Horses were an important part of human history, having served as transportation, in war, for sport, and in many other roles. Modern horses in Canada are generally sport or pleasure horses and are treasured for their role as companions. Regardless of their function, horses need appropriate and humane husbandry and training to allow safe handling, transport, and work.
Horses are expensive to keep and if considering purchase or a lease, be prepared for an ongoing outlay for veterinary and farrier (hoof care) services, feed, housing and pasture boarding, coaching/riding lessons, and equipment such as tack and grooming tools. A basic knowledge of horse care is essential before undertaking acquisition of a horse. All of these topics cannot be covered in depth here, but this document provides a brief overview of caring for horses.
Forage forms the base of a sound feeding program: fresh as in pasture grazing; dried or ensiled as hay or haylage. A horse should be provided as much access to grazing as possible, both for normal digestive function as well as psychological health. Voluntary intake is achieved by trickle feeding over about 16 hours each day. High structural carbohydrate (fibre) diets and consistent feed type are essential for proper function of the microbes that break down the plant fibres in the large hindgut by fermentation. Fibre also allows for normal motility (movement) of the guts. Sudden feed changes are harmful, so any changes in feed should happen slowly over three weeks. Horses cannot vomit so feeds should be free of mold or toxin contamination. Potable water must be available at all times and heating water buckets or troughs in cold weather can encourage increased water intake to help prevent impaction colic.
In addition to forage, a horse may need a balancer to provide key nutrients like vitamins, minerals, and protein that may be insufficient or missing from the forage. Balancers are a different feed class than energy concentrate feeds/plain grains. The latter are used for an energy boost from simple carbohydrates and fat.
Not all horses need concentrates in their diet. Many caregivers feed horses grain or grain-based concentrates due to a mistaken belief that all horses need the additional energy provided by simple carbohydrates. Some horses need this extra energy, but this need is determined by professional formulation of a ration.
Many modern energy concentrates contain “cool” sources of energy. The use of beet pulp, soy hulls, and oils/oil meals in these newer products means they are lower in starch and simple sugars and higher in oils and fibre. These sources may reduce the risk of colic and laminitis compared to primarily grain-based products. Concentrates may contain vitamins and minerals as well, making them a nice complement to forage. Colic is a painful abdomen, while laminitis is a very painful condition of the feet. Laminitis can be triggered by many factors, including metabolic conditions and high simple starch/sugar or fructan levels in the diet.
Salt is important to all horses’ diets and added salt and electrolytes are particularly important when a horse is exercising because loss of electrolytes such as sodium and chloride occurs in sweat. Offering loose salt in a small bucket or top dressed on meals is important since many horses do not like to lick from a salt block due to their dry tongue.
Body condition scoring is part of the horse assessment used to determine the correct amounts of feed to provide. This system estimates specific fat storage pad size to determine whether the horse is in ideal body condition.
Wild horses will cover many kilometres a day in search of good pasture. For managed horses, turnout should be provided as much as is possible—ideally 24/7 to keep muscles, bones and joints, and the cardiovascular system healthy. Turnout also helps foster a healthy mind. A good turnout will be spacious, providing opportunity for safe play and running. Horse-safe fencing needs to be sturdy, without loose or barbed wire, or broken boards. Pastures should be managed using frequent rotation of horses on and off pastures so the grasses and legumes can be maintained and noxious weeds reduced.
Even though ponds or rivers should be fenced off, horses should always have access to fresh water in the pasture.
Harrowing of manure should be done periodically in hot weather to help reduce pasture parasite egg burden.
Bug protection is usually needed. Fly sheets and masks, and fly spray for horse provides comfort during bug season. Fans in the aisle of the barn may help cool the air and move bothersome flies away.
Horses referred to as easy keepers (easy to keep weight on and rarely require grain) are often at increased risk of obesity, which can increase the chances of developing diseases like laminitis. These horses often benefit from using grazing muzzles and slow feeders to slow food intake.
Be aware of the oligosaccharide storage sugars content in the grass, as the fructan class of these sugars can be triggers for acute and chronic laminitis episodes. The simple carbohydrate content rises in grasses during fast growth (e.g. spring), in times of frost or drought, after a rain, or in the afternoon during peak sun. Over-grazed and short grasses have higher simple carbohydrate content than long grasses. Consider this when scheduling turnout, especially for horses with increased risk, or a history, of laminitis. At the beginning of a season, it is important to introduce a horse to the rich spring grass initially for 15 minutes only, increasing by 15 minutes each day for two to three weeks.
