By Nancy S. Loving, DVM
From the great website The Horse.
Initial purchase price is usually the more affordable aspect of horse ownership; feed, stabling, health care, and equipment costs add up.
It has often been said that owning a horse is akin to digging a deep hole in the backyard and throwing in large sums of money, never to be seen again. Horse-crazy people, however, might say, “So what? What does it matter how much it costs as long as I have my horse?”
Because for many the dream of horse ownership is not to be denied, let’s take a look at what it really costs to own a horse besides the initial purchase price. How much an owner is willing to spend to support this “habit” varies, of course, depending on the equestrian sport she pursues, her geographic locale, and whether she keeps the horse on her home farm or boards him.
The American Horse Council’s (AHC) 2005 Economic Study “dispelled the misperception that the horse industry is an activity only for wealthy individuals.” Study results indicated only 28% of horse owners have an annual household income of more than $100,000; nearly half earn $25,000-75,000; and 34% earn less than $50,000.
Aside from stabling costs, the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) estimates that the minimum annual cost of owning a healthy horse is $2,500. The Communication Alliance to Network Thoroughbred Ex-Racehorses (CANTER), a nonprofit organization that rehomes these retired athletes, places this figure at $3,600.
He Eats Like a Horse
Someone new to horses might think the horse, being a vegetarian “hay burner,” couldn’t possibly have an expensive diet. Grass is free, right? But considering most adult horses consume at least 1.5-2.5% of their body weight each day, depending on performance level, this can mean a lot of forage–and in many cases more than what a pasture could provide.
“I encourage owners to budget (to feed) at least 1.5% of each horse’s body weight per day in hay–less if using hay feeders that reduce waste; more if hay is thrown on the ground,” says Julie Wilson, DVM, Dipl. ACVIM, of Turner Wilson Equine Consulting LLC, in Stillwater, Minn. “For a 1,000-pound horse, this averages just over 2.7 tons annually.” Hay costs $4-11 per bale but with the current drought in many areas of the southwestern United States, hay is reported as high as $25/bale. (For current hay prices per ton visit: www.ams.usda.gov/-mnreports/lswfeedseed.pdf.)
Wilson remarks that pregnant mares, growing foals, and special needs horses, such as those with metabolic syndrome, geriatric problems, and bad teeth, require individualized care that amplifies dietary expenses.
Other nutritional expenses accumulate when horses require calories to supplement forage; these animals might consume complete feeds and/or grain mixes at the rate of 2 to 10 pounds per day. According to Fernanda Camargo, DVM, PhD, assistant professor of Animal Sciences at the University of Kentucky, pre-mixed pellets/grain feeds cost $6-15 per 50-pound bag. Thus, a horse fed 3 pounds daily of concentrate feed goes through a bag every two weeks, costing $12-30 per month. Supplementing fat for added calories is another expense, which varies depending on the product used (e.g., vegetable oil or rice bran).
What goes into a horse’s mouth comes out as similar poundage in the form of manure, which requires disposal in some practical way. Krishona Martinson, PhD, equine specialist at the University of Minnesota, notes that a 1,000-pound horse excretes 50 pounds of manure and urine each day. Some owners spread manure on fields after composting (expenses of which include building a compost bin or facility, as well as investing in equipment to stack, turn, and then spread large compost piles). Another option, dumpsters, can run $55-238, per load depending on the dumpster’s size and how often it is emptied. Or, owners can hire a company to haul manure off-site at least once or twice annually. Martinson notes one outfit that quotes $150 per 20-square-yard load, whereas other businesses estimate it costs $100-300 per horse per year for manure removal.
Sure, an owner won’t need to buy as much hay if he or she houses a horse on pasture, and Martinson notes that maintaining pasture forage costs just a third of what hay does. However, in the pasture-kept horse scenario, other expenses can mount. Camargo sums up the situation: “First, it takes money to purchase property (plus taxes and insurances) where you can turn horses out on pasture. Then it needs to be made horse-livable, if not already–this includes safe fencing. If you don’t have sufficient pasture for year-round forage, you’ll have to supplement hay. This means needing a hay storage shed. Depending on the size of your operation and stocking rate, you’ll likely need a tractor for mowing and reseeding pastures and for manure management.”
