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Year-Round Health Plan for Your Horse

Daily grooming allows you to bond with your horse, but it's also a good way to tune into how he's feeling physically. Recognizing subtle changes can prevent big health problems.

Keeping a horse means a lifetime of learning, as we constantly explore better ways to provide a safe, healthy environment. Our goal is to nurture contentment and well-being so our horses can enjoy their lives while we enjoy them.

The first step is providing a proper living environment. Consider that, in the wild, horses will cover 50 miles or more a day. This is a far cry from the domestic lifestyle that has many of our horses standing in stalls all day with food literally right under their noses. You'll have to make special accommodations to keep an indoor horse fit and happy.

Exercise
The horse has a high athletic potential, but left to his own devices in a quiet area with plenty to eat, he won't exercise as much as he needs to. Horses kept outside move around more than those confined to stalls, but it's still not enough for optimal health.

Exercise is important for the health of your horse's joints, tendons, ligaments, muscles, heart, lungs, and feet. It also improves digestion. Maintaining a normal weight is often difficult without exercise. Horses and ponies are not supposed to be fat or have large, cresty necks-regardless of the breed. If you doubt it, do an Internet images search for your breed. You may be shocked.

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Ideally, a horse should have at least 20 to 30 minutes of formal exercise (no stops to socialize or graze) every day and spend as much time outside as possible. If you can't ride every day, try to at least longe your horse or work him in a round pen. If you don't follow a regular exercise plan, don't expect the horse to be fit for everything you might want to do, whenever you want to do it. Like all athletes, horses need to be conditioned, and kept conditioned. "Weekend warriors" are going to be more prone to muscle pain and injuries.

Primary Care

  • Provide your horse with at least 20 to 30 minutes of exercise every day, in addition to turnout.
  • Feed a diet consisting primarily of forage and/or hay; supplement with minerals and grain as needed.
  • Supply unlimited access to clean, fresh water at an inviting temperature.
  • Provide a sturdy shelter where your horse can get out of the wind, rain, snow, and sun.
  • Make salt, an essential mineral, readily available.
  • Administer vet-recommended vaccines; include rabies and tetanus.
  • Deworm regularly; frequency and compounds will depend on your horse's age, health, and environment.
  • Find a good farrier and keep your horse's feet well manicured.
  • Provide routine dental care to keep your horse comfortable and chewing well.
  • Be a good observer. Learn to recognize the signs of pain or distress.

Shelter
Horses are really better suited to outdoor life, but they still need shelter from the elements in bad weather and plenty of room to move.

• Outdoor Shelters: Overhanging trees won't do it. Three-sided sheds at least 8 feet high are best. They should face south and have an interior dimension of at least 10 feet x 10 feet per horse. Hay racks and corner buckets for water and feeding can be added. Place sheds on high ground, where water won't pool. Bed with shavings or straw during bad weather.
• Paddocks: Paddocks can be constructed to allow horses outside "free time" when fields or pastures are not available. A 350-square-foot area is adequate as a minimum. The shape of the enclosure isn't critical, but it should be wide enough that a horse can go down and roll freely with no danger of getting trapped against a wall or fence.
• Fencing: Whether you're enclosing a paddock or field, correct and well maintained fencing is critical. Wood, wire mesh (heavy), plastic, and PVC pipes are suitable materials for horses. If electric fencing is used, it should be wide ribbons that are readily visible. Many (but not all) horses will respect electric fences, but it is never a good option as a primary or perimeter fence. A frightened-or determined-horse can easily go through electric fencing. Horses are also very good at knowing when the power is off!
• Barns/stalls: Barn design and layout is too broad a topic to cover here, but it's generally not a good idea to try to design these structures yourself. There are many safety and convenience issues you might not even think of. Your state agricultural department will likely have barn construction information (call your local agricultural extension office), or you can check with local contractors. If you have just bought your first horse property with an existing barn, at least have the electrical system checked. Older barns should also have a structural integrity inspection. Check with your extension agent and local fire department for fire safety pointers.

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