Horse care is a subject that all horsey people are forever learning more about, and it’s a subject I could talk about for weeks and still not cover every possible topic, which can be overwhelming, especially for beginners or aspiring horse owners. With this in mind, I’ve designed this as an easy to digest introduction to horse care for beginners, covering all of the basics that you need to know.
I’ll be covering the following aspects of how to look after a horse…
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Ask for Help from more Experienced People…
If you are new to horse care, and owning a horse, it’s highly advisable to make sure that you have access to help from more experienced people. The simplest, most effective way to do this is to stable your horse at a livery yard (please see this article Types of Livery Explained – How Much Does it Cost to Stable a Horse? for more information about livery yards). By stabling at a livery yard, you will be able to befriend experienced horse owners, and the yard staff will be knowledgeable in horse care and how to look after a horse. Never be afraid to ask questions, or ask for help if you feel you need it.
Even if you are stabled at a yard, you should still know the basics of horse care for beginners, hence this guide 🙂 I’ll be adding more in depth guides on each topic over time, but let’s begin with the basics – continue reading to find out all of the basic horse care you should know…
An Overview of the Basics of Horse Care
The basics of horse care you need to consider will be anything that affects a horse’s health and well being…
- Suitable living conditions – this is a fundamental factor in horse care, making sure they have a suitable environment to live in! Is the stable suitable? Is the field suitable?
- Suitable routine and horse care for horses living in or out – depending on how the horse is kept, and the type of work it does, the routine will vary. Providing a routine that will suit each horse, is so important for horse care.
- Suitable feed – horses have sensitive digestive systems, so you will need to understand the basics of feeding to provide good horse care.
- Grooming – grooming isn’t just about making your horse look pretty, it’s invaluable time to bond and check over your horse, and keep them in good condition.
- Equipment – know what you need, and keep it in good condition.
- Health – is your horse healthy? This is something you’ll want to know. Recognising signs of health, knowing when to call a vet, and being able to administer basic first aid is essential.
- And more – there’s always more to know and learn about horse care!
BASIC HORSE CARE RULES:
- Check on horse’s at least twice a day
- Make sure grazing is free of danger and poisonous plants
- Make sure stables are suitable/safe/kept clean
- Always have fresh water available
- Feed appropriately for the horse’s type and workload
- Have regular health checks and farrier care
- Keep up to date with vaccinations and worming
- Make sure equipment is kept in good, safe condition
Horse Care for a Horse that Lives Out
Often seen as an easier option, but not necessarily the case. Horses that live out will still need visiting at least twice a day to check on their well being and maintain their grazing. And in winter, as there is less nutritional value in the grass, many horses will need hay supplied too. You will need to have the type of horse that is happy to live out year round (generally hardy/native breeds, although many people easily manage less hardy breeds living out with rugs/shelter).
- Field Maintenance – The grazing should be maintained by picking up droppings and checking for poisonous plants, such as ragwort, regularly (ideally everyday). Along with topping, rolling and harrowing, as needed (the yard will usually do this, but if you are responsible, a local farmer will usually be available to hire).
- Limiting grazing – a lot of horses and ponies will need restricted grazing to keep their weight down and prevent laminitis in summer; this can be done by ‘strip grazing’ or using a ‘starvation paddock’. Strip grazing is achieved by creating a strip of paddock with electric tape and gradually moving it back a few feet at a time as they eat down the grass. A starvation paddock is a similar concept, just making a mini paddock instead of strips.
- Preserving your grass – in winter horses can seriously ‘poach’ the ground, damaging the grass by making it muddy and full of potholes. To preserve it, so you have decent grass for summer, you can either have a sacrificial winter paddock, or use a rotational paddock system to allow paddocks time to recover.
- Fencing – this should be horse safe; I see too many horse paddocks surrounded by barbed wire and damaged fencing. In a perfect world, we’d all have smart wooden post and rails, but this can be very expensive. Ideally (other than gates and corners/fencing junctions) you don’t want the posts concreted in case of impact. A common alternative is electric tape with posts, which can be very effective (although I’ve known a few horses that seem immune to the shock! ). As long as there are no sharp edges, gaps that horses hooves can be caught in (I’ve had to rescue a few that were caught in sheep fencing!), or poisonous plants in hedgerows, and the fencing is sufficiently high enough to stop them jumping out, and secure enough to stop them barging through, then it will be fine.
