Part 1 – The Horse Itself
I have a different attitude about horse-keeping than a lot of people. I don’t glamorize it or romanticize it. A lot of people relate to a horse as if it’s a symbol of freedom and majesty, and it certainly is, but the truth is that horse-keeping is like having a 1,200-pound dog with its own unique set of problems and challenges.
I have ridden horses since I was a kid. My parents never allowed me to own one. It was much too easy to just go over to the local farmer and borrow the horses that lived there. Maybe my folks knew something but they never shared it. It wasn’t until I was fully grown that I came to own my first horse. Now I’ve been in the “business of horses” for more than 30 years. I've bought and sold horses, taken all the natural horsemanship clinics that I could afford, and I’ve done it all on a shoestring budget. Maybe being on a shoestring budget is what helped me form my perspective. If you’ve got deep pockets and can have someone else take care of your horse, you usually don’t learn much about horses.
Horse ownership in the best of all possible worlds should be a hands-on proposition. For example, when my daughter was in Pony Club years ago, one thing they expected was that we got to know our horse’s bodies extremely well. Sometimes the littlest change can spell big trouble for a horse, and, if you don't know what it's supposed to look like, you won't be sure if you have a problem. One time we did not notice a tiny cut on our pony’s hock. Because the pony lived out on a big pasture it was too late when we finally noticed. The pony had quickly developed a terrible infection from an imperceptible wound, and it had to be euthanized.
Of course, if you can afford to have someone else be responsible for your horse, you would hope that the person will take enough care to notice small things before they get too big. However, I have found that no one takes care of your critters better than you will.
Horses are expensive. If something goes wrong you can’t pop it into the car and take it to the vet. The vet usually has to come to you, which is a farm or ranch call and you have to pay for the privilege. Some people say that the purchase price of the horse is the least of your expense. Before you commit to the purchase you will most likely want to have a vet check the horse out thoroughly. This will set you back about $300 to $500. I have gone all the way through the vet check only to have the vet pick up the last leg and the horse trots out lame. So unless you can find a horse from your 100-percent completely trustworthy neighbors, you should factor in the cost of pre-purchase exams. Probably multiple ones because the advertisement will not mention it has parrot-mouth, sarcoid tumors, stringhalt or curb!
Say you find your perfect horse and he checks out fine. There’s regular farrier work if you shoe or trim. Horses' feet grow, and you’ll have to do something about that every six to eight weeks. Most farriers charge $100 to $150 for each visit. Vaccinations and worming haven't gotten cheaper over the years.
Horses can get into all sorts of trouble. You think you might have checked every single inch of your pasture – and you will – but the next time you go out there, you will have found that your horse has stepped on a nail and is walking around three-legged lame.
Don’t get me wrong. All these things I’ve mentioned so far are totally handle-able, but if you don’t know before you commit, it will come as a big surprise, and then you have an animal that is not that easy to get rid of and is a hay burner to boot. Especially if you live in an area that doesn’t have pasture and you have to feed during the winter.
Which brings me to ... if you have an easy keeper – one that gets fat on little forage – you’ll have to have a system to keep it from eating too much. Being fat is another problem for a horse. They can get a condition known as “founder” where their hoof wall begins to separate from the underlying bone. It can be severe or mild, but once you have it it’s something you have to constantly keep a watch on. Keeping weight off an easy keeper is tough especially if you don’t have time to exercise it every day. Just like a person: What keeps fat off is diet and exercise. So you’ll need a stall and a bare dirt – not mud – paddock where the horse can move around. In Thomas McGuane’s great short story “Some Horses,” he writes that if God had a chance to redesign the horse He would. A horse has miles of unsupported gut, and a horse that stands around and can’t move like nature intended is at risk for getting a small or huge belly ache called “colic.” Sometimes colic can be mild and is only annoying because you have to walk it out and have the vet manually evacuate the bowels. Other times colic can be severe because the bowels got twisted internally, and then it’s a trip to the veterinary surgeon, and thousands of dollars later you have your animal back but now he’s more likely to colic again.
Once your horse gets a condition it’s really hard to sell. If you are an ethical person – and I’m assuming you are – you will have to mention the fact when you go to sell your horse. Many people will not want to get into a horse that has had a serious problem.
Part 2 - You
Many people are not emotionally or mentally prepared for horse ownership. Most people can get emotionally and mentally prepared to own a horse if they’ll take the time to learn. If you’re willing to be the right person to own a horse you can be. It’s all about attitude. If you’re lucky enough to get one of those horses we say is worth their weight in gold because it is sound and has no behavior issues, it will be extremely rare. If you were an owner of such a critter, would you want to sell it? People who have a good horse keep it. Most horses on the market are some kind of “project.”
If you’re a beginner, never, ever buy a young horse (a horse under 8 to 10 years of age). They just need too much guidance that a beginner can't supply. As a matter of fact, I believe if you are a beginner the way to start getting an understanding about how you are with a horse is to lease one. But lessee beware! I once was going to lease a horse. The owner and I went through a lot of talking and discussing. Near the very end the owner finally revealed to me, “I think you are the right person for Cougar but let me tell you that if he starts backing toward a cliff he will back himself right over if you’re not careful.” I walked away from that one.
If you are physically fit and a calm person, then you have a headstart on being the right kind of person to own a horse. People who are nervous should only own a very calm horse. Horses don’t sense fear per se, but they do sense the physical language of a person. Think about it. How do horses communicate with each other? It’s by body posture mostly. They only communicate vocally when they are saying, "where are you?" or "hey howdy, I’ve missed you." All those horses running and whinnying in the movies is just the sound track for effect. When a horse is in pasture, first they give each other a look, then it’s a position of the ear, then it’s the butt turning in, and if the other horse doesn’t get the message, it’s a carefully placed kick or strike.
So your body posture will communicate volumes to a horse. You won’t even know it unless you’re super sensitive. So many horses are purchased by beginners where the horses are calm and submissive at the owner's place and when you get the horse home it turns into something completely different. This is not because horses are evil and ornery. This is because they sense you’re not a leader, and they want to see if you are worthy of respect. They’re saying, “Let me test you.” This is why I say sponsor or lease a horse before you commit to ownership to get experience of how you are around a horse and where you might need to change before you jump in the deep end.
I love horses. I will always have them in my world. I like the challenge they present in handling them, taking care of them and riding them. It’s endless subject matter for learning so if you like to learn new things that’s a very good quality to have.
The only thing I could think of that might make horse ownership seem like a piece of cake is owning an elephant. I wonder what a person who has elephants would say about owning one. I wager that if you’ve already owned elephants you’ll think owning horses is easy. If you have – go for it! If you haven’t, I hope you take my advice. I want you to be safe and to enjoy yourself because when everything is right, it’s the most wonderful experience.