In many climes horses also need shelter, which can range from a run-in shed to a full-scale barn. These buildings and structures add a category of expenses. “A barn with stalls needs cleaning, which adds in time demands as well as expenses for bedding and disposal,” Camargo adds. “And, you may want to build a riding ¬area.”
Besides the maintenance that comes with normal wear-and-tear on horse facility buildings, it’s important to keep in mind that fencing, paint, automatic watering systems, tank heaters to prevent water troughs from freezing, stall edge stripping and flooring, and tractors and other equipment all require constant upkeep. “Horses like to eat wood and lean on perimeters, so fence and stall boards need replacement,” Camargo explains. “In cold climates, waterers often freeze. During thaws, muddy areas require gravel, concrete, or repeated plantings of grass to reduce slippage and mess.”
Not everyone wants to, has the space, or can afford to keep a horse at home, in which case boarding is an attractive alternative. Monthly boarding fees vary considerably, depending on the facility, location, and services offered. Typical monthly board costs average $500 per horse, but they can range from $100 to upwards of $1,500. Some options are as basic as do-it-yourself pasture board, while others are full-service facilities offering everything from farrier services to training.
“The advantages of a boarding facility include the availability of a riding arena, possible access to adjacent trails, and meeting new people,” reports Camargo. “There is always someone looking after your horse and doing daily chores.”
Health Care Needs
Hoof Care Horses’ hooves grow continually and, unless they’re left unshod and worn down by active movement on abrasive ground, they need frequent trims. “Maintaining balanced, healthy hooves is like keeping your vehicle tires in great condition,” explains Wilson. “Abnormal hoof balance or growth can be uncomfortable for the horse. Imbalances can impede the normal motion patterns of the lower limb and create undue torque on joints and ligaments, as well as unequal compression of hoof structures, bone, and cartilage. This can lead to tissue remodeling, such as development of collapsed heels, and may contribute to arthritis.” Managing these kinds of problems can be very expensive, but they generally can be avoided in the first place using regular foot care.
“Hooves grow more slowly in the winter and may only need trimming every eight to 10 weeks whereas in the summer six to eight weeks seems the norm,” says Wilson of typical trimming intervals. “I don’t advocate shoes for a horse that’s not working on surfaces that require hoof wall protection or traction.” Trimming costs typically run $30-75 per visit; shoeing costs $75-300.
Deworming “Because of reported parasite resistance to currently available antiparasite drugs, we now recommend an approach that treats each horse as an individual,” says Camargo on deworming regimens. Owners can have their veterinarians run a fecal analysis, which quantifies parasite eggs and helps establish which horses are low egg shedders and which are high. “Most horses are dewormed two to three times per year, and only those with high fecal egg counts receive treatment more often,” she adds.
Both Camargo and Wilson note that, initially, fecal exams are an added expense. But eventually, less-intensive parasite control treatment results in cost savings. “On larger farms, it may be worth segregating high shedders to a specific pasture for more intensive parasite management or pasture rotation with other species,” Wilson adds. She emphasizes that there are longer-term savings in health care costs if horses do not become infected with anthelmintic-resistant internal parasites.
Dental Care Regular dental care helps horses maximize nutrient use to maintain body condition and keeps their teeth useful into old age. Wilson urges owners to have every horse’s teeth checked annually and any issues corrected. This can cost around $250 per year, but might save money in the long run.
“Health issues such as tooth abscesses or cancer may be spotted before causing a bigger problem,” says Camargo. “Horses with healthy teeth chew better, resulting in less feed wastage and expense.” Proper mastication (chewing) also reduces the risk of colic or diarrhea. Removing sharp points from teeth can improve behavior, bit comfort, trainability, and ¬performance.
