Owning your first pony is every child’s wish. It’s a dream that most of us have always had. You either outgrow it or grow into it. Perhaps you attended riding lessons and horsemanship training so you can become knowledgeable about horses.
When you have horses in your life, you won’t have regrets. However, you may have loads of questions. Any caring and responsible horse owner should ask questions as this is how we all learn.
For the past 10+ years, I’ve been the go-to person at the yard I manage. Newbie horse owners and some not-so newbies ask me about all things horse-related, from “why is my horse rubbing their tail on the wall” and “Why should I pick up my horse’s feet before I ride?” to “Why is my horse not listening to me when I ask something?”
Knowledge is power, so it’s about educating yourself to “do right by your horse.” The care and knowledge required to be an effective horse owner are what you’re after, so let’s dive into some basics in this horse ownership guide.
Read More: How to Get a Horse to Trust You
Background and History of Horse Ownership
While it seems silly to spell it out, horse ownership usually refers to when you own your horse. However, horse ownership is also used interchangeably with horsemanship, which is about being in partnership with your horse.
With the rise in a more gentle ideology concerning horses that natural horsemanship has brought, some people prefer to be called horsemen or horsewomen instead of horse owners. After all, can you own a horse when you seek a partnership with them?
The reality is that you own your horse in terms of legal and financial implications.
Historically, horses have an economic value attached to them. In most countries, horses are still considered livestock, can be slaughtered for meat, and are the owner’s responsibility. There has been a set of hoofprints next to ours wherever humans have gone in history.
Horses have been used in agriculture, transportation, war, entertainment, and as recreational animals. With the advances in understanding the human psyche, we also understand the influence of a horse’s spirit on a human. Today, horses are used in therapy and equine-assisted counseling and for remedial purposes to help those with trauma, physical impairments, and autism. While horses are owned, they own us too.
What Horse Ownership Is Today
There are still horse owners today who only see a horse as a disposable commodity, and they will likely not be the ones reading up on horses. However, a growing number of horse owners are interested in learning, improving their bond with their horses, and developing into the best horse people they can be.
So, I define horse ownership as being responsible for your horse’s physical, emotional, and mental needs. Horse ownership is about keeping your horse safe, training them to be safe for others to be around, and ensuring your horse is well socialized so they will be safe to handle.
Being a horse owner is not the same as being a horse rider. There are many different disciplines within the horse world today, and not all of these involve the horse being ridden. Horse ownership may include horses that are ridden, used for carriage driving, working at liberty, and used as therapy horses.
So, this article won’t focus on the aspects of ridden work or training for riding. Instead, I will focus on a few key aspects of horse ownership that will help you become the best horse owner you can be while still building a powerful bond with your equine partner. Also, look for the horse ownership checklist to help you tick off what you’re doing right and find what you’re not (yet).
Common Problems and Solutions With Horse Ownership
I was wondering how I would start to explain the nerve-wracking first few weeks of owning your horse, but I came up empty. How does one articulate to someone who doesn’t understand (yet) what a rollercoaster horse ownership is?
That’s when I found my photo album of my first year as a horse owner. From being run over and sustaining a painful kick to being bitten and a tack bill that far exceeded my savings, I revisited the awe and pain of owning my first horse.
I had a rough start with horse ownership. I didn’t have anyone experienced enough to teach me, and I had found a patch of land at a local wedding venue where I kept my two new horses. Nobody else was there who could have helped me. But I was determined to learn, and I began to read widely while also joining a local riding group (since I couldn’t even ride at this point).
There were a few common problems I had created for myself back then, and I’ve seen this with other new horse owners over the years. Here are a few pointers on issues that you may have found in your horse ownership:
- Hooves – Your horse needs a farrier to trim its feet every 6-8 weeks to ensure the horse’s hooves are balanced.
- Skin Conditions – If your horse develops scabby skin, bald patches, starts rubbing or has bumps all over their skin, you need to consult with your local vet for treatment. The causes could be ticks, insect bites, allergies, vitamin deficiency, bacterial infection, etc.
