Horses and boats have much in common. When you begin to fish frequently from small craft and subsequently sail on larger party boats, you see the obvious advantages of having your own boat. When you take trail rides or pack trips with horses or rent horses to ride in field trials for pointing dogs, you quickly see the advantages of having your own horse, too. But then you look at the big picture, and you wonder: Should I really be doing this?
Talk to friends who have horses or work around them in stables and it’s quickly apparent that horses have the same magnetism as canines. It’s not uncommon for folks who start out with dogs to wind up with horses, too, and vice versa.
Horse training, in many ways, seems similar to training dogs; the difference is how costly the mistakes can be. A clumsy or rebellious half-ton of horse can be a lot more dangerous than 35 to 70 pounds of stubborn, muscular bird dog. And there’s a big difference between the responses of prey animals (horses) and predators (canids). Dogs often go boldly or confidently to places where horses see dragons and spook or buck uncontrollably. Just like having a good veterinarian to care for your dogs (cats and small animals as well), you need a good veterinarian to care for your horses, but he or she will be a large-animal vet, and costs will be proportional! Don’t forget those regular visits from a farrier, too.
Costs do mount up (pun intended.) Unlike kennels and crates and small SUVs (or old station wagons in earlier times) to haul your dogs, you’ll require a horse trailer and a hefty haul vehicle to transport your horses. And we say “horses” because most horse owners have a couple of horses to keep all of them happy in a “herd” situation.
Horse boarding costs can run over $1,000 per month in our area to less than one quarter that amount in really rural areas, but the alternative is having some small acreage for a paddock and maybe a couple of acres of pasture, along with a run-in barn or an enclosed one. When you are finished totaling all those costs — thousands upon thousands of dollars in suburban/rural surroundings like eastern Long Island or coastal New England — you’ve dipped substantially into those pension funds, IRAs and whatever other savings are available. Many look at horses, therefore, as their retirement expenditures!
Logistics become part of the adventure, especially because horses are rather inefficient, according to the first and second laws of thermodynamics. Taking the caloric content of 50 pounds of grass or hay and 50 pounds of water (about six gallons) per horse per day as input, the 70 pounds of manure and perhaps 20 pounds of urine generated by a single horse seem like a lot of waste! If you don’t have a waste hauler, you had better have plenty of land to spread the piles, plus the physical fitness regimen to handle the waste disposal on a daily basis.
Last winter upstate was a tough one, and our pair of horses became “barn bums” because the snows were so deep. As a consequence, all winter we had to haul manure, in tubs that could be slid over the snow piles, from the barn to an area 150 yards away. To keep from “postholing” while hauling the tubs, we put on snowshoes for most of the distance. With two horses and three heavy tubs of manure hauled away daily, the exercise and caloric burn were considerable. I wound up losing seven pounds in two months, although cross-country skiing would have been a lot more enjoyable than mucking out that barn twice daily.
Remember that all horses are not created equal. There are, for example, Morgans, thoroughbreds, Arabians, warmbloods, saddle breds and standardbreds; there are buggy horses, draft horses, gaited walking horses, jumpers, and many, many more. The trail horse has a different “job” than the buggy horse and the buggy horse isn’t usually the horse you saddle up for dog training.
You can try to teach an old horse — a rescue, for example — new tricks, but there are drawbacks. We adopted a standardbred buggy horse to keep our Kentucky mountain saddle horse company, and Jan trained him to carry a rider, not an easy process.
After several years, he developed enough confidence to ride with her for miles, over fields, into woods, following the dogs. Unfortunately, he was agoraphobic and never was comfortable riding in a large gallery following dogs in major trials, so he eventually became a “pasture pet.”
Just like boats becoming holes in the water that suck up your savings, horses can be creatures in the pasture you pour money into and get manure from. But when horses do their jobs well, they are indeed wonderful animals, and they certainly give tremendous pleasure to their riders!