- Shelter – Having a purpose built field shelter is ideal, but if your field doesn’t have one, you ideally want there to be natural shelter such as hedges/trees so your horse can shield itself from the cold weather and wind in winter, or get some shade, and escape the flies in summer.
As mentioned in the grass livery section of Types of Livery Explained – How Much Does it Cost to Stable a Horse?, I personally don’t like not having a stable in case the weather is atrocious, or my horse needs box rest, etc, and I’ve generally had fully clipped horses in full work during winter which means this wouldn’t be ideal.
Horse Care for a Stabled Horse
Few horses live in 24/7, so when I say a stabled horse, I’m generally referring to horses and ponies that have access to a stable; this could mean, (like mine have always been), that they are in at night, and out in the day during winter, then out at night and in during the day throughout summer to avoid the heat and flies! With this in mind, most of the previous section on caring for a horse that lives out, such as looking after the paddock, will also apply, just with some extra considerations…
- The Stable – this needs to be safe and suitable for your horse. A standard guide for size is – 10×12 feet for ponies (Shetlands and tiny ponies will get away with even smaller), 12×12 feet for cobs and horses, and 12×14 feet for larger horses, with foaling stables being 12×16 feet plus. I would personally say that these sizes should be taken as a minimum, especially where grazing may be restricted and they need to spend more time in. The stable should be well ventilated, but not drafty, free from any sharp objects or protrusions that a horse could hurt themselves on, with plenty of head height to prevent them knocking their head. (You’ll also need to consider storage space for hay, feed, bedding, tack and rugs, etc).
So you have a suitable stable… how do you look after it? What basic horse care for beginners guide would be complete without covering mucking out?
- Mucking out – this is often a marmite task that horse owners either love or hate (you can see the difference between the two by the finished beds they make – I’m not joking when I say I’ve seen some that look more inviting than my pocket sprung mattress at home!). However, as long as it’s clean your horse won’t care what it look likes, and by the morning it’ll be a mess anyway. What ever bedding you use, the main job of mucking out is to clear droppings and wet patches, then make the bed thick enough for them to lay down on, with enough padding to protect their joints, and raised banks around the edges to stop them getting cast (laying down or rolling over too close to the wall and getting stuck).
- Feeding/Watering – Horses need fresh water available at all times, so a large flexible plastic/rubber bucket (with no hazardous metal handles) is a good option. Or for convenience, automatic drinkers are great (although one downside is that you can’t monitor how much they are drinking).
- Preventing Boredom – boredom can be a big issue for horses that spend a lot of time stabled. Feeding in small holed haynets can help them take longer eating, however haynets have their own drawbacks, as the more natural eating position for a horse is at ground level, which is better for there respiratory system. Other solutions can be stable toys and boredom breakers, such as carrots and veggies hung from a rope.
- Exercise – horses that spend a lot of time in will need plenty of opportunity to stretch their legs and prevent stiffness and boredom; you can do this with hand grazing, horse walkers, lunging, in-hand and ridden work.
Basic Guide to Feeding Your Horse
Horse care for beginners regarding feeding will just scratch the surface of equine nutrition, but knowing the basics of safe feeding principles is a great start…
BASIC RULES OF FEEDING:
- Feed according to a horse size, weight and workload
- Always feed the best quality you can
- Always allow access to clean, fresh water
- Don’t feed concentrates within an hour before or after exercise
- Make sure the diet is balanced
- Make any changes to feed gradually
- Keep the same feeding times/routine
- Feed little and often
- Feed for the work done, not in anticipation of work
- Measure feed accurately
The type of feed and how much food a horse will need will depend on their size/weight, what work they’re doing, and they’re type/metabolism, etc. As a general rule, and according to the British Horse Society, horses need to eat roughly 2.5% of their body weight each day, with the large majority of this being roughage (hay, haylage, grass).
