In My Backyard? Is keeping a horse at home right for you?
By Lydia Kelly
As more people move to the outskirts of town, many consider keeping horses at home. With a country home and a few acres of land childhood dreams of having a horse of their own no longer seem unattainable. But, what does it take to keep a horse at home?
To begin with, you need to consider where you would keep the horse. Do you have an old barn? Is it suited for horses? What about space for the horse to graze?
Older barns can often be converted into horse-suitable buildings. While dairy stanchions are not safe for horses, many barns have an open floor plan or pre-built stalls. Stalls should be large enough for a horse to easily turn around in, about 10’x10’ for the average horse. Barn ceilings should be at least 8’ high. Some barns are more easily converted into run-in sheds which can be left open to the paddock or closed by a gate to keep the horses in.
If you do not have a barn, you will need to build a shelter. This can range from a simple two or three sided run-in shelter to a mini barn with stalls for the horses, space for keeping equipment, and a lockable room for storing feed.
When selecting grazing land, you should consider that the horse will need access to water at all times. While a stream or a pond might seem like a good idea, horses quickly damage the banks and muddy the drinking water. When winter comes natural water sources freeze and can’t be used.
The best solution is to place a water trough where it can easily be reached by a hose. Relatively inexpensive, a trough combined with an electrical trough heater will keep the water drinkable all year long. Adding a few feeder goldfish will keep the mosquito population under control, reducing the risk of West Nile.
Unless you intend to supplement with hay, each horse requires an average of 2 acres of grazing land. Because horses can be very hard on the paddocks, the grazing space should be separated into two areas that can be rotated to allow the grass to recover.
If your farm is already fenced it is essential to check the perimeter of the grazing space for places where the fencing needs repair. Barbed wire is never recommended for horses. Metal “T” posts are dangerous, and should have plastic caps added to avoid injury. Page wire is safe enough, but is best with a top rail or an electric wire to prevent the horses from reaching over it. Split rail fencing can be used, but most old-style split rail fences are not tall enough or solid enough to deter a horse from escaping.
When choosing new fencing, take time to consider the variety of horse safe fencing materials available. While some are more expensive, they often outlast the cheaper alternatives. A fence for horses should be at least 4’ high.
Over the summer months horses can often manage on grass alone. However, once the grass thins it is important to add hay. Hay can be purchased in many types of bales. Round bales are ideal for feeding in the pasture, but are hard to move without a tractor. Large square bales are also difficult to move, but can have flakes peeled off and fed individually. Small square bales also come in flakes and are easy to manage.
Hay should be stored indoors, whether in the barn or in a shelter. Small square bales mold easily when allowed to get wet. Large round bales can be stored outside if necessary, but the outer layers will be spoiled.
Some horses need additional feed to maintain their weight. Grain for horses can be purchased at the local feed mill by the bag. To store grain you should keep it indoors, out of the reach of horses. If a horse gets into a bag of grain it can become very sick and need medical attention.
Not all hay or grain is suited to horses and could cause health issues. Be sure to specify it is for horses when purchasing feed. Horses should never be fed moldy hay.
When planning storage, be sure to leave space to store bedding. The most common types of bedding are shavings, which can be bought in bags or in bulk and straw, which is sold in bales.
Stalls should be cleaned daily and run-in shelters should be cleaned at least once a week. Manure needs to be stored in a place where it will not contaminate any water sources.
Like any other pet, horses require regular veterinary care. Annual vaccinations such as Rabies, Tetanus and the West Nile are due in the spring. The vet should also check the horse’s teeth once a year to file away any sharp points that prevent the horse from eating properly. Quarterly worming will keep the horse parasite-free.
Additionally, the horse will require attention from the farrier every six to eight weeks. If the feet are left too long they will crack or overgrow and the horse will become lame. Some horses require shoes, but most are quite happy when left barefoot.
Horses are herd animals. While some horses will manage when kept alone, most prefer to have some form of companionship. A second horse, pony or miniature is ideal, but horses will often accept other animals such as donkeys or goats. Another idea is to keep a friend’s horse at your farm, sharing both expenses and responsibilities for the animals.
Perhaps the most important part about having a horse at home is the time you spend with it. Horses are social animals and very much enjoy the attention we humans give them. Taking the time to groom your horse several times a week develops a bond that not only is enjoyable, but also makes the horse a safer, more reliable animal to be around.
Having a horse at home is a lot of work. Between feeding, cleaning stalls and grooming, most horse owners spend at least an hour a day at the barn. The horse relies on its owner 365 days a year. It does not understand the difference between a holiday and any other day of the week.
But, having a horse at home is also rewarding. There is nothing quite like the sound of hooves galloping to the gate to arrive on time for afternoon feed. Morning coffee is far more enjoyable when savored while watching the horses play in the field. And when life gets you down, nothing is as relaxing as spending an hour brushing your horse.
Horse keeping is not for everyone, but neither is it beyond the ability of the average person. Ask many questions and take the time to plan and perhaps you too can have a horse at home.