We’ve all heard the saying “a horse is a horse,” but every horse owner knows that your horse is way more than just a horse! He’s your teammate, your soul mate, and your therapist. You love your horse, and you want to make sure he has everything he needs. But how, exactly, are you supposed to know how to take care of your horse?
Let’s start by acknowledging that every horse is unique, and there’s no “one size fits all” advice. That’s why we always recommend working with your veterinarian, farrier, trainer, barn manager, and/or other equine professionals when making any changes to your horse’s management program. That said, there are some general guidelines to keep in mind when evaluating your horse’s care.
Horses have a few basic needs for survival – water, food, companionship and a place to find shelter. Let’s look at each of these four areas of basic support a bit more in depth, to find ways to optimize them for your horse.
Basic Survival Needs for Horses
- Hydration is essential to your horse’s overall health and wellbeing. On average, horses drink 18-50 litres of water per day, so every horse should have access to clean, fresh water at all times. Your horse’s water source should be checked several times daily all year round – in the warmer months, your horse may drink more due to the heat; while in the coldest months, your horse’s water source may freeze over.
- If your horse is a poor drinker or heavy sweater, access to fresh, clean water alone may not be enough. For those horses, adding a daily electrolyte supplement is a smart way to replace salt and the other minerals lost in sweat, and help encourage your horse to drink.
- Horses have evolved over millions of years, and their bodies are adapted to a particular way of eating. Horses are known as “trickle feeders,” meaning they’re designed to constantly take in food throughout the day. (If it were up to him, your horse would spend roughly 17-20 hours every day grazing on forage!) Due to the scarcity of land with quality pasture, few domesticated horses have that luxury. So how can you make sure your horse is getting what he needs?
- The foundation of his diet must be forage. Your horse should be eating 1-2% of his body weight in forage every day (for a 450kg horse, that’s 4-9kg of hay or other roughage!). If your horse doesn’t have adequate access to fresh pasture, or has dietary restrictions that require you to limit his pasture intake, providing high quality hay is a great way to make sure he is meeting his forage requirements.
- If your horse is able to maintain healthy body condition and energy level on forage alone, you should consider adding a multi-vitamin supplement. However, not all pasture is certain to be complete and balance to begin with, and once it’s cut, dried, and stored as hay, the vitamins within degrade over time. A multi-vitamin supplement can help bridge the gap and ensure your horse is getting all the vitamins and minerals he needs.
- If your horse requires additional calories to power his performance and/or maintain a healthy weight and body condition, you may want to consider providing a fortified grain.
- Horses are herd animals, and they find great comfort being a part of a group. Balancing personality types in turnout can sometimes be a challenge, but your horse will be happier overall if he’s able to socialize with other horses and live as part of a herd.
- Horses are a hardy species. They cope well with both heat and cold by regulating their own body temperature. However, every horse needs a place where they can get away from the elements. Providing your horse with a safe and sturdy shelter will allow him to find shade and escape the heat of the summer sun, and find protection from harsh winter winds, snow or freezing rain.
- But it’s important to remember that “shelter” doesn’t necessarily mean a stall. While being bundled up in a clean, dry stall might seem preferable for you, your horse was built to roam, and spending too much time cooped up in a stall can be stressful in a number of ways. Increased stall time is proven to increase a horse’s risk of colic, and standing still for prolonged periods can be detrimental to long-term joint health. Do your best to maximize the amount of time your horse is able to spend in his turnout, and he’ll be much happier.
Now you know the basics you need to cover for your horse’s survival. But there’s a big difference between a horse who is merely surviving and a horse who is truly thriving. To help your horse thrive and reach his full potential, there are a few other areas you should consider.
- Maintaining a regular maintenance and wellness schedule with your horse’s veterinarian and farrier is essential. Your horse should have at least one wellness exam with your vet every year (two if he’s a senior!). Your vet can also help you set up a dental, vaccination, and deworming schedule that’s right for your horse. For optimal hoof health, you should work with your farrier to set up a consistent maintenance schedule – and then stick to it! By having a good working relationship with these two professionals, you’ll be able to better support your horse and help avoid future problems.
- When it comes to helping your horse thrive, supplements may be a key piece of the puzzle. Supplements can provide support in a variety of areas, from healthy hooves to resilient joints, and proper digestion to a shiny coat. But not every horse needs every supplement – horses are individuals and between nature and nurture, one horse may benefit from added support in key areas.
- Working with your horse one-on-one can be incredibly satisfying, but you don’t have to do everything alone. Working with a professional, reputable trainer can help make your time working with your horse safer, more productive, less stressful, and more fun for you both!