WHAT TO DO IF YOU CAN’T KEEP YOUR HORSES ANYMORE?

You never know what tomorrow will hold. As you look to the future, make a safety plan for your horses.

This may seem an odd subject to address at the start of a blog about backyard horse-keeping. Having contingency plans even for your dreams is important though. The full title of this blog is, after all, The Backyard Horse Blog- Living the Dream and the Reality of Keeping Horses at Home.

To that end, I highly recommend that anyone who is considering backyard-horse ownership have an exit plan. You want to provide a safe place for your horses to land if you can no longer keep them at home. Life happens to all of us and our plans can take a nosedive at a moment’s notice.

Consider and research your options. For example, maybe you can retain ownership of your horse while it stays with friends or family, at a boarding barn, or is leased out to either an individual or a program like a therapeutic riding center, equine assisted learning program, college riding program, summer camp or trail barn. If retaining ownership is not an option, you can explore selling your horse, donating your horse to any of the above center/program options or turning ownership over to a horse rescue.

Whatever you do, I would highly recommend attempting to follow the horse for the rest of his/her life even post-ownership. If you can’t buy your horse back or otherwise care for him, you might be able to broker a better “next home” for your horse than what he would get without your intervention.

The risk of going to auction and ending up bound to slaughter is real. I realize not all horse owners are bothered by the possibility of their horse entering the slaughter pipeline, but I am, so I want to try to prevent it from happening. If you are too, you might try:

-Incorporating a “first right of refusal clause” into any sale contract

-If your horse is registered, contacting former owners who may be listed on the registration papers and/or contact the breed association directly. Some, like the American Morgan Horse Association, offer variations of “Full Circle” programs where the registry keeps a list of former owners who would be interested in helping rehome the horse.

-If you chose to sell/donate to a program, doing your research about what they do with the horse once it is no longer suitable for their program.

You will also want to consider whether finding a soft place to land for your particular horse is even realistic due to the horse’s age, medical condition or behavioral issues. I mention this because my oldest horse is turning 25 in the Spring of 2020. Bear is retired from riding, has hoof issues that require him to be trimmed every four-five weeks almost year around and is on two expensive medications to control chronic, lifetime health issues. Bear is precious to me. But he is also a financial liability. It is unlikely I will find someone else who would want to care for him if I can’t. If that times comes, my preference is to have him euthanized in my presence, on his familiar home turf and with his face stuffed in a bucket full of his favorite treats.

I would rather be able to orchestrate a quick, painless, peaceful death than risk his ending up in a new backyard possibly being neglected. Nor do I want Bear spending his last weeks suffering as a horse in the slaughter pipeline. I want to spare him from things like going through multiple auctions, being transported over long distances to strange places with strange people, housed in tight quarters with other horses and being put at big risk of injury, inconsistent access to food and water, exposure to weather, no medicine for his conditions, no foot care to help keep him sound, no one to watch out for him or advocate for his needs and a messy, frightening end in a kill box.

In thinking about what to do with your horses if you can no longer take care of them, make plans for your horse in case of your own death. Ideally, your horses will be included in your will. At the very least, you will want to let family know your wishes for your horses. Legally though, horses are treated as property which is why I would highly recommend spending some of your hard-earned money on detailing a plan for them in a will. I personally don’t want my horses as living, breathing, sentient beings treated like furniture during a property dispersal.

Make sure your family or friends know where you keep pertinent horse information and records. Make a list a horse-chore list, including what-when-how much they are fed, and keep it on your refrigerator. It will make friends/family caring for your horses that much easier in an emergency.

Hopefully you and your horses will enjoy long, healthy lives together. But if the worst should happen, your advanced planning can provide your horse(s) a hedge of protection.

INCOME

Today I will tackle the last topic on my list of “Top Five” things you need to be a backyard horse owner. The first four were knowledge, skills, facilities and equipment. The last is income.

Found this amusing meme on the internet but did not see a copyright or author signature to assign credit. Pretty much sums up my life though . . .

Let me state the obvious. Horses are expensive. Interesting though, almost half of horse owners in the US are not what most would consider to be rich. According to the American Horse Publications 2018 Equine Industry Survey, 43 percent of the 9,000 survey participant horse-owners (backyard and otherwise) from across the country reported a before tax income of less than $75,000. I live in the income region that reported the highest concentration of owners with an income under $50,000.