Horses have sensitive digestive systems, so need careful management; feeding routines should be kept consistent and any changes should be made very gradually. And as they are naturally grazing animals designed to be ‘trickle’ feeders, they should be fed little and often, and predominantly roughage.
- Roughage/Forage/Fibre – roughage, which consists of grass, hay and haylage, should make up the large majority of a horse’s diet. Always buy the best quality hay/haylage you can afford – cheap hay is often dusty and may not be screened for poisonous plants, and will cause more problems than the money it saves! An important thing to note is that horses cannot eat silage, which is fed to cows.
- Hard Feed/Concentrates – hard feeds are classed as the cereals and grains, that often come in processed forms, such as ‘pony nuts’. Depending on the level of work your horse does, it may not need hard feed. There are some horses and ponies that could virtually live on fresh air, especially if they’re just hacking out now and then, and these types won’t need any hard feed, ideally just a handful of low calorie chaff with a good supplement, or even just access to a salt/vitamin/mineral lick.
- Supplements – most horses will require a basic vitamin/mineral supplement to ensure they are getting all the essentials they need into their diet. A lot of owners also swear by garlic and apple cider vinegar to help with general health (and flies in summer!). Older horses and competition horses may benefit from extras (such as joint supplements) – I’d recommend you consult a nutritionist, or your vet, for advice if you are unsure what will be right for your horse (very fancy supplements and feed balancers can be super expensive, so it can save money to ask). Also, be cautious to only buy products approved for the equine industry, and if you plan to compete, especially affiliated, that they do not contain any banned ‘doping’ substances!
- Succulents – succulents are classed as fruits and veg, such as the most commonly given by owners – carrots and apples. I feed these daily, but not in excess, always be sure to slice them in a way that won’t cause choking, for example, carrots should be fed whole or chopped lengthways, as horses may not chew small chunks or discs properly and they could get lodged.
- Treats – there are loads of treats on the market. I tend not to give many treats, and when I do, I stick to the organic/low sugar ones (or just a carrot!), as some can be highly sugary/full of additives. Be mindful when giving treats as they can cause bad habits! I’ve known ponies so used to having treats they won’t be caught without them, or will almost knock you over looking for treats in your pockets!
Basic Guide to Grooming Your Horse
Grooming is an essential skill for horse care for beginners and experienced horse owners alike, after all it is something you’ll do daily! I could go on forever about grooming, but as this a basic horse care for beginners guide, I’ll just go into the basics of typical daily groom for me…
- Start with picking out the feet, removing dirt and stones using a hoof pick, being careful to avoid the frog of the foot. This is good opportunity to check the condition of the feet and shoes.
- When brushing, brush in the same direction as the horses coat, keep contact with horses body as much as possible, make sure you place yourself in a safe position, and be mindful of sensitive areas.
- Use a soft face brush to brush the face, being careful around the eyes and nose.
- Using coarser brushes, rubber curry combs and dandy brushes, remove the worst of the dirt, being careful on sensitive areas, such as joints and clipped parts.
- I then brush the main and tail; for daily grooming I recommend a brush rather then comb as they’re less like to pull hair out, and I never brush a tail without applying some detangle spray and working from the ends upward (I implore you not to tackle a matted tail without having time to wash it first and gently work out the knots by hand before brushing – you’ll end up pulling out more than you realise and ruin the tail – trust me I did it once as a child, and will never make the same mistake again!).
- Once the mud and dirt’s dealt with, time to make them shine! – use a body brush in one hand to brush the coat, and a metal curry in the other to remove dust and hair from the body brush. For a finishing touch you can use a tea towel to wipe over for a final shine.
- Horses that live out without rugs will need to keep the oils in their coat, especially during winter, so stick to rubber curry combs and dandy brushes, as cloths and body brushes can strip these oils.
- Eyes, ears, nostrils, and under the dock, can be wiped with specialist wipes, or with clean damp sponges dedicated for each area (I have a shape/colour for each area).
