You probably need no lessons on how to cut your everyday horse-care costs. As mandatory enrollees in The School of Struggling Economy, that's something we've all had to learn in the last few years. Many of us even have become A students in the subjects of scrimping, saving, and getting by. We could write term papers about buying bulk, giving shots on our own, and making old things last.
But there's one thing guaranteed to flunk just about anyone's carefully studied horsekeeping budget, and that's the unexpected big vet bill for a horse that's injured or ill. A single emergency farm call can run into hundreds, and ongoing crisis-care costs can come to resemble student loans-large, with lots of zeroes, and daunting, in terms of what it'll take to pay them off.
Once your horse incurs a need for emergency treatment, there’s not a lot you can do to control its expense. But there’s plenty you can do in the name of vet-bill prevention, which is where the real savings lie. Money you don’t have to spend—on farm calls, x-rays, suturing, bandaging, medications, and more—is money you get to keep and use for something else. And let’s face it: The pain of a large vet bill is an even bigger ouch when you look back and realize you could have avoided the situation that brought it on.
This makes it well worth your while to enact simple, preventive changes to your everyday horse care and management routines. Here are 21 flashcard ways to go about it.
It Only Takes One Bad Step
In many cases, equine accident prevention begins from the ground up—literally. To proactively keep big vet bills at bay, pay attention to the surface areas your horses find themselves on.
1. Never be nice to ice. Untreated icy spots—around water troughs, atop concrete walkways, or any other surfaces your horses tread—can bring on a serious vet bill (perhaps even a fatal fracture) after a horse’s feet go out from under him and he crashes hard to the ground. Use a non-toxic ice-melting product where needed. Never lead a horse, especially one that’s shod, over an icy surface. If you must do so—in a winter emergency, let’s say—boost traction with sand or gravel.
2. Pick the poopsicles. Frozen manure balls, left uncleaned from corrals and pens, are just like egg-sized rocks. If your horse strides down onto just one of them, his sole can be bruised so badly that it abscesses, and that’d mean a call to your vet and farrier alike. Don’t leave those iceballs lying around.
3. When in doubt, don't turn out. A recent study showed more injuries to horses during turnout time than when under saddle. If your turnout area’s footing is frozen solid, bogged with mud, or slick from recent rain or snow, the safest way to manage his risk and yours is to keep your horse in until conditions improve.
4. Take good care of your training ground. Sure, it takes time to keep your arena or other training ground in good condition, but which would you rather do—work the arena, or pay the bills to treat a splint, bowed tendon, or pulled ligament?
5. Protect the horse, not the shelf. Protective boots and wraps don’t do a thing for your horse if you don’t bother to put them on. And remember: When you do use them, for riding, turn-outs, and hauling, you’re protecting your wallet as well as the horse.
Stalls, corrals, paddocks, and pastures—all are erected as necessary means of keeping horses safely behind a barrier. Yet all are capable of bringing on an injury if neglected or poorly made, and virtually all need maintenance at some point.
6. Designate a barn hammer. A single protruding nail or screw end, left for a horse to brush against, can slice his flesh open like a box cutter. Instead of meaning to fix a problem (whenever you get around to locating a hammer missing in action), take care of it right away with the hammer you keep at hand for that purpose. Then put it back in its designated place.
7. Walk the line. Horses are hard on manmade fixtures, and can set up their own accident traps if you’re not looking. Make it a habit to inspect every fence line or other enclosure, including stall walls, on a regular basis. Take your toolbelt with you.
8. Shake hands with the fence posts. Your fencing’s only as good as the integrity of the posts, and to avoid vet bills, you want to find and fix the small problems before they add up to a full-on fencing failure that lets your horses escape to mayhem and injury. As you walk each fence line, grab and try to tug each post top back and forth. If you can move it, a horse can, too, and that’s not good. Reset, retamp, or replace, and do it right away.
9. Leave no metal T-post uncapped. The bare-metal top of a T-post can spear a horse if he runs into it or happens to rear and come down on top of it. Head gory wounds off at the pass by using protective vinyl T-post caps, readily available online or at your nearest farm/ranch store.