- Take a photo of the horse’s skin, send it to your vet, and ask what treatment is recommended, or ask the other horse owners at your facility whether the condition is related to an indigenous element like ticks, flies, or mosquitoes. People who’ve been in the area long term will usually have a good treatment idea for you.
- Teeth – Your horse will need to have its teeth floated and balanced every six months when under 10 years of age. After the age of 10, they will need the dentist once a year. It may seem costly, but a horse with bad teeth will be difficult to ride and will cost much more in feed to keep them fat.
Read More: Best Horse Feeds for Older Horses
- Routine Medical Care – All horses require medical care to rule out and prevent disease. Deworming your horse is essential (whether you rely on a schedule as prescribed by your vet or use a fecal count to determine when it’s necessary). Depending on your area, vaccinations should be given against diseases such as West Nile virus, equine flu, tetanus, and many more.
- Exercise – In modern stabling facilities, horses have limited turn-out time. Most horses don’t get the kind of exercise they really need. A horse that doesn’t move enough will start having health concerns like tying up, colic, and phleg legs. If your horse isn’t getting enough time to roll and run and be a horse, it can also become mentally maladjusted.
Take your horse out every chance you get. Whether riding, walking in hand, lunging them in the round pen, or schooling in the arena, your horse will enjoy their time with you and the opportunity to move.
Tack and Tack Care
Saddles and Bridles
Your horse can only offer a good riding experience when its saddle and bridle fit correctly. Since you probably don’t have the experience when you start in horse ownership, it’s worth it to get a qualified saddle fitter to check your saddle and help you choose a different saddle if your saddle no longer fits your horse. These professionals can also help you choose a bridle that fits your horse correctly.
Remember your horse’s body shape changes due to age (younger or older), level of work, injuries, weight loss, weight gain, and bone degeneration. With these changes, it’s virtually impossible for a horse to still use the same saddle they did as a three-year-old when they are now 18 years old.
Depending on where you live, your horse may require a stable blanket or turn-out blanket to help them maintain body heat during harsh winters. Ensure the blanket you select for your horse is clean and dry when you fit it.
If your area experiences a lot of rain and your horse is out in it during the day (and hopefully stabled at night), you should have a stable blanket and two turn-out blankets to put one of the turn-out blankets in the dryer for the next day.
Whether you ride in a bit, bitless, or with nothing at all, your horse’s mouth is a sensitive part of their body and needs to be respected. A bit should fit them well. Be sure to insert the first digit of your pinkie finger on either side of the horse’s mouth when the bit is in (between the bit and the horse’s mouth).
The bit should make 1½-2 soft wrinkles at the corners of the horse’s mouth for snaffle bits. Pelham bits should barely wrinkle the mouth. Curbed bits need to fit correctly, with the curb chain rotated to flatten the chain links, then fitted so you can fit two fingers between the chain and the horse’s jaw or chin.
The pad between the horse’s saddle and their body is as important as the saddle. Ensure it is clean and free of thorns or grass seeds that may irritate the horse when they are saddled. If you have more than one horse that you ride, take care not to share the saddle pads between horses as this can transfer skin disease and parasites.
Likely, your saddle, bridle, blankets, and other horse-related tack costs quite a bit. Therefore, you should clean these frequently. Use a high-quality saddle soap and saddle oil if your equipment is leather or an approved cleaner if your equipment is synthetic.
When cleaning your tack, check the buckles and straps for wear. Having your stirrup leather snap mid-canter can be an unnerving experience. Avoid such a potentially dangerous incident by checking all straps of your tack for damage. Never risk riding in faulty equipment, and immediately replace broken, frayed, or cracked stirrup leathers, girths, billets, reins, or bridles.
Your horse will require a lot of hay every day and night. Horses have sensitive digestive systems and need to consume roughage for all the parts of the day when they aren’t running or sleeping.