- As horses begin to shed their winter coat, shedding blades and brushes to help remove the excess hair become your best friend! They can be harsh though, so be extra mindful of sensitive areas.
- After exercising, be sure to pick out feet again and wash off any sweaty areas.
What Equipment will you need to Provide Good Horse Care? And How to Look After it!
To provide good horse care you’ll need a plethora of equipment, and to keep it in good condition. Besides the obvious tack and rugs, you’ll need mucking out equipment, feeding and water buckets, grooming kit, bathing stuff, tack cleaning equipment and clothing for yourself.
For an in depth guide of what you’ll need, check out this article – What Do I Need For a Horse? – The Ultimate Checklist of Equine Equipment.
- Tack – you’ll need to keep your tack clean, and the leather supple with leather soap and balm to prevent cracking/weakness, and regularly check the stitching and overall condition. Numnahs and saddle cloths, boots and fabric girths should be washed too to prevent rubbing. Saddles and bridles should be stored on a suitable rack (if using a metal one for saddle, I recommend padding it with pipe insulation to prevent dents in the flocking). Saddles should also be checked once or twice a year by a saddler to check fit/flocking/condition.
- Rugs – regularly check the straps/buckles/clips, and, easier said than done – keep rugs as clean as possible. Having a dedicated washing machine is ideal, but if you don’t have one, smaller rugs/numnahs, etc, can be washed inside a specialist bag, or old duvet cover, to prevent the hairs ruining it! Larger rugs and turnout rugs will need specialist washing each season, and turn out rugs will also need reproofing.
- Grooming Kits, etc – to help prevent spread of any possible infection give brushes a wash from time to time, and don’t share brushes with other horses. I recommend going ‘matchy, matchy’, it’ll help you keep track of your stuff! Here’s a link to a great ready made matching set –
- Yard Equipment – make sure any buckets you use for feeding and hay are safe. I always recommend the flexible rubber tub type ones that have no metal handles. A first aid kit is a yard essential, make sure it’s stocked up, and any medications/creams, etc, are checked regularly for expiry dates.
- For You – the main things here are: making sure you have a helmet, and ideally a body protector, up to current safety standards (and replace your helmet if you fall or drop it), riding boots with a suitable sole and small heel to prevent it slipping through the stirrup iron, and fluorescents/reflectives if you intend to ride out on the roads. When it comes to clothes, I truly believe in the saying, ‘there’s no bad weather, only inappropriate clothing’ – get yourself some thermals and good quality waterproofs!
Basic Horse Care for Health and First Aid
Knowing the basic signs of health and how to perform basic first aid is essential for a horse owner, and key to good horse care.
- Signs of Health – to cover basic horse care for beginners, covering the signs of health is so important…
First and foremost you should know the normal TPR; temperature, pulse and respiration. The normal parameters for adult horses at rest are…
Temperature: 37.5 – 38.5 °C (or 99.5 – 101.3 °F)
Pulse: 28 – 44 heartbeats per minute
Respiration: 8 – 16 breaths per minute
… within this range individuals can vary according to factors such as size and age, etc, so taking these measurements regularly will help determine the ‘normal’ base rates for your horse (like some people, a horse’s base rate may be consistently out of the normal range, this may be fine, but should be checked a vet).
The other signs of health you should be familiar with are…
General Attitude & Demeanour: they should appear bright and alert, and you should know what’s ‘normal’ for your horse. Look out for signs of sickness, such as seeming dull or restless, and signs of discomfort, such as excessive rolling and kicking.
Eyes & Nostrils: eyes and nostrils should clear and free from discharge.
Salmon Pink Mucous Membranes: the gums and inner nostrils should be a salmon pink colour. Test the capillary refill time by gently pressing an area on the horses gum, which will turn white, then when released, should return to normal in two seconds.
Droppings: horses will poop roughly eight times per day. The droppings should be fairly well formed, break apart on impact, be a fairly uniform colour and contain no large bits of undigested feed.
Lumps & Bumps: get to know your horse’s lumps and bumps so you can spot any potential new problems!
