the barn, but many folks will tell you that it is very different when it is just you and the horse all alone on your property for the first couple of days after its purchase. You have to be able to act the part of a brave, knowledgeable horse person even when you don’t particularly feel like one. If you can do this, fine. You will generally be able to fool the horse into believing that you are to be obeyed. Horses are fond of company and not terribly judgmental.
The most important point to capture from this owning a horse 101 guide is that a horse needs constant care. Do you have a history of starting projects and then losing interest? A horse will take time every day. It will take time first thing in the morning when you want to either get to work or get another cup of coffee to relax with. It will take time in the evening when you want nothing more than to get inside and put your feet up and relax. The horse will need a source of clean, fresh drinking water. It will need more water in the winter than it does in the summer. That means a freeze-free source of water.
It is not fair to the horse to just toss it out in a field with a creek in it and leave it. It will not make the horse a better animal to have or to handle. The horse needs, and you need, to bring it into the barn at least once a day and handle it. Groom it, feed it a bit of grain or hay, pick out its hooves and see to its general welfare even if you don’t intend to ride it. If you find you are not cut out for horse ownership, do yourself and the horse a favor and sell it. Neglect is the worst thing that can happen to a horse.
Do you have the actual cash flow that it will take to care for a horse? The purchase price is the least of a horse’s yearly costs. They eat a lot, constantly. Pasture alone is generally not enough. Even if the field is nice and green it may not have the nutrients that the horse needs to maintain itself in a healthy manner. Even with good pasture, a horse will still need hay in the winter on a daily basis. If your pasture is less than the best, you will need to feed hay year round. Depending on how often you ride, you may need to feed grain as well. Hay is expensive these days and feed prices are rising. Buckets alone are expensive and they have not made a horse-proof bucket yet despite space-age technology.
Farriers are expensive and have to be budgeted at the very least every eight weeks and preferably every six weeks to avoid common horse hoof problems. Vets are not cheap either and must come to inoculate your horse against disease at least once a year. You will probably see your bet much more often, especially at the beginning of your horse-human relationship. Horses will also need to be dewormed several times a year. It might be a good thing to talk to a local large animal vet before you buy a horse, to get a handle on the costs of veterinary care in your area.
On a horse equipment list, you’ll find saddles, bridles and such. This tack can be either terribly expensive or awfully cheap. Terribly expensive show tack is probably a waste of money if you will only be trail riding. Awfully cheap tack can cost you your life even if you only ride in the pasture. Cheap tack is not worth sitting on. It is not made to fit the horse or the rider and can actually prevent you from getting a good ride instead of helping you to get one.
Probably the best thing that a beginning rider can do is to buy a really good quality used saddle. The price of a good quality used saddle will equal the price of a brand new badly made cheap saddle. The used well-made saddle is a better bargain. It is already “broke in” which is a good thing, and it will make you a better rider in the long run because it will help you to sit properly. It is imperative to buy a saddle that fits you as well as the horse.
One of the saddest sights around is a heavy rider sitting in a saddle that is too small for them. Saddles are made up to 17 and 18-inch seats in both English and Western styles, so there is no excuse for riding in a saddle that does not fit. It is fine to ride if you are a big person but buy a saddle that will fit you. If you do not get a saddle that is big enough for your seat you will make your horse’s back sore and wind up creating severe health and discipline problems in the horse. The sore-backed horse will generally rebel sooner or later.
One of the most necessary expenses that you will face is the riding helmet. Get a good one. Brain damage is often irreversible and should not be accepted as a possible side effect of a trail ride. It is wonderful to ride with the wind blowing through your hair until something happens. Protect your head with the proper headgear; it is an intelligent decision. Never, under any circumstances, allow a child to ride without a properly fitted riding helmet and don’t do it yourself.
People worry about disciplining a horse; there are many books written about proper horse discipline. Often the horse’s owner needs to worry about disciplining themselves more than the horse—a little honesty with yourself at the outset of your relationship will go a long way toward making both you and the horse happier later.
I hope this owning a horse 101 guide helps you evaluate whether horse ownership is right for you. Once you decide you’ve got what it takes to be a horse owner, visit this buying a horse checklist for guidance through the process.
Are you looking to buy a horse? What steps do you need to take to ready yourself and your property?
Originally published in Countryside November / December 2002 and regularly vetted for accuracy.