How to prepare yourself and your horse for backyard living
You’ve yearned to keep a horse in your backyard for years. You’ve dreamt of looking out the window each morning to see him grazing contentedly in his tidy paddock. You’ve pictured yourself going out anytime you want to feed him, groom him, ride him, and just be with him. Now you’ve found that this can be a reality. It’s time: You’re about to bring a horse home.
But before you do, there’s a host of things to prepare and much to consider, from the structures you need to build/have built to the equipment you’ll need to use to complete barn chores.
Read on to learn what horse extension specialists Karen Waite, PhD, of Michigan State University, and Fernanda Camargo, DVM, PhD, of the University of Kentucky, recommend for owners making the transition to at-home horse care.
Pastures and Paddocks
You’ll need to provide adequate turnout space for each horse on your property. Here, climate will play a large part in determining your pasture size. In drier climates horses will need more grazing room than in wetter areas with lusher pastures.
“Here in Kentucky, 1 to 2 acres per horse will suffice,” Camargo says.
Space to run and roam is ideal, she says, although many horses that are used to confined areas do well with smaller paddocks or drylots, which might be your only option if you have limited acreage.
To surround that space you’ll need safe fencing. Waite recommends that it’s at least 4 feet high for a standard 1,000-pound horse.
“A fence should be as high as your horse’s withers,” adds Camargo. “Ideally, fences for horses have some give but also contain the horse. Here in Kentucky we have a lot of board fences. The diamond mesh or the no-climb wire are also good when used with a sight board made of wood, vinyl, or rubber at the top, so the horse can see the fence.
“It all depends on how much you want to spend, and it’s important you understand that all fence types need maintenance,” she continues. “However, barbed wire and even smooth wire are never a good idea for horses. You can use electric fence, but you have to supervise the horse until he learns to respect it. Usually, one zap is all it takes.”
Refuge From Sun and Rain
Your next decision will be what type of housing your horse needs. Again, climate and your horse’s condition will factor in, as will your finances and the horse’s previous living situation.
“People don’t always give enough thought to where a horse is coming from and what it’s used to,” says Waite.
Has he been stalled 24/7, ridden regularly, and/or had daily turnout? Has he lived in a group of horses, or does he come from a single-horse home?
“A horse that’s coming from a multi-horse turnout situation that’s put into a single-horse home might run through fences or call incessantly, searching for other horse buddies,” Waite says. “The closer you can make your situation to his previous situation, the better off your horse will be. That doesn’t mean it has to be that way forever, but you can avoid a lot of distress and injury by gradually adjusting the situation to be more in keeping with what your plans are for managing him.”
Appropriate shelter for your region might be a barn with or without stalls, a three-sided shed, a roof with open sides, or merely a safe tree line that provides protection from rain, snow, and wind.
“Most states have some minimum care standards,” which you can research and follow, Waite says.
Camargo says trees make wonderful natural shelters. “They provide little droplets of water that make them cooler than a run-in shed,” she says. “So, if trees would be his source of shelter, you’d need to research horse-safe trees in your area.” You don’t want your horse sheltering under toxic trees such as box elders, for instance.
Your financial ability also dictates the type of housing you can provide. Whether you’re limited to an existing shelter or are building from the ground up, consider what your daily horse routine will entail:
Your horse will need at least 5 to 10 gallons of water each day, depending on the weather and other factors such as exercise, lactation, or a combination of those, says Waite. That’s anywhere from 40 to almost 90 pounds of water. How close is your shelter to a water source, so you can haul buckets easily and ensure he has clean, fresh water at all times? Also, in cold winter climates, you might have to break surface ice to allow your horse to drink.
A rectangular bale of hay weighs anywhere from 50 to 100 pounds. Although a bale can last several days for a single horse, consider how far your hay storage is from his feeding area and how it will get from field to truck to your storage space to the feeding area.
Consider your horse shelter’s proximity to your compost or manure pile. A wheelbarrow loaded with bedding and manure can be hard to push, especially when ground is muddy or icy.
Acquire horse-, rodent-, and weatherproof storage for grain. “Horses can founder or colic if they get access to your grain supply,” Waite says.
“Rodents, raccoons, birds, and opossums can pass diseases to horses, so it’s important not to let wildlife create a residence in your barn,” Camargo adds. “Plastic or metal trash cans with tight-fitting lids can provide good protection. Also, don’t buy feed to last for months because, depending on its type (and the ambient temperature/humidity), it can become rancid.”
What time of day will you feed your horse? In winter, when days are short, you might be feeding in the dark. Is a light source available? “You might also need light at night for a colic or some other emergency or a place where your veterinarian or farrier can safely work out of the weather,” Waite says.
If you’re going to have electricity, it needs to be inside conduit to prevent rodents (and horses) from chewing on wires, says Camargo. “Barn fires are far more common than we wish, and many of them are electrical, so it’s very important that any electrical be installed by a licensed electrician so everything is up to code,” she says. “I highly recommend that you don’t use space heaters in barns, but if you will use it anyway, never leave it unattended.”
Plans for Emergencies
Along the lines of things to plan for, consider emergency access. If you must ship out quickly due to an illness or accident or evacuate in the event of wildfires or a natural disaster, you have to be able to reach your horse with a vehicle.
“You need to have a truck and trailer that fits as many horses as you have in one trip,” Camargo says. “And the horse(s) need to know how to load.”
Let the fire department that serves you know your location and that you have horses, “so that if there is a fire, they’ll know where to go,” she adds. “Especially in new developments, if they don’t have a good address, they’re not going to be able to find you as quickly.”