What you think maybe a large quantity of hay in your horse’s stable is probably not enough. The only real test is to check their hay rack the next morning—if there is still a little bit of hay left, your horse had enough hay for the night.
Ensure hay is always fresh and free of dangerous weeds. Only buy hay from a local reputable hay dealer. Asking local horse owners where they source their hay is a safe way to get the right hay.
I encourage horse owners to do the sniff test before feeding their horses hay—if the hay smells like bread or sour, it’s gone moldy and was exposed to water. This hay is off and needs to be thrown out (where the horses can’t access it). Moldy hay will cause respiratory disease in horses.
Since horses easily dehydrate, you should ensure there is enough water in the horse’s stable at night and in their enclosure during the day. The stable will require a water bucket that holds at least 10-15 gallons. If your horse drinks a lot, then place two buckets for a total of 20-30 gallons.
Horses need a deep enough bed to provide comfort while not being so deep to damaged tendons. Some horses like to lay down in their stables at night. A deep enough bed will make this more comfortable for them and reduce the risk of slipping when they get up. A good bedding depth is a minimum of six inches.
For horses, safe bedding material includes straw, sawdust flakes, shredded paper, wood pellets, coconut mesh, and seed shells (though shells aren’t as absorbent as other bedding types).
The stable is an enclosed space, and your horse will be closed in there, so make sure they are safe. Is there fire equipment at the stables? Are all fittings and furnishings in the stable correctly secured? If you have a locker in the stable or hang a hay net, are you sure these won’t come off the wall if your horse pushes or pulls at them?
Finding the Right Horse
Another common problem is finding the right horse for you. Horses aren’t like motorbikes that you can simply test-drive and exactly know what you are getting. You need to be very clear about what kind of horse you need, what you intend to do with them, and whether you have the skills to manage them.
If I’m looking for a school pony for my three-year-old, I certainly won’t go for a 17-hand thoroughbred straight off the track. Instead, I’d go for a gentle older Welsh cob or a semi-retired schoolmaster who will patiently guide my young child in the art of riding.
Not all horses are suited to all riding purposes. While a horse may be built correctly to be a national rodeo horse, it doesn’t mean they have the heart for it. Many horses don’t enjoy jumping, so buying a leggy horse and forcing it to jump won’t make an Olympic jumper. Instead, you would end up with a sour horse who gets naughty when you step into the saddle.
If you are new to horses, take a knowledgeable horsey friend with you to help you choose a horse when you are ready to make a purchase. Hopefully, they will give you a better idea of what the horse “feels” like when they ride and what they think the horse would be suited to (or if it’s suited for you).
Best Tips for Good Horse Ownership
Feeding – Too Much or Too Little
Most new horse owners believe that their horse eats nothing (but grass) or that they need to eat a bucket of sweet feed daily. It almost seems like there’s no middle ground.
Sadly, the salespeople at feed shops don’t seem to be much help either. They hear a horse is skinny, so they prescribe a 16% protein feed (and a helluva lot of naughtiness) at a hefty 4.5 pounds a day! If only they had asked, they would have discovered the “skinny” horse is well-built for a 14 hands pony.
Advice: Ask the previous owner of your horse what they fed, how much, and how often. Also, ask them what feed your horse doesn’t do well on, as this can help you avoid long-term issues if you ever have to switch feeds.
If the horse you’ve bought has received no feed and comes straight off a ranch where it lived on the land, you may start feeding it a “cooling” feed that is around 10-11% protein at 20 ounces per serving. Should the horse need a little conditioning and be slightly underweight, you can rather feed this ration three times a day for the first month. Only increase this feed when the horse shows they aren’t becoming “reactive” to the feed.
Horses don’t do well on sugars. Many sweet feeds contain molasses, which can make a horse naughty. Some feeds are high in grains like maize and oats, making them hyperactive.
It’s like feeding your kids bags of sweets and then wanting to shout at them when they climb the walls in your house at 3 a.m. A horse with too much sugar and carbohydrates in its diet will not be able to listen to you or communicate effectively.
