Taking care of a horse is an ongoing commitment. Even routine horse care requires significant time and resources.

Horses need secure environments, adequate exercise, social companionship and a balanced diet to thrive. They also have unique digestive systems susceptible to colic and other gastrointestinal health issues if not fed appropriate forage.

Horse owners rely on a team of equine health professionals to provide regular veterinary, dental, and hoof care. Trusted practitioners such as your veterinarian, farrier, nutritionist, and trainer are your best resource for learning more about horse care and management.

This article will review everything horse owners should know about basic horse care, discuss the role of your professional healthcare team and outline essential daily tasks that can help keep your horse healthy.

Caring for your Horse’s Basic Needs

All horses need a secure environment that provides access to shelter, room for adequate exercise, and social contact.

Ultimately, the best living situation for your horse will depend on many factors, including what is available where you live, the activities you engage in with your horse and any special considerations required for you or your horse. [1]

Boarding vs. Keeping Horses at Home

Deciding whether to board your horse or look after him at home is one of the first horse care decisions that owners need to make.

Boarding barns are facilities that house and manage the care of your horse. Levels of care can vary from self-care to complete care, sometimes including even riding, blanket changes and boot changes daily. Boarding gives horse owners more flexibility and easy access to skilled professionals who can help advise on horse care and training.

Horse owners with the space, facilities and time to care for their horses at home can control every aspect of their care.  However, research suggests that many equestrians overestimate their horse care knowledge. [2]

Make sure you’re ready for the responsibility and time commitment before you bring your horse home by learning as much as possible from experienced horse people.

While boarding allows owners to outsource their horse’s daily care to professional staff, learning about basic horse care will help you pick a suitable boarding barn.

Shelter

Providing shelter for your horse doesn’t necessarily mean keeping them in a stall. While climate-controlled barns appeal to humans, healthy horses cope well with varying temperatures.

Harsh weather can impact your horse’s ability to regulate its body temperature, making access to a safe shelter that protects against wind, precipitation, and sun a top priority. [3]

A run-in shed provides shelter for horses that live outside 24/7. Other horses prefer indoor stalls in inclement weather. Stalls with dry bedding also help maintain optimal hoof moisture balance when the ground is muddy and wet outside. [4]

Your horse’s shelter should also have adequate ventilation. Horses kept indoors can develop respiratory problems, but open windows and barn doors can help maintain airflow. [5]

A well-ventilated barn will feel chillier during cold weather but will be healthier for your horse than an enclosed structure. If your horse needs help staying warm, try blanketing instead of closing the barn.

Turnout and Exercise

Studies of feral horses in unrestricted environments report that these horses naturally travel an average distance of 15.9 km (10 miles) per day. [6]

This lifestyle is very different from the daily routine of most performance horses today. Research suggests that freedom of movement provided during turnout in a field can also have significant welfare benefits for domestic horses. [6]

Other studies have linked increased turnout time with a decreased risk of soft tissue injury. [7] Exercise during turnout stimulates adaptive changes that strengthen the horse’s bones and tendons. [8]

Horses confined in stalls often exhibit restless behaviours. Turning your horse out can improve his behaviour on the ground and under saddle. [9]

When turnout isn’t possible due to injury or other factors, controlled exercise can help maintain fitness levels. [10]

Companionship

Horses are herd animals that rely on group living as a survival strategy in the wild. [11]

Social interaction with other horses is essential to keeping domestic horses happy and content.

Multiple studies have linked social isolation to increased stress and stereotypic behaviours in horses. [12]

Research also shows that group living can positively affect behaviour during training and weaning in young horses. [13]

When group turnout isn’t feasible, housing designs incorporating safe opportunities for social contact between horses can improve welfare. [14] Ensure your horse can always see other horses in his living situation.

If no other horses are around, consider getting a goat, sheep, pony or mini to keep your horse company. Most horses bond well with these little companions after a careful introduction and can become quite attached to them. You will, of course, also have to learn how to properly care for any other animals you bring into your operation.

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Basics of Equine Nutrition

Providing your horse with proper nutrition and a balanced forage-based diet is one of the most vital aspects of basic horse care.

Many owners are unsure how to formulate a balanced diet for their horses. Here are some fundamentals to help you evaluate your horse’s feeding program.

Water

Horses need access to clean water at all times. This nutrient is essential for nearly every bodily function, and dehydration can seriously impact horse health. [16]

The average horse drinks 5 to 15 gallons of water per day. [15] Requirements increase in hot weather or when exercising.

If your horse’s water is dirty or has an off-taste, they may reduce their voluntary water intake. This increases the risk of impaction colic, kidney problems and other health issues. [17]

A water analysis can identify impurities in your water source that might affect palatability.

Forage

Forage should be the foundation of your horse’s diet. Forages are fibrous feedstuffs such as hay and grass that horses digest through fibre fermentation in their hindgut.