A shelter should be provided to allow horses kept outside to obtain shade and protection from wind and precipitation. An open fronted shelter facing away from the prevailing wind is a good option. If the horse is kept in a stall inside a barn for part of the day, the stall should be large enough for the horse to easily walk about and should have a soft absorptive, low dust base for bedding. Examples include peat moss, shavings, flax, and straw. Some purchased products are processed to reduce dust, which is desirable. Proper barn ventilation is needed to reduce moisture buildup and ventilate any stall ammonia and dust. Horses do not need a warm barn if they have been allowed to grow a coat in cool weather. A blanket may be required if the horse is exposed to wind, wet, and cold. Avoid cleaning and sweeping while horses are in the barn, and wear your own respiratory protection mask while doing dusty chores. Hay storage is best done in another building away from stalls to reduce mold and dust and reduce risk of fire.
Horses need regular dental checks, annually or semi-annually, as required because their teeth continually grow. Floating to remove sharp points and hooks is an example of a procedure that needs to be done by a qualified veterinarian. Keeping the teeth aligned allows the horse to properly chew and ingest feed and helps prevent cheek and tongue damage or dental abscesses.
Intestinal worms are present in every horse and only need to be managed if their numbers increase beyond a typical low and well-tolerated burden. Periodic broad spectrum deworming has been replaced by strategic targeted deworming. An egg count in the manure is done before and after worming treatment to ensure appropriate management. Some horses are more prone to over-infestation and these will be managed more intensively.
Vaccinations are important for all horses, though specific risk-based vaccines may vary depending on the horse’s lifestyle, whether pregnant, exposure to other horses, geographic location, and age.
- All horses require the rabies vaccination because this is a fatal virus disease that can be picked up from contact with wildlife.
- Tetanus (lockjaw) is another essential core vaccine because horses are very sensitive to the bacteria (Clostridium tetani) that carry the harmful tetanus toxin.
- West Nile Virus (WNV) Encephalitis is a bird-borne virus that is present in most of Canada, and would be recommended in the affected areas.
- Eastern and Western Equine Encephalomyelitis virus vaccines are put together in one vaccine, with some geographic limitation of disease distribution in Canada.
Non-core (risk-based) Vaccines
Other vaccines include equine viral rhinopneumonitis (Equine Herpesvirus), Equine Influenza (flu, influenza A), strangles (Streptococcus equi), Potomac horse fever (Ehrlichia ristici), botulism (Clostridium botulinum B), leptospirosis (Leptospira sp.), and Equine Viral Arteritis (EVA). Some facilities/shows/racetracks may require some of these vaccines as part of their own facility protocol.
Hoof and Coat Care
Regular hoof trimming is needed to maintain the normal hoof shape and weight loading on the limbs. Hooves also need to be “picked out” regularly; cleaned daily if possible. Shoes may be needed for horses in heavy work, those that work on hard or slippery surfaces, or there may be needs related to a specific discipline. Most commonly, the front feet are shod since forelimbs carry more of the horse’s weight than the hind limbs, and thus wear more. Grooming refers to using brushes and combs to clean and massage the skin and clean haircoat, mane, and tail. Daily cleaning will encourage a nice glossy haircoat and is enjoyed by all horses. It also allows for good bonding time with the horse.
Safety comes first. Regular handling, including picking up and examining the feet, to check the horse over for injuries is essential. Training to be led and tied by halter and loaded into trailers is needed for safe horse handling. Horses are usually handled from the left (near side). Let the horse know ahead by gently patting towards the area if you are going behind the horse or grooming under their belly (if sensitive) to avoid any unwanted kicks. Do not put fingers into the mouth, except with caution at the bars (no teeth, where the bit sits), as a horse bite is very painful and potentially injurious to the hand/fingers. When moving from one side of the horse to the other, do not go under the head of the horse as there may be an unwanted head bob. Do not stand in front of the horse, as you could become a target if he jumps forward.
Horses should be tied with a quick release knot in case they get startled. A pair of steel reinforced boots and a helmet worn while working around horses can help protect you from being stepped on or from impact to the head. A well-trained horse is unlikely to exhibit these behaviours, but it is important to know about safe handling.
There is much more to learn about keeping your horse safe, healthy, and happy. Being around horses is more than just getting up into the saddle and going for a ride. Don’t be afraid to ask experienced horse owners/trainers for tips and read further about these wonderful animals. It is advisable to find an experienced person to mentor horse care and handling. Work closely with your veterinarian for horse health care. Do not be afraid to ask your vet questions as they are an important partner for your horse’s health and well-being.
Equine Guelph/OpenEd University of Guelph offers a series of online courses for distance education. Feel free to check out offerings at equinestudiesonline.ca.
Check out TheHorsePortal.ca for short courses (these include courses on Biosecurity, Behaviour and Safety, Welfare Code of Practice, and more).
Kathleen Cavanagh, B.Sc., DVM, MET
Consulting Online Editor CVMA
Gayle Ecker Hon. BA, B. Ed., M.Sc.
Equine Guelph Director
Consulting Equine Expert
Shirle Ternan CPA, CMA, M.Ed (DE)
Nicole Weidner, Ph.D Candidate, Biomedical Sciences, University of Guelph