Essential Guide to Basic Horse Care
Whether your horse is the most expensive thoroughbred money can buy, or a humble child’s pony, basic care must include six essential elements; food, shelter, care of the feet, care of the teeth, regular worming to prevent internal parasites, and overall care of the body by brushing.
Horses have small stomachs, so if a large grassy paddock is not available, they need to be fed at the very least twice a day, or even three or four times a day, with small, nourishing feeds.
These feeds are called ‘hard feeds’ and consist of a large proportion of hay or ‘chaff’ (cut hay), some nourishing energy food, such as oats, wheat or barley, and some mineral additives.
The grass, chaff or hay, is the roughage—or dietary fiber—and contains essential calcium, and keeps the horse’s stomach constantly digesting, as it is designed to do. This needs to be the largest proportion of the horse’s feed.
Most hay and chaff is graded into ‘prime’ (100% Lucerne) and ‘mixed,’ which can be a 50% – 80% mixture of Lucerne and a ‘grassy’ hay or chaff. The high sugar content in pure Lucerne can sometimes be too rich—other than for racehorses, who need a lot of energy. For the majority of horses, a mixed Lucerne hay or chaff is advisable, providing an adequate level of energy, without the horse becoming hot and frisky.
A mineral supplement is also required, and there are many products available which contain these additives. These minerals are required in small amounts in the horse’s diet. They include minerals such as copper, iodine, iron, manganese, selenium, zinc, and salt.
The grain, or ‘pelleted feed’ contains phosphorus, and a balance of this and the above elements is essential for a healthy horse.
Most importantly, a single horse can drink about 45 liters per day, so there must always be a continual source of fresh, clean water.
Make friends with your feed supplier, and they will advise on all matters relating to your horse’s nourishment, according to its size, age, and workload.
It is best to keep a horse in a large paddock, preferably with at least one paddock mate, as horses are a social species. In a large grassy paddock, horses can graze all day, which is a natural activity for them.
Many horses grow long coats during winter, and in general, have efficient temperature regulation. But, if the horse’s movement is restricted, as in a small area or stable, then rugging may be necessary during extremely cold weather. There must also always be shelter, such as trees, or a man-made shelter, to shield them from the summer sun.
If rugs become soaked from being on a horse in the rain and are taken off, they must be dry before they are put back on. It is best in those circumstances to have a spare rug to use.
Stable and paddock maintenance are necessary to keep your horse happy and healthy, such as picking up manure and removing wet bedding from a stable. Horses forced to stand in wet straw or sawdust will develop unhealthy hooves, in addition to being smelly and creating an unpleasant environment for both horses and humans.
There is a saying ‘No hoof, no horse.’
The care of the horse’s hooves is not a luxury, but a regular, non-negotiable part of horse care.
The horse’s hooves should be lifted daily, and always before being asked to work, to check for anything which might affect normal movement. A stone, a piece of wire, or a nail stuck in the sole of the hoof can cause great pain and lameness, so this duty should never be overlooked.
Every six to seven weeks the hooves will need trimming and/or rebalancing, and this work should be done by a highly trained equine podiatrist or a farrier. Without this work done, the horse will eventually not be able to walk properly. Some horses’ hooves grow evenly, but others do not, and regular trimming will ensure that whatever type of hooves your horse has, they will be fit to carry the horse.
The horse’s teeth also need regular checks—once every six months.
If a horse starts dropping its feed when eating or loses weight by not eating properly, it is possible the teeth need attention.
Horses do not have the same kind of nerves in the teeth as humans, so the teeth can be filed without too much discomfort. Horses’ teeth continue to grow until they grow out, hence the term ‘long in the tooth’ meaning a horse of advanced years.
A professional veterinarian or qualified equine dentist will assess the teeth, and make sure that any ‘hooks’ (sharp edges) are not cutting into the sides of the horse’s mouth and causing mouth ulcers. Sometimes untended and irregular teeth can cause a horse to become very difficult to ride, uncooperative, and even dangerous and unpredictable, all because his mouth is causing him pain when the bit is used by the rider or driver.
To worm a horse is an easy task these days.
Most worming compounds can be bought in an easy syringe-like tube so that the correct amount—decided by the weight and size of the horse—can be dispensed directly into the mouth.
Some horses object to this, so there are also tablets which can be slipped into a piece of bread, or hidden in a carrot. Whichever method is chosen, this should be done approximately every eight weeks, especially if there are many horses sharing a small space.
Horses love to be brushed.
Brushing helps to get rid of mud, dust and loose hair; exfoliate the coat during molting; promote the natural oils in the coat which in turn gives it a shine, and helps you and your horse to bond through the necessary contact.
A daily once-over brush also helps to detect any blemishes or abrasions which might need attention and keeps the mane and tail untangled, so that they may be used as intended, to swish freely, to keep flies away and to protect the head and neck.
Horses are a willing and trusting species, and if cared for kindly, regularly and properly, will want to please, and be happy to do as they are asked. They are creatures of routine, and once the care routine is established, they will relax and be content in your care.
If your horse shows unusual or sudden signs of discomfort, always call your veterinarian immediately. Regular care, observation, and action can prevent something more serious, and much more expensive.
Guest Author: Gabrielle Fast
Gabrielle has a lifetime of experience with horses, both as an owner and a teacher. Now retired from full-time work, Gabrielle shares her life with her 29-year-old thoroughbred Hal, and her dog Skippy, and rides regularly, including trips to the beach in summer.