The horse’s digestive system has evolved to graze on roughage continuously throughout the day. Limited access to forage can lead to behavioural issues and gastric ulcers. [18]

The average horse should consume 1.5%-2.5% of his body weight daily in forage. Free-choice hay is the best way to mimic the horse’s natural feeding patterns if your horse does not have 24/7 access to pasture. However, horses with metabolic issues tend to overeat and become obese on free choice. These horses need to have a slow feeding system such as small hole hay nets and double or triple netting.

High-quality hay will meet the majority of the horse’s nutritional needs, but exact nutrient content can vary depending on growing conditions, geographic location, plant species and cut. [19]

Getting a hay analysis is the best way to understand the nutritional composition of your horse’s diet so you can select feeds and supplements to balance their feeding program.

Feed and Supplements

Not all horses need grain. However, some high-quality feeds offer a good source of concentrated protein and calories for horses with higher energy demands.

Other horses may be unable to chew long stem forage due to dental problems. Senior formulas can help replace fibre missing in their diet. [20]

High-quality commercial feeds also provide amino acids, vitamins, and minerals that fill nutritional gaps in hay. But large meals of high-starch sweet feeds can disrupt the intestinal microbiota and lead to hindgut acidosis. [21]

Ration balancers and supplements contain higher levels of essential nutrients in a smaller serving size. An equine nutritionist can help you find the best formula to balance your forage.

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Routine Professional Care

Horses need consistent care from skilled professionals to support their health and well-being. Establishing relationships with an expert care team and following their recommendations can help keep your horse healthy and prevent future problems.

Farrier Care

Your horse’s hooves grow continuously and can become unbalanced without regular farrier care. Farriers trim and shoe horses to promote soundness and performance.

Regular trimming prevents hoof overgrowth, which can stress the internal structures of the lower limb and predispose the horse to injury. [22] Some horses may also benefit from shoes that protect their feet from excessive wear.

Most horses should have their feet trimmed by a farrier every 4 to 6 weeks. You can learn more about hoof care in our articles about common hoof problems and supporting healthy hoof growth.

Preventative Veterinary Care

Horse owners should work with a veterinarian to develop a preventative care plan for their horses. A comprehensive veterinary wellness program includes annual exams, vaccinations, deworming, and routine dental care.

Wellness Exams

You should schedule a physical exam with your veterinarian at least once yearly, even if your horse has no apparent health problems. Your veterinarian can identify signs of an underlying condition before they are visible to the horse owner.

Many horse owners also draw blood for a Coggins test during their horse’s annual wellness exam. This test screens for equine infectious anemia. Proof of a recent negative Coggins is mandatory for interstate travel and stabling at most equestrian facilities. [23]

Your veterinarian may also perform a lameness exam at your horse’s annual check-up to check if your horse is sound.

Vaccinations

The American Association of Equine Practitioners recommends that all horses receive annual core vaccines. These vaccines include tetanus, eastern and western equine encephalomyelitis (EEE/WEE), West Nile virus, and Rabies.

Your veterinarian might recommend additional vaccines based on risk. Many competition horses must get equine influenza and herpesvirus-1 vaccines every six months. [24]

Deworming

Deworming your horse helps manage internal parasites. Heavy worm loads can cause weight loss, colic, and permanent damage to your horse’s gastrointestinal tract. [25]

Growing concerns over anthelmintic resistance to common dewormer drugs have recently changed deworming recommendations. Most vets recommend an annual fecal egg count test to monitor parasite levels and develop an effective deworming protocol for your horse. [25]

You can learn more in our article on How to Deworm your Horse.

Dental Care

Horses have hypsodont teeth that erupt throughout their lifetime. While their teeth naturally wear down as they grind roughage, uneven wear can lead to painful dental problems.

Routine dental exams monitor the horse’s mouth for any abnormalities. Regular teeth floating prevent the horse’s teeth from developing uncomfortable sharp edges or imbalances that prevent them from chewing efficiently. [26]

Daily Horse Care Checklist

Horses need daily care from owners and barn staff to address their basic needs. Here’s an example of a daily checklist that horse owners and care staff might follow.

1. Clean Water

Check your horse’s water daily to monitor water intake and ensure they have constant access to clean, fresh water. Cleaning buckets and replacing old water with fresh water will encourage your horse to stay hydrated. [15]

2. Free Choice Forage

Provide your horse with free choice forage if possible. [18] If your horse eats hay too quickly, consider using a hay net or other hay feeder to slow consumption. Drop hay multiple times throughout the day to horses who live in stalls to ensure they don’t run out.

3. Feed Small Meals

If you feed concentrates, split your horse’s ration into several meals daily. Horses digest small meals better than large ones. [27]

4. Clean Bedding

Standing in wet, dirty bedding can lead to hoof problems such as thrush. [4] Thoroughly muck out your horse’s stall and replace dirty bedding with clean bedding every day if your horse lives inside. Pick stalls multiple times per day if possible.

Regular paddock picking can help maintain healthy pastures if your horse lives outside. If you struggle with mud where you live, read our article on managing mud in your horse’s paddock.

5. Inspect Environment

Inspect your horse’s environment daily to make sure it is safe. Horses can hurt themselves in even the safest environments. You can reduce the risk of injury by checking for broken boards, loose nails, loos baling twine, divots, or other hazards in stalls and fields.

