Sunday, April 1, 2007

A Visit to the Equine Dentist - and Other Horse Care

It's Spring...and time for our annual visit to the equine dentist. Although they have not yet been formally introduced in blog posts, we have two horses - Esmae, an Arabian mare, and Buster, a quarter horse gelding. Buster is level headed, and generally looks a lot more dignified than he does in this photo of him in the dentist's padded stock. He is shown here getting his teeth inspected before they are filed down.

Every Spring we trailer up for a relatively short drive to a visiting equine dentist, Sarah Metcalf. She is gentle with the horses and has a nice portable setup for the dental exams. While I don't like the sound of the file any more than human dental noises, the horses are generally put under a bit of sedation and don't seem to care much. If you can handle the icks of dentistry, I think this would be a good life. You get to ride around with your dogs, set your own hours, and work with animals.

Someone asked me recently about what horse care involves, as they are considering a horse for their daughter. I can't think of a better thing for a little girl to spend time on...I wish I'd learned to ride much earlier than age 30. I always dreamed of owning a horse, and actually I started saving for one at age 3 or 4. I was extremely determined, even as a small child, and I was very committed to saving up for my horse. I made my parents promise me that if I saved enough for a horse we could get one. By the time I was 6, I had saved $75 from doing extra chores, selling my used books and toys at garage sales, and collecting birthday money. In 1976 that was good money.

One day my sister said she saw an ad in the paper for donkeys for $75. Since the cheapest horses were at least a few hundred, a donkey seemed like a very good compromise, so I bought Jenny, an old pack train donkey. My parents were shocked when I produced an ad and the money, but to their credit they did not say no - though there were some heated discussions behind closed doors, in which I think my dad fought for them keeping their promise.

Unfortunately, about all Jenny liked to do, once acquired, was buck me off, and I never did save up enough for a saddle or other tack beyond a halter and lead rope, so I didn't get much riding experience, though I did enjoy Jenny's companionship for several years. In retrospect, it would have been worth waiting a few years and getting a real, trained, ride-able horse...but you know, I was 6, my life experience was limited. My zeal for equines was not. No one in my family knew anything about horses.

In any event, back to horse care. At first it was intimidating as I didn't know what to do, so I bought some books at and asked around. Now I would tell anyone considering a horse that the following are the basic care checklist items:

1. Vaccines - you need Spring and Fall vaccines. Any equine vet will be able to tell you exactly what you need, but ask about West Nile vaccine and rabies, which are not standard. While the vet is out, if you have a male horse he will need a sheath cleaning once a year. All horses should get dewormed a minimum of twice a year. If you have no injuries during the year, you can get by with twice a year vet visits, and you should be able to find a vet who will make a farm call. Ideally you want an equine specialist, though if there are none in your area get the vet most experienced with equines in your area.

2. Equine Dentist - you need to have the horse's teeth "floated" once a year, which files off sharp points that develop and can cause sores in their mouths. Young horses may need "wolf teeth" extracted, or their teeth filed down slightly to comfortably accommodate a bit (called a bit-set).

3. Farrier - horse foot care is vital, and there is no substitute for a good farrier. He/she can tell you if you need to shoe or not, and will regularly trim the horses' feet. Feet grow faster in the summer so you need the farrier every 6-8 weeks in summer and every few months in winter.

4. Hay - if the horse is on your land, you may need to buy quality hay once a year and store it in a dry location to avoid mold. I stock up in fall of every year. If you board the horses, hay is likely included in the board price.

5. Training - I send my horses away to training for a month once a year, in the Spring, for a tune up and to expand their skills. Many horse owners do this, as the horses have likely not been ridden much over the winter and it's good to get them in shape by working an hour a day with a trainer for a month before you start riding regularly. Personally I prefer trainers who use natural horsemanship and develop a partnership with the horse and I will never subject my horses to anyone who uses violence, spurs, whips, or attempts to "break the horse's spirit." I want them to teach the horse through communication and positive reward. Finding a good trainer can be the hardest of the horse care items, but if you ask around horse barns or events you should be able to find one before too long. Don't leave your horse with anyone until you have seen them in action, and seen their facility. Drop by unannounced to check on your horse also.

What does all this cost? About $1,000 per year per horse, if you have your own land. Obviously that varies by area and quality of hay, but it's a reasonable estimate. Of course, you have additional investment if you buy a horse, saddle, tack, trailer and truck, but you can phase those things in over time. Horses are not harder to take care of than other animals, and they are wonderful friends - just make sure they have another horse to hang out with if at all possible. They are social animals and it's hard on them to be alone.

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