Read More: Can Horses Eat Watermelons
Routine – Start, Rinse, and Repeat
Horses are animals that thrive on routine. Be consistent in how you are around them and what you expect every day. I encourage new owners to start with a good grooming routine. Picking up the horse’s feet is an integral part of this. Many horses aren’t happy for their new owners to do this, so it’s a learning school.
A grooming routine is the beginning of the communication process, and it’s also the first step in responsible horse ownership. Use grooming to check for injuries, bruises, and your horse’s general well-being.
When a horse is new and hasn’t settled in at the ranch, barn, or yard where you are keeping them, it is important to be very specific in how you apply a routine. Feed at the same time, brush and groom every day, and take them for walks on the same trail for a couple of days before you head out on a different trail.
Advice: Routine is the horse owner’s friend. It helps you to focus on getting stuff done that needs doing. Working through a routine each day you are with your horse will help you tick off what a horse owner should do every time they’re with their horse.
Outcome – What You Put In, You Get Out
It’s a simple law of life. What you put into something, you will eventually get out. If you don’t put in time with your horse, you won’t get the type of horse you wanted. I’ve seen perfectly trained horses become problem horses due to neglect.
Owners try to hide behind excuses, saying, “But he/she knows what to do; I don’t understand why they’re not doing it.” I encourage owners to be consistent like any good parent should be. If you decide your horse is not supposed to push you out of their way, you should take action to discourage that kind of behavior EVERY time.
Likewise, if you treat your horse with aggression, you will reap aggression. Go after your horse in the round pen with a whip and an attitude, and it’ll be no surprise if your horse turns to go after you. Work your horse calmly, and they will react calmly.
Input determines the outcome. The best Olympic quality horses have received hours of training, care, appropriate rest, and careful bonding to help them achieve their potential. Your horse can also reach their potential, but it’s up to you as the owner to help that happen.
Advice: People are forgetful, and while you may think it’s only been two weeks that you haven’t “done anything” with your horse because work is crazy, you may find when you keep a daily record of what you do that it’s been months. Keep a horse record chart. It’s a simple document where you record what you’ve done with your horse each day you see them.
Note the training you engaged in, changes in their bodies you noticed while grooming, or what you feed and when. The more detail you add, the better you can keep yourself accountable to be responsible for the outcome of your horse.
Pride – Ask and Learn
Pride is a huge problem that some horse owners have. They don’t want to admit they don’t know about something since it will dent their ego or damage their pride. If you’re not sure how to treat ticks or what injections your horse should get, ask other horse owners at the yard you’re at, or speak to your vet. Never assume to know.
In terms of seeking a mentor to help you learn about horses and your horse, I advise you to look at the horses at the yard or barn you’re using. Which horses are friendly to work with, calm, and well-mannered? These horses need not be the best at jumping or racing. Instead, look for a nice overall horse that’s willing, sweet, and full of a naturally curious character. This horse’s owner is doing it right. They would be the ideal mentor for you.
Advice: Start by observing the people around you. Note how they are with their horses. A good horse owner will be calm, organized, unafraid of their horse, and have a natural interaction with their horse that speaks of a good ownership bond. Beware of horse owners who shout, hit, or rush their horses. These owners are driven by what their horse can give them, caring little for their horse’s well-being.
Having a knowledgeable person who you can see is good with their horse to help you if you have questions is invaluable. And if there’s nobody at your stabling facility or ranch who can help you, then opt for online resources like horse communities where you can ask your questions without fear and get valuable answers.
Horse Ownership Guide: Final Thoughts
Horse ownership may be one of the most fulfilling commitments you will ever make. Winston Churchill said, “There’s something good about the outside of a horse that’s good for the inside of a man.” Be a responsible horse owner; invest your money and your time, effort, and commitment to being the best possible horse owner.
Keep an eye on the basics like feeding, grooming, vet care, exercise, training, and socializing your horse. A horse is worth every cent and every minute you spend on them.