What Does a Free Horse Cost? Part 1

Here’s what you need to know before accepting a free (or nearly free) horse.

It sounds like a little girl’s dream come true, all smiles and eyes twinkling: Here, have a free horse. These scenarios do exist, and you might be tempted to say, “Yes, please! Give me all the free horses!” But first, know that a free animal might end up costing you much more than you ever imagined. 

You can find horses that are free, or close to it, in a variety of places. Some people look online, on classified sites or Craigslist, while others wander auction grounds. Some adopt from a nonprofit organization or rescue, while still others network with trainers to find retiring racehorses in need of second careers. Or they might end up meeting owners facing life-changing situations (e.g., divorces, moves, job losses, deaths in the family, etc.) who have to give their horses away.

But no matter how good the deal seems, the truth is you’d be remiss not looking a literal “gift horse” in the mouth. We talked to two veterinarians and a rescue operator to learn about the true cost and care of a free horse. 

Weighing the Risks

Nicole Eller, DVM, says a new owner must have the financial resources, time, and knowledge to care for a horse properly and address any health, behavior, and training issues he might have. As a Minnesota-based field shelter veterinarian for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals’ Field Investigations and Response Team, she’s learned one of the biggest risks with free-horse-dealing is getting a horse that has health or behavior issues or doesn’t work out that will be hard to rehome or, worst-case scenario, have to be ­euthanized.

“The key to being a successful horse owner is to choose an appropriate horse for your goals, skill level, and resources and have the support, knowledge, and understanding to properly care for your horse,” she says.

Least Risky A reputable rescue is usually the safest bet for finding a bargain horse. “There are so many wonderful horses with amazing temperaments, smarts, personality, and charm who simply need a good home, and many rescue organizations do great work to train horses to prepare them for new homes,” says Eller. “Most rescue horses are up-to-date on vaccinations, dental care, and other veterinary needs. Equine rescues can also provide educational resources and share their knowledge of local service providers, and many rescue groups offer lifetime responsibility for their adoptees in the event that you are unable to care for the horse.” 

Simply having the ability to return the horse reduces the risk, says Julia Wilson, DVM, Dipl. ACVIM, executive director of the Minnesota Board of Veterinary Medicine and the president of the Equitarian Initiative. She also suggests potential owners ask to see the horse’s previous medical records if available, especially for continuity of care. Depending on the state, the current owner might be required to give written permission for a potential new owner to access the records. 

Jennifer Williams, PhD, co-founder and president of Bluebonnet Equine Humane Society, in College Station, Texas, advises potential adopters to ask what veterinary and farrier care the organization has already provided for the horse; if he’s current on his vaccinations and deworming and has a current negative Coggins test; if the horse has any health issues; and if he has any training.

Eller reminds owners not to dismiss an older horse. “Many people would mistakenly consider a 15- to 20-year-old horse to be over the hill,” she says. “At that age, many horses have settled down and gotten plenty of life experience, so they can be less flighty and reactive. As long as the horse remains physically sound, older horses are terrific for kids and seniors looking for a gentle ride.” 

Riskier Accepting a horse from a stranger can be chancy, especially if you end up with an animal that was misrepresented. “Now that we have long-acting tranquilizers, you hear stories of people that have adopted what seemed to be a placid horse, only to find that they turn into a maniac when they get home,” says Wilson.

Williams recommends owners have a veterinarian perform a prepurchase exam on a potential free horse so they can make an informed decision about acquiring him. “If someone offers you a free horse, you are under no obligation to take it,” she says, adding that just because a horse is free doesn’t necessarily mean it is unwanted or wouldn’t make a good riding horse.

She does caution novices and parents of small children against taking on a free horse with an unknown history because they could get in over their heads if the horse ends up having physical or behavioral problems. “Novices need a horse where they can learn, not where they’re having to teach the horse,” she says, adding that it’s important to go into any free-horse situation with your eyes wide open.

If an inexperienced owner ends up with a horse with behavior issues or that needs additional training, then he or she might need to invest in professional training.

And if that horse winds up having injuries or illnesses, then the owner has additional veterinary expenses, lost time with the horse, possible euthanasia if he ends up too sick or dangerous, and then expenses for burial or other disposal, which Wilson says can run around $500.

Riskiest Low-end auction and kill pen horses, while not completely free, are the riskiest horses to take on. “A horse that’s been put in the kill pen has gone through a lot of stress,” Wilson says. “First, they have been shipped there, they have been separated from their social group, and now they’re commingling with a group of horses of totally unknown health ­history. We also know that for strangles (an infection of the upper respiratory tract and lymph nodes caused by Streptococcus equi), in particular, some horses are silent carriers. So when you get into that environment with a lot of stress, a silent carrier may start ­shedding.”

Wilson suggests potential owners looking in these venues check the Equine Disease Communication Center (­equinediseasecc.org) website for recent local disease outbreaks. She says buyers should be wary of owners trying to “dump” horses with conditions such as laminitis at auctions.

She also cautions buyers to be aware that sometimes sellers at auction advertise horses younger than they really are, so it’s important to take someone along who knows how to tell a horse’s age.

Williams says she frequently sees people acquire horses at auction that aren’t as well-trained as they seemed at the sale. Dealers aim for turnover, so many don’t keep and work with horses very long to see what they know.

“They don’t really know the horse’s background,” she says. “You can ride a horse once and the horse behaves, and you think the horse is a decently broke horse and advertise it as such, but some horses are unpredictable, and they don’t behave the same way each time. It’s not that they’re necessarily willfully misrepresenting the horse, but I don’t think you can really get a good gauge out of one or two rides.”