6. Daily Grooming

Daily grooming helps prevent skin diseases, increases circulation and promotes a shiny coat. Thorough grooming also allows owners to check over their horse’s entire body and spend quality bonding time with their equine partner.

7. Pick Hooves

Pick out your horse’s hooves daily to keep them clean and check for signs of hoof problems. Picking feet removes debris that can cause bruising on your horse’s sole and allows the bottom of the hoof to dry out.

8. Adequate Exercise

Riding and other forms of exercise promote healthy muscle development, cardiovascular fitness, bone strength, mental stimulation, and circulation in sound horses. [ 28] If your horse has limited turnout time, consider taking him out for a daily hand walk or hand graze.

9. Change Blankets

Horses wearing blankets during the colder months need regular blanket changes and multiple temperature checks throughout the day to ensure they don’t overheat or get rubs.

10. General Health Check

Know your horse’s normal temperature, pulse and respiratory rate (TPR). These measurements are best taken at a quiet time when the horse is resting. Perform a daily health check on your horse to look for cuts, swellings, or other trouble signs. Monitor any changes in behaviour and contact your veterinarian if something seems off.

Is Your Horse's Diet Missing Anything?

Identify gaps in your horse's nutrition program to optimize their well-being.

References

  1. Zeeb, K. et al. Housing and training of horses according to their species-specific. Livest Prod Sci.1997.
  2. Marlin, D. et al. Do equestrians have insight into their equine-related knowledge (or lack of knowledge)? Ag Envir Vet Sci. 2018.
  3. Mejdell, C. et al. Caring for the horse in a cold climate—Reviewing principles for thermoregulation and horse preferences. Appl Anim Behav Sci. 2020.
  4. Bambi, G. et al. Comparison between different types of bedding materials for horses. Agron Res. 2018.
  5. Clarke, A. A review of environmental and host factors in relation to equine respiratory disease. Equine Vet J. 1987.
  6. Hampson, B. et al. Distanced travelled by feral horses in ‘outback’ Australia. 2010.
  7. Reilly, A. et al. Incidence of soft tissue injury and hours of daily paddock turnout in non-elite performance horses. J Equine Vet Sci. 2021.
  8. Firth, E. The response of bone, articular cartilage and tendon to exercise in the horse. J Anat. 2006.
  9. Werhahn, H. et al. Temporary Turnout for Free Exercise in Groups: Effects on the Behavior of Competition Horses Housed in Single Stalls. J Equine Vet Sci. 2011.
  10. Graham-Thiers, P. et al. Improved Ability to Maintain Fitness in Horses During Large Pasture Turnout. J Equine Vet Sci. 2013.
  11. Goodwin, D. The importance of ethology in understanding the behaviour of the horse. Equine Vet J. 2010.
  12. Mal, M. et al. Physiological responses of mares to short term confinement and social isolation. Equine Vet Sci. 1991.
  13. Sondergaard, E. et al. Group housing exerts a positive effect on the behaviour of young horses during training. Appl Anim Behav Sci. 2004.
  14. Yarnell, K. et al. Domesticated horses differ in their behavioural and physiological responses to isolated and group housing. Physiol & Behav. 2015.
  15. Hinton, M. On the Watering of Horses: A Review. Equine Vet J. 1978.
  16. Geor, R. et al. Hydration effects on physiological strain of horses during exercise-heat stress. J of Appl Physiol. 1998.
  17. Seanor, J. et al. Renal disease associated with colic in horses. Mod Vet Pract. 1984.
  18. Luthersson, N. et al. Risk factors associated with equine gastric ulceration syndrome (EGUS) in 201 horses in Denmark. Equine Vet J. 2010.
  19. Hussein, H. et al. Forage Nutritional Value for Equine as Affected by Forage Species and Cereal Grain Supplementation. Prof Anim Scient. 2003.
  20. Ralston, S. Feeding Dentally Challenged Horses. Clin Techniq Equine Pract. 2005.
  21. Destraz, A. et al. Changes of the hindgut microbiota due to high-starch diet can be associated with behavioral stress response in horses. Physiol & Behav. 2015.
  22. Moleman, M. et al. Hoof growth between two shoeing sessions leads to a substantial increase of the moment about the distal, but not the proximal, interphalangeal joint. Equine Vet J. 2010.
  23. Sellon, D. Equine Infectious Anemia. Vet Clin North Am Equine Pract. 1993.
  24. Desanti-Consoli, H. et al. Equids’ Core Vaccines Guidelines in North America: Considerations and Prospective. Vaccines. 2022.
  25. Nielsen, M. Sustainable equine parasite control: Perspectives and research needs. Vet Parasitol. 2012.
  26. Carmalt, J. Evidence-Based Equine Dentistry: Preventive Medicine. Vet Clin North Am Equine Pract. 2007.
  27. Metayer, N. et al. Meal size and starch content affect gastric emptying in horses. Equine Vet J. 2010.
  28. Evans, D. Cardiovascular Adaptations to Exercise and Training. Vet Clin North Am Equine Pract. 1985.