My own household income hovers in the lower middle-class to typical middle-class income range for the Midwest region. It has been very difficult to sustain my horse life in that income range over almost two decades. All I can say is that if you have a similar income level and you want to keep horses at home, you will need to make sacrifices in other areas of your life. Family support or at least tolerance of your horse lifestyle will be part of this. Keeping horses in your backyard will impact anyone who you live with as you will be spending household money and tons of time on your horses.

If income is an issue for you, I highly recommend having a strong financial plan including a monthly budget and an emergency fund. Being organized and thinking ahead regarding income and expenses is required. Below I have listed links to charts that show potential horse expense categories for horse owners (not necessarily backyard owners though). Keep in mind that prices vary A LOT by region (and country- the third chart lists Canadian price examples from 2013). Use the links below to give you an idea of the expenses you may need to account for depending upon your horse keeping set up and activities. I found these links while doing a quick internet search on the subject, but I wouldn’t mind finding more. If you have a favorite budget chart that you’d like to share, please list it in the comments section.

https://thehorse.com/137865/the-yearly-cost-of-keeping-a-horse/
https://www.pinterest.com/pin/535928424379244752/
https://equineguelph.ca/pdf/infosheets/Cost_Horse_Ownership.pdf

Due to my budget constraints, how long I can sustain this lifestyle is always at the back of my mind. In a future post, I will explore having a plan for your horses’ future in the event you can no longer care for them, including an after-your-death plan. It is not the cheeriest of topics, but as I mention in my blog intro page, horse-keeping isn’t all butterflies and sunshine. Remember that tomorrow is not guaranteed. Appreciate and enjoy the horses in your life today!

FACILITIES AND EQUIPMENT

In previous blog posts I have given my take on the first two of my “Top Five” things you need to be a backyard horse-owner. Numbers one and two were “knowledge” and “skills” . I addressed those in two separate posts (in addition to the post entitled “The Team Approach”). I am now going to tackle items three and four, “Facilities and Equipment”, below.

In some ways, I feel underqualified to talk about facilities and equipment simply because I have very little of both! My horse facilities are pretty bare bones. Despite this, I have managed to carry on with horse keeping for these last sixteen plus years. Over that time period, I have cared for a total of 15 horses (six of my own horses plus nine foster horses from a local rescue). I have kept as few as one horse at a time to as many as four at a time.

Here is what I have in facilities:
-two old storage barns to keep hay, tack and equipment (electricity to barns stopped working long ago, but I can run an extension cord from house to barns/paddocks if needed like for a water-trough heater in Winter)
-a run-in shed with special footing around the shed for mud control
-permanent fencing with gates (divided into three sections- two different pastures and an enclosed barn area that encompasses the two storage barns connected by a concrete pad, a driveway that leads from the road to the barns, a water pump, and a roundpen)
-solar powered electric fencing materials that I use to fortify some areas of the permanent fence as well as for cross-fencing when I need to limit grass intake or confine a sick horse or a new horse for short periods. )

Here is what I have in equipment:
-a wheel barrow and muck bucket
-manure pick, rake, broom
-water hoses with attachments, water troughs, buckets

Photo taken on a very cold January day back when I had four horses. You can see the run in shed, some fencing , the side of the red storage barn and the solar fence charger to the right of the gate. Someone needs to clear the snow off of its screen so it can charge- those rambunctious horses need to be kept fenced in!

My husband and I bought the property with everything in place but have had some things modified over the years. For example, we tore down and had put up different fencing, enlarged the usable space of the run in shed with a permanent awning and had the dirt around the run in shed removed and replaced with an ag lime base so the horses could move around the run in shed without being in mud. Most recently, we had the same thing done to the roundpen for better footing while longing and riding.

Your own horse facilities and equipment will largely be determined by your budget, preferences and where you live. Budget issues are pretty obvious. The more money you have, the more varied and intricate your facilities can be. I think people may forget though that weather and terrain can make a big difference in how you keep your horses as well. Cultural traditions and specific discipline practices can affect what is available in your area too.

Besides horse-keeping in Central Indiana, I also horse-kept in Western Colorado. This photo was taken on a warm January day to contrast with the Indiana photo above that was snapped during a January polar vortex. You can see that I had a very similar run in shed with pasture area like I had in Indiana. But do you notice the ground? That undulation is due to having an irrigated pasture which was something my horses had to get used to navigating. Be prepared for surprises like that if you ever move your horses from one part of the country to another!

