Horse Care 101: The Basics of How to Look After Horses

The question of how to look after a horse can feel like a daunting one. Of course, appointing yourself responsible for any living creature is an arduous task, but there is no denying that horses in particular require a lot of care. They eat a lot and have specific dietary requirements, require regular exercise, have special health needs that need to be attended to, and are in need of any number of factors of care that are essential for keeping them in good health.

This can seem overwhelming, and yet it would be a shame to let these prerequisites overwhelm your love for horses. They are fantastic companions, and more than worth the effort of keeping them happy and healthy.

With that in mind, let’s take a broad sweep over everything you need to know to own a horse in terms of basic horse maintenance and what goes into caring for these magnificent creatures.

The Basics of Horse Care

So, let’s start with a little horse care 101 in terms of the raw basics of what horses need.

To begin with, you need to make sure that your horse has plenty of space in which to roam. This area should have plenty of grass, because horses graze throughout the day. Sure, you can take them out on the dusty desert trail as well, but if you plan on keeping horses in a space long-term, you need to either make sure that they have an open grassy pasture in which to roam and feed or else a stable that is well-stocked with edibles. Ideally, you should be able to provide your horse with both.

Additionally, you’ll need to make sure that your horse’s pasture does not have any hazards such as rusty or loose wire laying about or in the fencing surrounding them. In addition, you’ll want to make sure that they cannot eat any plastic bottles or other debris that may be dangerous for them to eat.

You also need to make sure that your horse has plenty of water. Even if they aren’t hitting the open trail with you or roaming on their own, horses need a lot of water, and you’ll want to make sure they have a fresh, bacteria-free and, if necessary, heated supply at the ready.

Finally, horses are social animals. You are bound to be their best friend, but you have your own life, and after all, best friends don’t abandon one another. That’s why, if possible, you should consider making sure your horse has a companion. Whether this is another horse, donkey, mule, pony, or similar animal will depend on your own situation. If this is not possible, try to make sure you visit your horse often and, if you keep them in a rented-out stable, make sure they are regularly attended to by friendly staff or housed with other horses who can keep them company.

Food Requirements

As alluded to above, you need to make sure your horse has a good amount of good-quality hay. One reason hay is so good for horses relates to the previous question of greener pastures – if you keep horses in dusty, grass-free areas, hay is an essential grass substitute. You’ll need to make sure that the hay in question is not dusty or moldy. As with most foods, hay has a limited shelf life, and the longer you leave it the greater the chance it could go bad, so feed fresh hay to your horse sooner rather than later.

You’ll also want to make sure that you pay attention to how much hay you feed your horse. Too much and it will start to grow fat, too little and it will become scrawny. Horses usually eat 10 to 20 lbs per day, roughly 1.5% to 3% of their body weight assuming an average weight of 1000 lbs. If you have a breed that is heavier or lighter, or a young foal, you’ll need to adjust the amount of hay, grass, and other food you need to feed it accordingly.

Yes – do feed your horse more than grass and hay. You wouldn’t want to eat the same thing every day, and neither will they. A selection of grains and nuts can be a nice way to mix things up. Horses love fruits and veggies as treats – apples, carrots, grapes, bananas, strawberries, melons, celery, and pumpkin rank among their favorites. Horses can eat smaller pieces whole, and will chew what you give them, but for larger offerings especially such as apples and carrots, you’ll want to cut the treat up into pieces before feeding it to them. An occasional bit of peppermint or a few sugar cubes are also okay.

On the flip side, tomatoes, cabbage, onions, potatoes, and Brussels sprouts are not good ideas. One of the major reasons for this is that all of these foods – and Brussel sprouts in particular – can produce gastrointestinal distress. How so? Well, if you have ever eaten Brussels sprouts, you know they can leave a bit, ahem, “gassy” – now imagine that for a horse! That isn’t a pretty picture for you, the horse, or anyone “downwind,” and doesn’t bode well for your horse’s gastrointestinal health either.

One final note – horses like chocolate, but it can be confused for substances that are deemed performance enhancers for horses in competitions. If you plan on riding your horse in competition, therefore, you should refrain from feeding your horse chocolate during or before competitions.

Taking Your Horse to the Farrier and Shoeing Requirements

No part of your horse’s body is more important to their health and happiness than their hooves. If you do not clean, trim, or take care of them properly, you may well find yourself needing to take more drastic action, or else your horse’s hooves could start to grow irregularly, become irritated, or otherwise suffer severe pain.

Instead, you need to take your horse to a farrier. These craftsmen are expertly trained to trim horse’s hooves and fit horseshoes to the bottom of them so perfectly that they fit as well as, well, a foot in a shoe. You know from your own experience how important it is for a shoe to be not too loose or too tight but just right, and the same goes for your horse.