Condition: know how to tell if your horse is in good shape. In general the ribs shouldn’t be visible, but should be easy to feel when a little pressure is applied, the rump should be smooth in appearance from behind (underweight the hips will stick out, overweight the rump can appear ‘apple’ shaped with a dip in the middle), learn how to recognise condition to keep track, and use a weigh tape for a rough guide.
Hydration: check hydration by pinching some skin on the shoulder, or lower neck, and letting it go; if it doesn’t snap back within a second or two, it is a sign of dehydration.
Listen to the Gut: low levels of gurgling and rumbles are a good thing, they show the gut is working. Again, know what’s normal for your horse – excessively loud sounds can indicate problems, and a major red flag is no sound at all, which is sign of colic (I’ll discuss colic in the next section).
- First Aid – knowing how to respond to changes in the signs of health, and how to deal with injuries, is very important basic horse care for beginners. If you are ever in doubt, ask for help, and call a vet. I’ll just cover the basics of the most common ones here…
Injuries: no matter how well we safeguard against them, injuries do happen, so be prepared. Very minor cuts and scrapes are easily dealt with without any veterinary care, simply assess and thoroughly clean the wound with saline solution, then if needed, apply an antiseptic, such as ‘purple spray’, and possibly bandage. More serious injuries will of course need a vet’s attention, for example, cuts or gashes that require stitching or are bleeding, any injuries near a joint or the eyes – in these cases get your horse into a safe position and assess the wound, call the vet immediately with this information, and do your best to follow their advise and keep the horse calm until the vet arrives. Puncture wounds (such as a nail in the sole of the hoof), are often a lot worse than they look due to the fact that bacteria can get deep inside and cannot be thoroughly cleaned, so always call a vet for these cases. With hoof wounds, specialist farriery will often also be needed.
Lameness: In most cases (unless it’s an obvious problem like a stone), lameness should be assessed by a vet as there can be many underlying causes, some more serious than others, but you need to be able to spot it! Lameness is usually noticed by a general uneven way of moving, if you think your horse isn’t moving correctly, start by checking the feet, most issues start here; is there anything obvious like stones in the foot? If so, remove them and see how your horse moves after, (they may be a little bruised so it may not be instant fix). If there’s nothing obvious, feel the hooves and up the limbs for any signs of heat, as this can be an indicator. To asses the lameness, make sure you’re on a flat, hard surface, and get someone else to lead the horse, (on a fairly loose rein so as not to restrict movement), away from you in straight line, and then back towards, and past you, in walk, then trot. Listen for the hoof falls, quite often the horse won’t place the unsound limb as hard on the ground so it may be quieter. From behind, if there is an issue with a hind limb, the point of hip and hip on that side might appear higher. From the front, if there is an issue with a front limb, look for ‘head bobbing’ – as the unsound limb takes weight, the head will raise, and as the sound limb takes weight, the head will drop. From the side, assess the length of the stride, is it even, does it appear ‘choppy’? If it’s still not clear, watch the horse on a circle, or even lunged, as circles are more strenuous it can help to highlight problems.
Colic: colic needs to be taken very seriously; it claims the lives of hundreds of horses each year. There are several types and they can effect any horse or pony. Cases can range from mild discomfort to a serious case needing surgery. Spotting the signs, and early treatment is the key. Signs to watch out for are: excessive, or out of character, rolling, pawing the ground, laying down for extended periods, or laying down and getting back up, sitting down, looking around at their own flanks, kicking at their abdomen, curling the lip, not passing droppings for 24 hours, lack of appetite, a silent or bloated gut, distress, restlessness and sweating, or backing into a corner/wall, stretching in a position like they want to urinate. If you see any of these signs, act fast. Call the vet immediately, and tell the symptoms the horse is presenting and answer any questions. While you wait for the vet, put the horse in a small, safe area free of hazards, and make sure you remove any hay or feed from the horse’s reach. If the horses is rolling excessively, it may help to gently walk the horse, but do not put yourself at risk.Follow the vet’s advise and keep close observation.
