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“Buy Me a Pony, Daddy!”

Owning a horse can be one of life’s most rewarding experiences, and buying and caring for a horse is a huge responsibility. It’s best to research the idea before jumping in.The American Association of Equine Practitioners recently sponsored the country’s first workshop on unwanted horses. Unwanted horses include normal, healthy horses whose owners are no longer interested in or capable of providing care for them; older horses or those with infirmities or non-life-threatening diseases; horses with behavioral problems; or horses who are truly dangerous. The actual numbers of unwanted horses are difficult to determine, but U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics indicate that, in 2004, more than 80,000 horses were sent to slaughter, and 92.3 percent of the horses arriving at U.S. slaughter plants were in “good” condition.According to the AAEP, “Neglect of horses takes many forms and is due to a variety of factors. Some reasons may include an increasing number of uninformed horse owners unfamiliar with proper horse care and economic constraints created by a downturn in the economy.”In light of these statistics, many horse rescue organizations are focusing on educating the potential horse owner. Hilary Wood of Front Range Equine Rescue said, “That’s the most important way we can work to prevent the abuse and neglect of horses: reach more people to help them solve problems with their horses.” Wood emphasized that owning a horse is not like owning a dog or a cat. “You can’t just take a horse to obedience training and that’s it,” she said. If your goal is to ride, you need to train yourself and your horse so you can form a safe and satisfying partnership that will last a lifetime. Otherwise, you might end up with a very expensive 1,000-pound lawn ornament or, worse, a horse you can’t handle and don’t want.Potential horse owners need to consider a number of factors before they buy or adopt a horse. Probably the first and most important consideration is cost. Unless you’re thinking of buying a performance horse for competition or a particularly expensive breed, the purchase price of your horse will be your smallest expense.If this is your first horse, you’ll need to buy grooming items and tack. All horses need vaccinations (typically in the spring and fall) and de-worming; your veterinarian can help you with a schedule. Even horses that don’t wear shoes need regular hoof care, generally every two months (averaging around $25 to trim the hooves). If you plan on riding on hard surfaces or in the mountains, your horse will need shoes, which can cost from $60 to $100 and up (every six to eight weeks).”You’ll need to purchase feed and water buckets and feed storage cans,” said Wood. “You should also have adequate shelter and turn-out available.” A barn isn’t necessary, as most horses will do fine with a simple three-sided shed in the pasture, but you will need some place to store the hay. Safe fencing is also essential.Don’t mistake that stuff growing out in your pasture for feed. Especially in arid climates like Colorado, the weeds grow faster than the grass. If you hope to feed your horse on pasture alone, it should be high-quality grass. Pasture must be maintained, and ideally, your land should be cross-fenced so you can rotate your horses off an area and allow the pasture to restore itself.According to the Colorado State University Cooperative Extensive Service, “One 1,000-pound horse requires 600 pounds of dry forage each month. Non-irrigated pasture in Colorado produces 500 to 2,500 pounds per acre per year. Horses will trample grass and be selective in grazing, so follow the ‘take half, leave half’ principle.” The extensive service recommends a minimum of 29 acres of dry land (non-irrigated) pasture per horse.So clearly, most small landowners will have to supplement their horse’s diet with hay. The price of hay fluctuates depending on weather, fuel prices and many other variables. During Colorado’s recent drought, hay prices soared to over $8 a bale. Currently, if you have somewhere to store your hay and can buy in volume, a ton of hay (30 bales) could cost as little as $3 a bale. However, a small acreage owner is more likely to pay $6 to $7 a bale. The AAEP estimates that the minimum yearly cost to care for a horse, not including veterinary and farrier expenses, is $1,825.Just for fun, I added up my own horse-related expenses for the past year. These expenses include monthly full-care boarding (which tends to average around $300 a month in this area), twice-yearly shots and dental care, hoof trimming every eight weeks (my horse doesn’t wear shoes), supplements for general health and joints and worming every eight weeks. Grand total: close to $4,000. This sum doesn’t include vet visits for illness, lessons, tack, grooming items and those all-important horse cookies.Owning a horse is a serious commitment that eats up your time and money and often tests your patience and strains your budget. But it’s worth it.Next month: The true test of a horse lover

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