Farrier sessions typically begin with the farrier evaluating your horse’s hooves, taking a close look at them from the front, back, and side angles. They will then have your horse walk a bit to see how the hooves hit the ground so they can note any unevenness or signs of discomfort. Once they have done this, they will be ready to trim your horse’s hooves accordingly. This can be done in several ways, including:

  • Trimming the hoof in such a fashion as to create a “straight hoof-pastern axis,” which refers to an imaginary straight line, viewed laterally, which runs from the center of your horse’s fetlock through its pastern
  • Trimming the hoof by using the wider part of the foot as a reference point
  • Trimming the palmar foot (your horse’s heels) to be even with the base of the foot

Deworming Your Horse

You definitely don’t want worms to burrow into and bother your horse, which means taking the time to deworm them yourself or take them to a deworming specialist. If you take the former route, there are a few basic things you’ll want to keep in mind.

First, you need to make sure that you aren’t giving your horse too little in the way of deworming treatments. To accurately gauge how much you should be doing and giving them in the way of any medications necessary, you’ll need to use weight tapes or scales to get their weight and use that as a basis for your dosing, as different treatments will have different weight-to-dose ratios.

While it isn’t anyone’s favorite part of horse ownership, checking fecal egg counts can also be an essential way of checking the need for deworming among not just your horses but any other animal you own who may have been exposed to them. These fecal egg counts from samples can typically be checked in labs via your veterinarian.

You’ll also want to make sure that you temper your treatments with the temperature and weather itself. Some parasites flourish in summer, others in winter, and you need to know what you’re potentially dealing with before dosing your horse correctly.

Worming pastes typically last six to eight weeks, but you’ll want to check your particular treatment to make sure you know their effectiveness period. In addition, you need to keep track of treatment periods so you know when the next dose should be.

If you do think your horse has worms, do not allow them to come into contact with other animals.

Young foals, especially those younger than three years old, can be especially susceptible to worms, so be sure to be extra careful with them. Among the most important horse care facts for deworming – both young horses and horses with diminished immune systems (that is, horses that are pregnant, on steroids, or suffer from immunodeficiency due to medical conditions) are especially vulnerable and thus should be treated with extra caution.

Other Horse Health Essentials

There are many other important things to check with respect to your horse’s health. That said, even more important than these health essentials is the essential fact that you must check your horse’s health regularly. A lapse in care can lead your horse to develop serious conditions with lasting consequences.

A few things you should monitor every day include:

  • How much your horse is eating. If it is starting to become chubby, you may be overfeeding it. On the other hand, if it is normally a good eater and has started to not finish its meals or seem hungry at all, that’s usually a telltale sign something’s wrong.
  • How much water it is consuming. Five to 10 gallons being a baseline average for healthy consumption.
  • How much “waste” the horse “produces,” and its “consistency.”
  • Any abrasions, bumps, scrapes, or other signs of physical injury.
  • Runny nose or watery or otherwise discolored eyes.
  • The integrity of its hooves. Check for any signs of cracks or irritation. Bad smelling hooves can also be a sign of an infection.

Other health factors you should monitor regularly include its temperature, respiratory ability, and pulse. Obviously, if you notice your horse starting to struggle, chances are it needs help of some kind.

With that in mind, what do you need to take care of a horse? In addition to everything mentioned so far, you need to make sure you have a horse caretaking kit, which should include:

  • Stretchable self-stick bandages to treat any minor wounds
  • Easy-to-use horse thermometers
  • Scissors for any light trimming you may need to do
  • Cotton, gauze, wraps, and other basic first aid equipment
  • Oxide cream to protect against sunburns and exposure
  • Antiseptic and Epsom salts for infections

Having a Proper Horse Veterinarian

Finally, as you can see, even the healthiest of horses are bound to have a wide degree of health needs, and while you obviously want to treat your horse as much as possible, there are some things you likely cannot handle. In any case, even the healthiest of horses need routine medical attention to ensure that they stay that way. This means finding a trained veterinarian who is specially trained in treating horses. Don’t just assume that any vet can handle a horse, as this is a specialty discipline, so refine your searches for veterinarian horses accordingly.

Taking care of a horse properly is a costly and arduous process. It also has the potential to be one of the most rewarding experiences of your life. Horses are incredibly energetic and loyal creatures, and deserve the best care and attention we can give them. By paying strict attention to these rules, making sure you have the basics on hand to treat your horse, and taking them to specialists such as farriers and horse veterinarians as needed, you and your horse can enjoy many happy years together.