Don’t forget to plan for maintenance issues. Just like with houses, it seems like there is always something in need of repair, demolition or sprucing up around the farm. If you aren’t a handy-man type of person, you will need to find reliable contractors to fix issues in a timely manner. For example, not having running water or having a fence down can cause serious safety and welfare issues for your horses so you want to have the ability to address the issue yourself or folks in place to help!

SKILL

Can you send your horse onto a trailer by yourself without drama? Can you get them back out? Both can prove surprisingly difficult- ask me how I know!

Skill is the second in my list of “Five Skills Required to Be A Backyard Horse Owner”. It is one thing to absorb a lot of information. It is another to be able to apply what you’ve learned in such a way that you get positive results in the real world.

Hopefully you are constantly adding to your knowledge and skill base no matter how long you’ve been around horses. If you are new to horses or backyard horse-keeping, I highly suggest you acquire certain basic skills before you bring home your horse(s). Taking riding lessons, riding with friends, participating in clinics and even volunteering at therapeutic riding centers and horse rescues can allow you to interact with horses in a supervised environment where you can hopefully grow.

Can you lead, groom and pick up all four hooves without risking life or limb? Can you calmly and confidently tack up your horse and ride by yourself? Can you load your horse without help in a trailer without drama? Your backyard horse-keeping will be so much more enjoyable if you have these skills with your horse already established.

Make sure you have as much foundation as you can before you venture out ON YOUR OWN. I emphasize those three words because doing things alone with your horses is a different dynamic than when you have company. The atmosphere can feel quite different when it is just you and your horse out there in the pasture, trying to get on the trailer or riding in the ring.

One type of skill that often gets left out of the equation is the skill of exercising mental or inner fitness. Being able to moderate your own emotions and how they manifest in relationship to your horse is critical to your success. Fear, anger, disappointment and other strong emotions can easily crop up in your work with horses. Your mental state affects your horse, often more than we realize and in ways that we don’t expect or even recognize. Exercising mental fitness is something that I regularly struggle with myself and so is of particular interest to me in my continual growth as a horsewoman and rider.

Interested in exploring your inner fitness? I highly recommend the book “Inside Your Ride: Mental Skills For Being Happy and Successful with Your Horse” by Tonya Johnson, MA. This book features lots of practical exercises. These exercises allow you to turn knowledge of mental fitness into actual mental fitness skills when you employ them in real time while working with horses.

THE TEAM APPROACH

Bear and I on a lakeside trail ride. If you want to be able to enjoy your horses like I am here with Bear, you need to take a team approach to their care. Thanks to my friend, Susy, for capturing a great Bear moment for posterity.

THE TEAM APPROACH

Backyard horse-people are typically do-it-yourselfers. They might get some family/friend support, but many folks do most of their own work. All the feeding, mucking, monitoring, doctoring, organizing, scheduling, trailering and riding falls on the backyard horse person.

No man is truly an island though. Very few of us could do all that plus be our own veterinarian, farrier, body worker (like massage and other complimentary therapies) and riding instructor/trainer. Not all of us can grow our own hay- thank you all you hay farmers out there! And don’t forget those farm/pet sitters if you ever want to leave home without your critters! If you are considering backyard horse-keeping, I would highly recommend putting a team of professionals in place BEFORE you bring your horses home.

Many folks may readily understand the importance of securing a veterinarian and farrier, but may forget about a riding instructor/trainer. Even if you chose not to show or chose only to ride at home, you may at some point in your journey need the input of someone with more horse skill. Stuff crops up with horses with some frequency. It will likely increase your confidence in knowing that you can draw on the skills of others. You may need help through rough patches in communication with your horse. You may need help when things are going well, but you want to get to the next level with your horse.

You may have to work to find just the right person to fill each position. The more you will see that person, the more important finding the right person becomes. For example, of all the horse professionals I interact with, my farrier is the one I have seen most frequently year in and year out. To me, it is important to have a farrier that is not only competent but is personable enough to listen to concerns and answer questions. I don’t want to be inviting onto my property every four to eight weeks a person who I dislike. At times I have worked with various professionals who clearly demonstrated that they were completely uninterested in me. They were condescending, dismissed my concerns, made rude comments about my horses and were unwilling to answer my questions. I have read lots of articles written by horse professionals complaining about clients (and I cringe when I read them as I often see a bit of myself in their complaints!), but let me tell you, there are many disgruntled clients out there too.

