It’s hard to classify a horse as a “pet”. They check a lot of boxes for that classification, but in many regards they fall into a group of their own. It’s no secret they require a massive amount of time and energy, but I think it’s easy to forget that we have taken a species that would prefer to be outside grazing and molded them to fit our conveniences.
So what do we owe them?
Shelter and space
Whether you keep your horse stalled for a portion of the day, or they’re out in a pasture all day with a lean-to or other shed/run-in: it should be dry. It should protect them from the elements, and it should be safe and secure.
And conversely, but in the same thread, they need space. Living 24/7 in a stall isn’t a life – that’s called jail. It’s not keeping them safe (horses will still find ways to hurt themselves in a padded stall, it’s amazing). That’s not to say I don’t recognize situations in which a horse might not be able to be turned out, but if they can, do.
Confinement not only decreases bone density, but it does nothing good for their mental health. They need a space – a dry lot, an arena, a field, a round pen, SOMETHING – to stretch their legs, move around. Horses are migratory by nature, they are supposed to be spending their days moving and eating and moving and eating. Not everyone can provide an environment in which their horse can do that 24/7, but we owe it to them to try to give as much of that as we can.
Food and water
Okay this one is a no-brainer, right? Good, clean water – whether that’s inside or outside. That might mean breaking buckets or getting a heater for their buckets or trough outside. It means getting creative when hoses freeze or heaters break, and it means making extra trips out to the barn to re-fill buckets when it gets hotter than sin.
As far as food – back to the whole moving and eating deal – roughage. If they can be eating out in a field, great. When they’re in or there isn’t grass outside, then we owe them a balanced ration that works for the horse. If you have a hard-keeper, you owe it to them to try any and everything until you find the combination of feeds/roughage/supplements that keeps weight on them. If you’ve got a pony that gets fat on air, you owe it to them to watch what they eat and maybe invest in a grazing muzzle. Our horses don’t get to go shopping for their own food and they can’t tell us what they need, so it’s up to us to figure that out.
Regular Veterinary and Farrier care
Another no-brainer, right? Annual exams from the vet, teeth floating, vaccines, coggins, etc. to help maintain their health and catch any issues potentially before they become issues. Maybe more frequent visits if you’re actively working on an issue, or have a young horse with rapidly erupting teeth or a senior who needs more dental attention, a horse that is in gestation, things of that nature. Regular visit from the farrier because it is staggering how many problems in the horse start at their feet (and subsequently how much can be helped by the attention of a knowledgeable farrier).
So far, nothing really earth-shattering, right? Sounds like the basics for just about any other pet. Food, water, shelter, veterinary care – that’s the same thing that I provide for my dog in my home. But here’s where horses start to become their own category.
A job and a schedule
I don’t mean that every horse needs to be going out every weekend to a rated hunter/jumper show or a barrel race. I mean from a mental standpoint, you need to give your horse a job. Whether that is any variety of discipline under saddle or harness, or it’s as a therapy horse that does nothing but stand and get brushed, or it’s as a pasture puff whose only job is to eat grass and be pet. But they should have a job, and they should have interaction. Horses are social creatures, and us strange-looking horses are part of their herd.
My horse gets irate if I don’t see her every day – it doesn’t matter if we work or not; but there is a noticeable difference in her attitude if I have missed a day at the barn or not.
We dictate how they spend their day; and if we choose to not interact with them, choose not to let them go outside, choose not to give them a job, choose when they go outside, when they eat, when they work…you get the idea. Horses are also creatures of habit, and they get very accustomed to their schedule and can get very agitated when they are not kept on that schedule. We owe it to them to keep their schedule as much as we can.
We are in control of their existence, we owe them the best one we can provide.
When something happens with your dog or cat in an emergency-type situation, you throw them in the car and take them to the vet. Large animal care isn’t quite that cut and dry (of course there are situations in which that is 100% appropriate). But a lot of minor care is taken care of by owners/under the supervision of a vet, at the barn. Which means having the supplies and basic medications to take care of your horse. Having a robust first aid kit ensures you aren’t letting a small issue become a big disaster because you didn’t have the supplies on hand to take care of your horse.
This is the whole “time and energy” deal. Horses are intelligent, social creatures. They aren’t a cat that would prefer to spend its time alone, and might not even care if you’re home or not. Especially those horses who still have an active job, we owe them our time and our attention – even when it isn’t entirely convenient for us.
And we owe something to the people who take care of our horses for us.
If you have your horses on your property, ALL of the above fall on your shoulders.
But if you have your horse boarded (even at a self-care facility), a large portion of these items are taken care of, for you. At a self-care facility, you are feeding and/or cleaning the horse’s stall, maybe also turning out/bringing in, but the barn and its staff is still providing you the shelter, might be feeding, turning out, etc.
At a full-care facility, they are making sure your horse has food and water, a clean, dry stall/shelter, space, a schedule, they might hold for the farrier and vet (and might even make an appointment for the barn for regular care/maintenance), and they might even help with the preparedness category if they’ve got extra supplies in the barn.
Which means in that case, you just need to provide the job, the time, the attention for your horse. Still a lot of time and energy, but less. That’s why we pay board (and sometimes we pay a good chunk of change for board); because a boarding facility helps us provide our horses with the things we owe them.
But we also owe those barns.
We owe it to those barns to be respectful – to the barn manager(s), the staff, the other boarders and their horses. That means cleaning up after ourselves; being kind; helping when we see someone struggling with a horse, or a stuck door, or trying to sweep up a poop pile, or moving a heavy jump standard. If our horse destroys something in/owned by the barn, it means offering to replace it. It means paying board on time.
We owe it to follow the rules put in place by the barn – if that means putting jumps away after using them, or picking up if your horse has pooped, or wearing a helmet when mounted, or providing grain and pre-bagging it, or respecting barn hours/curfews, or whatever other rules the barn might have implemented. Trust me, if they have it as a rule/written in a boarding contract, it’s there for good reason.
Those boarding facilities are helping you provide for your horse; you owe it to them and the people that keep that barn running like a well-oiled machine (most days) to communicate with them, to follow their rules, to be respectful. The barn cannot do their job when you don’t do yours. If you don’t spend time with your horse or give them a job or attention; that is not the job of the barn. But it might make their job harder if that horse becomes fractious or anxious because it hasn’t had any attention.
If all this sounds overwhelming, then maybe horse ownership isn’t for you (and that’s okay – it isn’t for everyone and there are plenty of opportunities in this industry and sport without having to own a horse to participate).
The horse owners that I know that I get along best with have the same types of personality – they are hard-working, dedicated, passionate people whose horses have taken over their lives. They often put their horse’s needs above their own. Their horse will have new shoes and a chiropractor appointment while they shuffle around in duct-taped muck boots. They’ll be up before the sun to provide for their horse, or out to ride in the early morning hours before they go to work or class because that was the only time they had, but gosh darnit they had to get to the barn that day.
Personally, my horse has given me so much that I cannot even put it into words what she means to me, and how she has altered my life. So even when it’s inconvenient, even when the weather is junk, even when my bank account is strapped, even I don’t think I have the time, don’t I owe it to her to provide as much as I can for her?