Vaccination A core group of immunizations protect against diseases considered deadly, transmissible to humans, or widespread: tetanus, Eastern and Western encephalitis, rabies and West Nile virus. The AAEP recommends vaccinating every horse against these annually.
Risk-based vaccine recommendations (protecting against influenza, rhinopneumonitis, strangles, Potomac horse fever, botulism, anthrax, equine viral arteritis, and rotavirus) vary according to the horse’s use, gender (i.e., with venereal diseases), and location. Competition horses that travel are at a higher risk of exposure to respiratory viruses and strangles. “Considering the axiom to rest a horse for one week for each degree of fever following an infection, coming down with a respiratory virus can certainly put a damper on a show or racing season,” says Wilson. “Due to the highly contagious nature of viruses, it can also shut down an entire barn.” Thus, it is cost-effective to boost respiratory vaccines twice yearly to avoid these bugs, associated performance losses, and veterinary expenses. Horse owners should consult their veterinarians about which diseases are prevalent in their region (and areas where they’ll travel) and vaccinate accordingly. In general, annual core vaccines and biannual respiratory viral vaccines run $100-140.
Coggins Testing Veterinarians use ELISA testing (historically referred to as a Coggins test) to check a horse for antibodies to the equine infectious anemia virus (EIA, see The Horse April issue), for which there is no vaccine. This virus, spread by biting flies, is similar to HIV in humans–once infected a horse remains a carrier for life and/or becomes extremely sick and dies. Owners of a horse testing positive for EIA must adhere to a strict quarantine protocol or have the horse euthanized. A Coggins test is inexpensive ($40-60) and provides assurance that horses traveling across state boundaries or arriving at barns or events do not carry this disease.
Musculoskeletal Health Another health aspect is the musculoskeletal system: Is the horse sound and comfortable? Older equine athletes might benefit from periodic joint injections to minimize inflammation from progressive degenerative joint disease; such treatments can run $400-700 once or twice a year.
Veterinarians observe that oral supplementation with nutraceuticals is becoming a common practice among owners. “I am not in favor of indiscriminate use of joint supplements as they are expensive and may not be needed,” Camargo remarks.
In a 2010 AAEP Convention Proceedings cost analysis study on osteoarthritis management, researchers determined owners’ annual joint therapy medical expenses could amount to $3,000; indirect annual medical expenses could be as high as $15,000. The most cost-effective treatment approach involves a thorough veterinary exam to obtain an accurate diagnosis.
Horse owners often gain a measure of financial relief by insuring a horse, particularly one that is valuable. While insurance costs vary according to breed, age, and use, here’s an example of how an insurance agent might calculate annual insurance fees (AgriRisk-Markel) for horses 1 to 15 years old based on the horse’s value: mortality insurance: 3-4%; loss of use: 3.85%; medical and surgical annual fee: $279-389 with $375 deductible per claim.
In addition to the insurance premium, Wilson says, “An insured horse is required to have an annual examination, so combining the examination with annual vaccinations and dental equilibration saves on (farm) call charges for owners on a tight budget.”
Tack and Equipment
Owning a horse implies the desire to ride; for that, a horse needs a well-fitting saddle and bridle along with equipment such as grooming tools, saddle pads, and protective boots. If you plan to travel off the property with your horse, you might need to invest in a truck and horse trailer, and prices for these vary widely depending on a rider’s desires and needs.
In cold climates a blanket becomes necessary for exercised horses working up a sweat, particularly if body clipped. Owners tend to blanket horses at temperatures below 20°F and/or in wet or windy conditions. Blanket prices range from $100-600; some horses need more than one design or weight to accommodate different environmental conditions or clipped coats.
There is an endless list of additional potential expenses that surpass a horse’s basic and preventive health needs. The only limitation on such investments (equipment, training, show fees) is the size of an owner’s pocketbook and imagination.
The cumulative daily expenses of horse ownership, which reach a minimum of $2,500-3,600 per year in addition to stabling, impact an owner’s disposable income significantly. Understanding anticipated expenses can help owners–especially new ones–budget efficiently and provide their horses with consistent and diligent care.