While you may be tempted to overlook a bad bedside manner due to someone’s professional success, keep your horse in mind. For example, it does your horse no good to be holding them for the farrier while you are disrespected and maligned. Horses will pick up on your tension but likely will not understand why you are upset. They may instead interpret that there is danger lurking in the environment or that your negativity is directed at them. This does nothing but possibly detract from your relationship and make your horse more unruly during farrier care. An occasional bad experience is just part of life but regularly exposing your horse to this kind of situation is asking for trouble.

Your horses are counting on you to find the right team. Just as we can’t be all things to all people, we can’t be all things to our horses. The better the team, the better the chances of creating a happy and healthy life for your horse.

KNOWLEDGE

In reference to my first post entitled “What is Required?”, we come across the word knowledge. Knowledge is the first on my “List of Five Things You Need to Become A Backyard Horse-Owner”. Knowledge can be accumulated in many ways. You can read, you can watch, you can do. You can also contemplate all that you read, watch and do.

With all things horse-related, there is nothing better than doing. Learning to read them, interact with them on the ground and ride them all require lots of experience that is best acquired by doing.

That being said, you certainly can and should learn also by reading and watching and listening. There are an endless list of books, dvds, magazines and all manner of online horse materials. I am a reader by nature and am sharing a few of my favorites sources here. They are listed in no particular order.

How to Think Like a Horse By Cherry Hill- Just like Cherry’s “Horsekeeping On a Small Acreage” book that I recommended in a previous post, this book is an excellent read for those new to horses as well as for folks who want to expand their ability to read equine body language and behavior. Cherry’s Hills books can be purchased online as well as in many bookstores. I have also seen her books in libraries across the country.

The Anna Blake Blog– Anna Blake shares her perspectives on affirmative horse training and all that it encompasses through her blog as well as a series of books. Anna Blake’s perspective is different from what I would consider to be main-line horse training. I have learned so much through her nuanced views of horses and horse-people. My favorite line from her work is “less correction, more direction”. Go to http://www.annablake.com to sign up for her blog and view her other materials.

Here is a photo of my copy of Anna Blake’s latest book, Going Steady: More Relationship Advice From Your Horse. Notice how many tabs I have used to mark passages that I consider important enough to reference.

Horse Listening– This blog is written by a dressage trainer who breaks dressage down in a way that all horses and riders, no matter their chosen discipline, can benefit from her instruction. She also has written a series of books that I would highly recommend to help improve your riding. Go to http://www.horselistening.com to sign up for this blog and other materials.

Equus Magazine– I actually remember when this magazine first appeared in the 1970’s. I loved reading Equus as a child. I was absolutely thrilled to later as an adult have several of my essays published in Equus. It was a monthly magazine for most of its history but has recently gone to a quarterly format. Equus is a general interest horse magazine that appeals to folks across the various horse disciplines and levels. Go to http://www.equusmagazine.com to check it out.

The Horse Magazine-Your Guide To Equine Health Care– This magazine still comes out in a monthly format. It is focused on horse health and welfare issues. The magazine also maintains an extensive online library with information about all kinds of horse health and horse care articles. The magazine is a great monthly read and the online library an excellent reference source. Go to http://www.thehorse.com.

Language Signs and Calming Signals of Horses: Recognition and Application- Ever heard of calming signals in dogs? Horses use them too. They use these signals to calm themselves and those around them (that includes humans) in order to reduce stress, avoid conflict and maintain social relationships. This is an indepth book that strangely has not gotten a lot of attention in the horse world. It has opened my eyes to a number of horse behaviors that I have previously misinterpreted or missed altogether. If you are new to horses, I would suggest starting with the book How To Think Like A Horse by Cherry Hill and then go to this book. If you have been around horses for awhile or forever, I think you will be surprised as to how much new information you can get from this book. Special thank you to horse professional, Andrea Datz from the Restoration Ranch in Colorado, for making me aware of this book!

In a future post, I will explore what I consider to be a subset of acquiring knowledge- gathering a team of horse professionals to help you help your horse. As a backyard horse person, you will largely be a do-it-yourselfer. There are very few people who don’t need and use outside help along the way though. In the mean time, click on some of the above links or search for the books listed and go reading!