Eller says that despite the problem horses at auctions and kill pens, you can find some good animals. “Many healthy young horses who have absolutely no health or behavior problems at all can end up in a kill pen or auction through a series of unfortunate events,” she says.

Common Problems With Free Horses

Let’s say you take on a free horse that hasn’t had the best of care, or maybe you simply don’t know his history. Rehabbing these horses is often your first step. Here are some of the common situations you might face.

If the horse was previously neglected, he might be skinny and have overgrown hooves, pressure sores from time spent lying down due to poor health, wounds from overcrowding or poorly maintained facilities, and skin conditions due to unsanitary conditions and lack of ­grooming.

A common free-horse scenario is the mature horse that hasn’t had consistent handling or has been mishandled. These belong with more experienced horse people. | Photo: Photos.com

Eller says some rescue horses have pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction, or PPID (also known as equine Cushing’s disease), which is an endocrine disorder that can cause hirsutism (delayed ­shedding or a long hair coat) and chronic laminitis. Other horses suffer from equine asthma. Both are manageable with medications but not curable.

The horses Williams most commonly sees come through Bluebonnet are emaciated, suffering from laminitis or have in the past, or have an undiagnosed lameness. She has found true physical abuse and its related injuries to be rare.

More often she finds horses that just haven’t been handled much. “We get horses who are adults who still aren’t halter-broke, or they’ve been mishandled or inconsistently handled where they’ve been allowed to crowd and walk over the top of people and be pushy,” she says. “And not because they’re bad horses or obnoxious, but because they haven’t been taught any better.”

Because safety is paramount, she recommends novices steer clear of these horses; they belong with more experienced horsemen and women who train or can hire a trainer to help.

As for getting to know the horse with an unknown history, it can take some time. Williams has seen some pretty dramatic behavior changes in rescue horses, for example. “As they start to gain weight and feel healthier, that really quiet, placid, what you thought was going to be a kid-safe horse when you first got him can start to become a whole lot more energetic,” she says.

Whatever the horse’s background or current condition, be sure to talk to your veterinarian—and if you board, the farm owner—prior to bringing him on the property, so you can best prevent disease spread, begin rehab, and set the tone for a successful future partnership.

Bringing Your Free Horse Home

It can be exciting to ship your new horse home, but to maintain his health as well as that of his soon-to-be herdmates, you need to do some planning first.

Coggins Test Nicole Eller, DVM, MA, a Minnesota-based field shelter veterinarian for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals’ Field Investigations and Response Team, says owners should make sure the horse has a current negative Coggins test before he steps foot on the property. This ensures the horse does not have equine infectious anemia (EIA), a bloodborne disease with life-threatening complications. If a horse turns up with EIA, the owner must inform the state veterinarian and decide whether euthanasia or a lifetime of quarantine is the best option.

Quarantine your new horse from the resident herd to reduce the risk of disease spread. | Photo: Alexandra Beckstett, The Horse Managing Editor

Quarantine Separating any new horse upon arrival from resident horses is the best way to reduce the possible spread of viruses, bacteria, and other pathogens. “Infectious disease can run rampant through your herd, leading to lost training time, thousands of dollars in vet care and medication, and possibly even the loss of life,” says Eller.

Julie Wilson, DVM, Dipl. ACVIM, executive director of the Minnesota Board of Veterinary Medicine and the president of the Equitarian Initiative, adds, “The other reason to quarantine them, as well, especially if you don’t have a known history, is to make sure they get dewormed, because they may be shedding large amounts of parasite eggs that would contaminate the pasture if you just turn them out.”

The most common diseases and parasites to watch for include strangles (Streptococcus equi), equine influenza and other respiratory diseases (such as equine herpesvirus, which can also manifest as abortion and neurologic disease), salmonellosis, strongyles, pinworms, ringworm, ticks, and lice. Report clinical signs of disease to your veterinarian immediately.

Eller recommends keeping the new horse in a separate barn, if possible, or at least 30 feet away from other horses in the same barn. She said the USDA recommends a 30-day quarantine period, but if that is not possible, quarantine should last at least 14 days.

“Airflow should ideally be from the resident horses toward the new horse and then to the outside, and new horses should always be handled, fed, and cleaned last,” says Eller. “Alternatively, keep a pair of boots and coveralls in a bucket near this horse to be used only for handling that horse. Wash your hands and blow your nose when finished (then wash your hands again). Yes, you can carry infectious agents to other horses in your nose! Be sure to use separate cleaning, grooming, and feeding equipment for this horse during quarantine. It is helpful to mark those items with red tape.”

Wilson adds that it’s important for these new additions to live in a safe environment with little social stress during the quarantine period, so they’re unlikely to injure themselves and so owners can watch for signs of illness.

Despite the challenges, quarantine can be less work and less expensive in the long run than having a barn full of sick horses.

Take-Home Message

Despite the potential challenges involved, all three sources encourage potential owners to keep an open mind about free horses because the possibility is there to find a great mount.

“I have found a lovely, trusting equine who needed a little TLC,” says Eller. “I have found Third Level dressage horses, amazing off-the-track Thoroughbreds who wanted to be jumpers, and retirees who just wanted to do walkabouts with kids. Adopting a horse is an incredibly rewarding experience, and with a bit of planning and consideration to ensure you are finding the best horse for your lifestyle, you’ll get to enjoy years of companionship with your new horse.”

In the second part of this series, published in the October 2017 issue, we take an in-depth look at your free horse’s first veterinary exam and how to manage his diet, hoof care, deworming, vaccinations, and more.