by Scott Thomson
I recently received a thoughtful note from a couple near Las Cruces who are loyal readers of Desert Exposure and this column. They represented the kind of profile I often see: one person with horse experience, the other a true beginner.
What intrigued me about their questions was their desire to get an objective picture of what it means to have a horse. They understand my thoughts on the basics of learning how to ride correctly, finding the right horse, and their responsibility to learn and practice good horsemanship. I've written about these topics over the years, but never about all the other "stuff" one needs to consider with such a big decision.
I applaud anyone taking a pragmatic approach to a decision like this, a decision often driven by emotion or some romantic notion. It is much harder to get out of horses these days than it is to get into them, and for no other reason than this it is wise to think through a step that becomes a major part of your daily life. Feed stores are filled with "for sale" flyers and online shopping sites tell you there are literally thousands of horses for sale (or worse, "free to a good home"), and virtually any piece of equipment or tack you might need can be had for bargain prices. Every horse rescue in the country is filled to capacity as well. Basic economic theory of supply and demand tells you this kind of supply means there is very little demand.
Most major decisions we make in our lives that involve significant upfront costs and regular monthly expenses — buying a house, starting a business, buying a car, etc. — are made with some thought and planning, with an eye toward how can you get out of the commitment if you need to. Not that horses should be thought of as investments with some guaranteed liquidity should circumstances change. But current conditions say this is a decision you should think through. Ignoring reality can damage your bank account and, worse, may doom an animal that is dependent on you.
And, since horses get no vote in what happens to them, maybe better planning will help horses by slowing the overbreeding problem, ultimately balancing the supply and demand equation. It may also help us finally address the unwanted horse problem in a humane and thoughtful way.
Now, if you're born with the horse gene or have had it surgically implanted by a spouse or friend, the costs and time involved in having a horse don't even enter your mind. I know plenty of people who never add up that column on their spreadsheet. But, if you've never experienced it or it's been a long time since it was part of your life, it can come as a real shock.
Consider this quote: "You become responsible forever for what you have tamed." A horse is dependent on you for his well being, not only during the time you can ride him but also for the many years of life after that. Ask yourself whether you're willing (or are able) to support and care for this animal for life. For many of us, we'll ride off into the sunset before our horses will. Are you willing to put something in your will that provides for the horse and is clear about your wishes, and will your family and heirs honor this? Our rescues and sanctuaries are filled with horses that had loving owners who didn't plan for this.
I bring this up because nothing infuriates me more than a comment I hear way too often from people with a horse that is past his riding prime: "We don't want to pay for something we can't use." As if the horse is a vehicle that can't be driven so you scrap it and cancel your insurance. This is a living thing with no choice in his life. What do you think happens to horses that people "get rid of"? A horse is a long-term commitment and relationship. Accept that and plan accordingly.
Besides the cost of the horse, there are certainly a lot of upfront costs that need to be considered. Do you have a truck and trailer? Given fire danger here, with a horse on your property you may need to evacuate, having the right vehicles is important. Also, most people can't ride off their property, so trailering becomes a necessity, as it does for emergency trips to the vet as well. You need to have good quality basic tack that fits you and your horse — saddles, pads, etc. — but fortunately this equipment lasts a long time with care, and the market is flooded with good quality used equipment. There is basic barn equipment you need — water tubs, muck buckets, manure forks, etc., seemingly inexpensive until you add up the total.
How about space? Do you have enough for the horse to move around? Can you provide some shelter? Horses can deal with a lot, but our wind, heavy rain and hail will cause most horses to look for shelter. They especially want shade from our intense sun.
A critical safety component for your horse is fencing, so you need to determine if you can fence your property with quality horse-friendly fencing — not barbed wire, the ultimate cruelty for horses — that will keep your horses on your property. With horses on your property, you need to have a manure management plan for the health of your horse and to keep you from having a house full of flies. And can you live with a dust bowl on your property after your horse eats every scrap of vegetation?
Surprisingly, it isn't the upfront costs that shock most people. It's the ongoing costs that make you nervous in a soft economy or when you're living on a fixed income. I've been tracking the monthly costs of our horses for years, and I tell people you should plan on $300-400 per month per horse. This may not be every month, but if you add up everything for a year and divide by 12, that's about what you'll get. At $20-plus per bale and feeding the prescribed amount, your hay alone will be $150 or more per month per horse. Add in hoof care, basic vet care, supplements and all the other bits and bobs over the course of a year and you'll hit these kinds of numbers. That's $4,000-plus per year per horse. If your horse has special needs or a serious health issue, or you need training help or take lessons, the amounts rise accordingly. These numbers don't change much with an older or retired horse.
Obviously, if you're in a boarding situation, these numbers will be different (probably higher). Most boarding covers only feed and clean up, but not any of the other costs of ownership.
You can't put a dollar amount on this, but ask yourself if you have the time for horses. I tracked the time involved for a recent ride, from the time we got up to feed the horses to the time we were back in the house for a late lunch. After all the loading and unloading, driving and barn chores, we had spent seven hours for a two-hour ride. And you thought golf takes most of the day! Horses aren't bicycles you drag out once a week — at least they shouldn't be — so if your life is filled with activities, then maybe you don't really have the time for an animal that needs daily care and attention for his health and well being.
If all this sounds like too much, there are plenty of other ways to get your horse fix. You can volunteer at a rescue, maybe sponsor a favorite horse. You can take riding vacations; we've done them all over the world and they're a blast. You can ride out into the Gila with a local outfitter. Maybe take a riding lesson on a regular basis. You might even find a lease situation that gives access to a horse a couple of days a week without the weight of ownership. I've even done mini clinics or presentations for small groups who just want to learn more about horses but not own them.
Don't give up if your horse dream doesn't align with your budget or circumstances. Having an equine friend is special. A little planning can make it happen, and keep it a joy and not a burden.
Scott Thomson lives in Silver City and teaches natural horsemanship
and foundation training. You can contact him
at firstname.lastname@example.org or (575) 388-1830.