About The Writer

Mary Lynne Carpenter is a backyard horse-keeper who lives in the Midwest of the USA. She loves to write and ride. Her work has appeared in Equus Magazine, The Horse Magazine, Horse Network, Horse Nation and The Plaid Horse Blog. You can reach her at thebackyardhorseblog@gmail.com.

The following are links to some of her published works:

Temporary Shelter- https://equusmagazine.com/horse-world/temporary-shelter-53517/

Note to Truck- https://horsenetwork.com/2019/03/note-to-truck/

The Stuff of Dreams- https://www.pressreader.com/usa/equus/20190528/page/130/textview

Building The Horse Community One Trailer Ride At A Time- https://thehorse.com/180174/building-the-horse-industry-one-trailer-ride-at-a-time/

Perseverance and Grit For The Everyday Equestrian- https://www.theplaidhorse.com/2019/08/28/perseverance-and-grit-for-the-everyday-equestrian/

What Is Required?

My backyard horse set-up

There are lots of things required to keep horses at home- knowledge, skill, facilities, equipment and a steady source of income round out my top five. That being said, backyard horse set-ups come in a delightful variety of flavors, shapes and sizes. Your backyard might be behind your million dollar house and include a barn, multiple paddocks, a trail system and an indoor arena. Another backyard set-up might be right behind a mobile home where the horses use the awning as shade and strips of electric fencing keep them from wandering off. My personal set up is somewhere in between.

I would love to have a fancier facility than what I do. And yet, I have lived around the country and observed a variety of set ups where the horses appeared happy and healthy, even when the facilities where they lived were modest. It seems that the fanciness of the arrangements does not necessarily correlate with a horse’s physical and mental health/wellness. All horses should be granted the FIVE FREEDOMS (freedom from thirst, hunger, discomfort, pain/injury/disease, fear/distress and freedom to express normal species behavior). Fortunately, these can be provided for in a variety of ways. If you would like to read more about the FIVE FREEDOMS, I suggest this Equisearch article on the topic at https://www.equisearch.com/articles/animal-welfare-freedoms-15961

For anyone reading this blog and considering backyard horse-keeping, I recommend your starting by digging up a copy of the 2005 book “Horsekeeping on a Small Acreage: Designing and Maintaining Your Equine Facilities”. This classic by horse professional and author Cherry Hill will act as a guide and give you great food for thought. A lot has happened in the horse world since 2005, but horses themselves haven’t changed much. You ought to find plenty of useful info that is still applicable today. Start with your local library and see if they have a copy.

Just as important as my top five standard requirements, there are character qualities that need to be developed to be successful in this endeavor. To that end, I am sharing a link to one of my freelance pieces entitled “Perseverance and Grit for the Everyday Equestrian”. It appeared on The Plaid Horse Blog on August 28, 2019 as well as The Plaid Horse Facebook page.

https://www.theplaidhorse.com/2019/08/28/perseverance-and-grit-for-the-everyday-equestrian/

If there is one thing (well, two things) that the backyard horse owner needs, it is perseverance and grit to handle all the situations that will crop up along the way!

How It All Began For Me

This is a scrapbook page photo of me riding my aunt’s Appaloosa gelding named Drifter.

My Aunt introduced me to horses at a young age. I first learned to ride when I was five years old. I kept riding into my pre-teen years and then barely went near a horse for the next fifteen years or so. I began riding again after turning thirty and was soon the proud owner of a gelding named Blue. I started off boarding my new horse, but about a year and a half later, I brought him to home to the newly purchased rural property I shared with my husband, son and a handful of cats.

I still remember the first time I caught a glimpse of Blue as I was standing inside the house. I was looking out through the french doors that provided a view of the pasture. Waves of emotion came over me as I realized that I finally had accomplished my long-held goal of having my very own horse in my very own backyard.

The gratitude, the excitement and the sheer thrill of finally having my own horse at home could not be understated. As I have begun to dabble in freelance writing, the memory of these experiences and emotions provided fodder for essays like “The Stuff of Dreams” which was published in the Summer 2019 issue of Equus Magazine (Equus #497). Here is the link to the essay via Pressreader:

https://www.pressreader.com/usa/equus/20190528/page/130/textview

If you are reading this and have held a similar dream, I would encourage you to gain as much horse knowledge and experience as possible before going it alone as a backyard horse owner. In many ways, it is something you learn by doing, but for your own safety and that of your horse(s), I would highly suggest a certain knowledge and skill base. We will delve into that subject further in future posts.

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