10. Eliminate leg traps. Anything with a four-inch opening is capable of ensnaring a horse if he puts a foot through it and can’t get it back out. Common culprits include certain types of woven or welded fencing designed for sheep or cattle; gaps beneath stall doors that trap a leg after a horse lies down; and the V-shaped, fetlock-snagging spaces formed when some styles of portable metal fencing panels are pinned together. If you can’t make something safer, replace it. (Visit panelcaps.net to see photos of panel-fencing dangers, and a product designed to eliminate them.)
11. Check every gate fastener, every time. A gate’s fastener is to a fence’s security as a cinch strap is to security of a saddle—as soon as it breaks or is left undone, a wreck is sure to happen. (Picture your escaped horse running loose down a highway.) You’ve been taught to double-check your cinch before every ride. Now, teach yourself to double-check the fastener on any gate, stall, or trailer door, before you walk away.
Colic: Stand Guard
After old age, colic is the leading cause of death in horses over 30 days of age, and treating it is expensive. Treatment of a non-surgical colic can run into hundreds, and according to the American Association of Equine Practitioners, the cost of colic surgery now exceeds $4,000 in most cases. The good news: You can prevent many colics with savvy management.
12. Beware known risks. AAEP names the following as known colic risk factors: stall confinement with gastric ulceration, ileal compaction from coastal Bermuda hay, and cribbing with recurrent colic and strangulation of the small intestine. So it follows that the more you can do to manage away from these risks, the less colic cost you’re likely to incur.
13. Provide plenty of clean, convenient water. Your horse's greatest need for water is right after he eats, and ready access to fresh drinking water is key to prevention of colic caused by feed impaction. Inspect and top off each horse’s water supply at each daily feeding time. If you rely on a large tank or natural water source, such as a pond, make sure the water hasn’t frozen, gone bad, or run out.
14. Restock feedstuffs before running out. The equine digestive system doesn’t take kindly to abrupt feeding changes of any kind. If you feed a special grain mix, always reorder far enough ahead to keep the supply steady. Likewise, bring a new hay supply in early enough that you can make a gradual changeover from the hay you’re feeding now.
15. Get a barometer (and be a weather watching in general). Though science has yet to explain why, vets and owners alike have noted that colic incidence tends to go up with big swings in barometric pressure—such as might occur with the onset of a storm. Keep a close eye on your horses whenever a steep barometric climb or plunge takes place, so you can nip any suspected colic in the bud.
16. Get your vet involved early in a suspected colic. Contradictory as it may seem, the sooner you get your vet involved in helping you with a colic case, the better your horse’s chances of survival and the more money you could save. It’s always better to spend a little at the start than a lot after it’s too late, and the longer your horse goes without expert treatment, the worse his colic is likely to get.
Prevent Feed Wrecks
Is it possible to have a feeding accident? Absolutely—just ask the owner of the horse that broke into the grain bin and gorged himself, or the person who lost a horse to an episode of choke, even after spending over $1,000 on emergency vet care.
17. Horse-proof the grain supply. Keep your grain supply behind a closed door or in a bin you can lock and that a horse can’t tip over. (This rules out the idea of storing your grain in an aisleway garbage can.)
18. Consider soaking pelleted feeds before feeding. If your horse is one that bolts his feed, or if he’s dentally challenged due to old age, feeding him dry pellets is risky. Should he gulp a mouthful without chewing it well, the dry mass could lodge in his esophagus and cause choke—always a veterinary emergency.
19. Keep herd dynamics in mind. Any time you feed horses in a group, some kind of pecking-order squabbling is sure to take place. You can do much to reduce costly kick injuries by keeping feed piles well spread out, with no tight corners where a low-ranked horse can’t get away from an aggressor.
20. Don't overfeed anything. Beyond the matter of letting your horse get too fat, overfeeding can push him into the vet-bill danger zone in lots of ways. Give too much high-energy sweet feed, for example, and he can hurt himself during an over-exuberant turnout. Feed certain nutrients in excess, and you can find yourself fighting a case of orthopedic disease.
21. Be careful with grass. As spring approaches and grass resumes growth, limit your horse’s initial access to no more than 10 to 15 minutes of grazing a day. The high volume of sugars in new grass can trigger a metabolic emergency, such as acute-onset laminitis, and some horses are more prone to it than others. Save by playing it safe.