Ideally, says Camargo, you’ll have asphalt all the way to your horse, but that’s not always the reality. “If the fire truck can’t get to your facility, it’s going to be hard for them to put down a fire.”
In addition, figure out where the closest equine hospital is, and craft a plan for emergencies of all types.
“Make sure your truck and trailer are functional, the tires are good, and it has enough gas to get you somewhere safe,” Waite says. Also, organize your vital paperwork—veterinary records, Coggins test results, and a way to identify your horse, whether that’s registration papers, a microchip number, photos, or a written description, so you can claim him if he’s recovered by emergency personnel.
Health & Safety Needs
While you’re considering your horse’s housing needs, also think about health and safety. For instance, again, you want your muck pile relatively close, so you don’t have too far to go with the wheelbarrow. But you want it far enough away that it doesn’t contribute to a fly problem in your barn.
“Many people don’t consider the fact that horses produce 40 to 50 pounds of manure a day, so they don’t think about what they’re going to do with it,” Waite says. “Building compost bins away from the horses can be an effective and efficient way to deal with it.
“You may be able to get somebody to come and haul your compost away—a farmer or a gardener or some companies will,” she adds. “But some places don’t want it in landfills anymore.”
Waite describes the three-bin compost systems she’s had built at her small, at-home facility: “We have a tractor with a front-end loader so we can move manure from one bin to the next, which turns it, so by the time it gets to the third bin, it’s pretty well composted. It doesn’t take very long in the summer—probably after three months it’s half the mass it was. When it’s all done, we put it into a big pile of black dirt and use it in flower beds and such. People should realize, though, that a tall, static pile of manure that gets taller than your barn isn’t compost—compost actually has to be managed.”
Routinely (at least weekly, says Waite) scout and rid your horse’s quarters of anything that might hurt him: machinery, protruding nails, wire, junk, low-hanging lights, broken boards, and the like. “Remove any trash in your pasture before you even put horses in, because they will find it and they will get hurt on it,” she says.
“Here, ice is one of the biggest hazards we have to deal with, so having some idea of how your turnout lots and pastures lie and where water collects in the summertime will give you some idea of where the biggest hazards will be in winter when they’ll thaw and freeze and thaw and freeze,” she adds. “Horses that are out 24/7 seem to handle ice pretty well, but if it’s a situation where they’re stalled part of the day and out part of the day, they react to the going out and aren’t always as careful as they might otherwise be.”
To safeguard your property Waite recommends installing security cameras. “We actually have cameras inside and outside our barn, and we have a lock on our tack room door because we had some theft in our area a couple of years ago,” she says. “We make a point of locking the doors. Depending on where you are, ‘no trespassing’ signs can be helpful. Like swimming pools, horses are an attractive nuisance. People are probably the hardest things to keep out, along with neighbors’ dogs.”
Supplies You’ll Need
It takes a lot of gear and supplies to manage horses anywhere, including at home. Here’s some of the most important equipment you’ll need to manage your horses at home, aside from any tack or riding equipment:
- A salt block for free-choice licking, formulated for horses (not livestock);
- A manger and/or grain bucket to keep feed off the ground;
- Water buckets and/or a trough or automatic waterers;
- A heat source to keep your horse’s water from freezing if you live in a cold climate (or you can break ice with a hammer);
- Bedding or mats (if your horse is stalled);
- Stall cleaning supplies: wheelbarrow, manure fork, scoop shovel, rake, broom;
- A halter and lead rope for every horse in your care (especially necessary in an evacuation, so you don’t waste time swapping out gear); and
- Of course, safety gear for when you’re working around horses, including sturdy boots.
Depending on what the horse is going to be doing, he might need a concentrate feed, says Camargo.
“If your horse is an easy keeper, hay and grass alone may be sufficient,” she says. “However, hay and grass will only have the minerals that the soil provides. If your soil is deficient in any minerals, your hay and grass will also be deficient. Generally, for easy keepers I recommend (based on the horse’s size) 1 or 2 pounds of a ration balancer to provide enough vitamins and minerals with very few calories. If your horse isn’t an easy keeper or is a performance animal, he may not have all the calories he needs. For extra calories I’d add free-choice alfalfa hay and, if he still needs more calories, many different, excellent products are available. I personally like to buy concentrates that are mixed at mills that make horse feed exclusively, so there’s less chance of contamination with products that can be fatal to horses.”
Speak with an equine nutritionist for guidance on your horse’s diet.
Bring in the Pros
Both Waite and Camargo stress the importance of forming and maintaining a relationship with a veterinarian and a farrier. “Depending on your area and how many equine veterinarians there are, they will tend to treat their regular clients first,” says Waite. “The same with a farrier and getting on a regular schedule. They appreciate having regular clients they know they’re going to be working with. I’d say the same is true for hay producers and growers: Telling them early how much you think you might need and paying on time and up front will save you some angst up the road.”
“To find a veterinarian, get on social media and ask your friends who they use,” says Camargo. “Or, you can go to aaep.org and type in your ZIP code for a list of equine veterinarians near you. Many (first-time horse owners) find their veterinarian when they have a prepurchase exam done. As soon as you get the horse, invite the veterinarian over for a wellness exam—vaccinations and a fecal egg count. If that relationship works out, great. If not, then you can try someone else.
“Above all, treat your veterinarian and your farrier as the professionals they are,” she adds. “Maintain that relationship and they’re going to be eager to come over and treat your horse and give you advice. That relationship is important for your horse’s health.”
The better your horse’s health, the happier he’ll be and the more you’ll get to enjoy him. And that’s what keeping a horse at home is all about.