Mud Fever: mud fever can be the bane of winter! Sectioning off the worst areas of mud, thoroughly washing mud off the legs, and even using specialist protective sprays/creams, can help to prevent it. But if the sore red patches and little scabs appear, you need to be able to treat it. Ideally, stop or severely limit time on mud, keep the area scrupulously clean and dry, and apply treatment cream. For bad cases, consult a vet.
Laminitis: laminitis weakens and inflames the hoof making the horse very foot sore and lame, and is usually caused by rich grazing. Smaller ponies are the most prone, but any horse can be susceptible. Signs include lameness, rocking or leaning back on the front feet when stood, and heat in the feet. Prevention is better than cure, and laminitis shouldn’t be taken lightly, so keep an eye on your horse’s condition, and restrict grazing if needed. If signs do present, always consult a vet. Treatment will usually involve box rest and a very controlled diet.
Many more: there are obviously lots more, such as thrush, rain scald, grass sickness, strangles, sweet-itch and so on, but this a basic horse care for beginners guide, so I’ve just listed the most common. Remember, anything you are unsure about, seek advise and call a vet!
- ‘No Foot, No Horse’ – this saying is so true! Good hoof care is vital to keeping your horse ‘sound’, and you should pick and check your horse’s feet daily. There are different options for shoeing; depending on how strong your horses feet are and the type of work you want to do, your farrier will be able to advise you. An average horse will generally have a set of shoes every 6 weeks – a competition horse will usually need shoes, and possibly even stud holes, every 5-6 weeks – a happy hacker type with strong feet (that’s mainly ridden on grass or a surface) may be fine just having barefoot trims every 7-8 weeks, just follow the advise of your farrier.
- Worming – worming is a horse care must. The traditional way used to be a program of a specific wormer for the time of year given every few months. However, nowadays (due to concerns about worming resistance) it is quite popular to have ‘worm counts’ taken from dropping samples by a specialist, then worm accordingly.
- Vaccinations – in the U.K., while vaccinations aren’t technically a legal requirement (currently), it is highly recommended to have Equine Influenza and Tetanus vaccinations (if you are in another country, check the recommendations and requirements for where you are). Once the initial vaccination courses are completed, Flu requires annual booster jabs, and Tetanus needs top-ups every one or two years according to your vets advise.
- Teeth – horses teeth continuously grow and are worn down by the action of grazing, and domesticated horses tend to need their teeth ‘floated’ (rasped), once a year. For most horses, once a year is usually sufficient, but for older horses, or ones with any dentistry issues, they’ll probably need a visit twice a year. As mentioned in How Much Does it Cost to Keep a Horse – The Ultimate Guide, my second pony used to get ‘hooks’ on his teeth, where they didn’t wear down evenly, so he needed the dentist every 6 months.
- Back – making sure your horse’s back is healthy, and their saddle fits well, is essential (after all, that’s where you sit, and it would be unfair to ask them to carry you, and perform, if they are uncomfortable!). This needs checking because horses change shape over time, and they can develop sore areas. Once a year should be the minimum, but horses that work hard or compete, or change shape dramatically between summer and winter, will probably need at least two visits a year.
A Summary of Basic Horse Care
- Remember to surround yourself with experienced people, and never be afraid to ask questions, or for help
- Understand the basics of how to care for stabled horses and horses that live out
- Learn the basics of feeding and the dietary needs of a horse
- Know how to groom a horse and pick out feet, etc
- Know what equipment you need, and make sure it’s kept in good condition
- Understand the importance of having regular health checks, along with maintenance such as good farriery and worming
- Make sure you know the basics of horse health and first aid – you need to be able to recognise signs of illness and deal with injuries
- Keep learning and gaining experience to develop your skills and widen your knowledge
So now you’ve covered the basics of horse care, hopefully you feel less overwhelmed, but don’t stop here…
Continue to Learn about Horse Care!
The old saying ‘you learn something new everyday’, is so applicable when it comes to horse care and knowledge. As a horse owner, or aspiring horsey person, you will always be learning new things and should aim to read and gain as much experience as possible.
Further Reading and Useful Links
Browse through this site, and check out these articles…