One of the most frequent questions I get from non-horse people is “How much does a horse cost?”. I love this question because while I know they are asking what the average purchase price of a horse is (which is a rabbit hole question in and of itself), I feel obligated to over-deliver on my response, and watch their eyes glaze over from TMI. The uninitiated are never prepared for the ultimate answer. Horses cost your soul.
The question drives me crazy when asked by people tangentially exposed to horses, and the ones that are least prepared mentally and financially to own a horse. You know the type, the parents whose child has just started taking riding lessons. It must be cheaper to buy a horse than paying for little Katie to ride at a barn with a horse professional (um no). Get ready to fork out for little Katie’s medical bills when her impressive yet beginner horsemanship skills get her into trouble and her clueless parents have zero equine experience. Or, there are the people whose neighbors had backyard horses they let the neighbor kid ride as a child. Then there is the friend of a horse person, so they are now an expert in all things equine as well. Another one, is the beginner adult taking lessons because “horses are my dream!” but they’ve never owned anything larger than a Labrador. “The barn owner lets me help with night feed, though! I know what I’m doing!” These are the people with front row seats on the side lines by the water cooler, and now they feel qualified to quarterback the game.
In reality horses are expensive. If I had a dollar for every Facebook post someone tagged me in about a “free” horse, because “You love horses, right?”, I’d probably have enough money to care for the nine already on my books for at least a year. So I’m dedicating this post to everyone that has ever asked me the question, and for the few of you naive enough to think owning your very own horse will be a magical, spiritual undertaking that will change your life. Oh, it will change your bank account and your social life in ways you never expected.
I’m not trying to discourage people from getting into horses. They are life changing, but not everyone that loves horses is actually prepared financially or mentally to own horses. Sometimes riding the school/lesson horses, paying your trainer to watch over you, and leaving the care of the horses up to the professionals is the best thing for all parties involved especially the horse.
Let’s start with the cost of purchasing a single horse. Purchasing a horse can be inexpensive, free even! There are tons of horses looking for a forever home, because they are older, not performing like they used to, eating too much, their owners have had significant life changes or were totally unprepared for the cost of horse ownership etc. The list goes on and on.
Do you know anything about horse confirmation, good vs bad? Have you ever ridden anything besides an already trained, dead broke, bomb proof schooling mount? If you have only ridden horses at a lesson barn, there’s a good chance the cheap and free horses will not be for you. If you can’t identify good vs poor confirmation, you shouldn’t be shopping for a horse without assistance. There is an old saying among horse traders. You can only pick two out of three: cheap, sound, broke. If it’s cheap and sound, it won’t be broke. If it’s cheap and broke, it won’t be sound. If it’s sound and broke it won’t be cheap.
So in my life I’ve ridden and owned animals that ranged in prices from $200 to $20,000. The differences in these animals were reflected in the registration papers (or lack thereof) and their training (of lack thereof). I’ve ridden horses that initially cost less than $1000, but after the benefit of training and exposure at shows, would go on to be worth more than $20,000. I have a Bachelor of Science in Agriculture, and one of the first things my Equine Studies professor made sure all students understood, is that no horse is objectively worth more than what current meat market prices are paying. Everything else is subjective in the horse’s value. One severe leg or hoof injury can send the value of a $100,000 horse to meat market price in seconds.
The real cost of horses isn’t in the purchase price, no matter what you pay for the animal initially. A “free” horse will cost you at a minimum $6000 (this is a very low ball number for people with prior equine experience) a year. The true expense of horses comes in the form of feed, training, and routine vet care. We’ll talk about emergency vet care a little later! So little Katie’s parents buy her that horse, but now they need a place to keep it. Looks like that will be $300-500 per month in board. Horses eat a lot, so you’re looking at a minimum $200-300 a month in feed. The farrier will cost you about $100 every six weeks depending on the needs of the horse, and horses require dental work so a minimum $250 per year. Little Katie’s horse still needs training because she is inexperienced and even the best trained animals backslide without someone to give them a tune up. You can see where I’m going with this….
If you want the equine experience on the cheap I recommend ponies or donkeys. They can be purchased cheap, they eat less, take up less space, could potentially live in your back yard, and even mow your lawn depending on zoning restrictions in your neighborhood. In my experience they are virtually indestructible, as mine have escaped situations completely unscathed that would have sent a full size horse to the glue factory. It won’t be until you teach the pony/donkey to do something useful, like pull a cart, that they will encounter their kryptonite and cost you thousands in emergency vet bills.
Generally, the cheaper the purchase price of a horse, the more you will spend in vet care. It’s Murphy’s Law. Also, the more expensive the animal, the more likely you are to shell out for the pre-purchase vet exam including full X-rays. Darling Husband and I have rescued all of our full size horses, and expected them to be in less than perfect health.
Despite having an eye for confirmation (which I have been known to ignore for color, personality, or beautiful movement), and experience in vetting horses, I always expect a health issue (or multiple) to present themselves in the first year. The issues include injuries, pre-existing conditions, or just the expected equine mishap. In the three years we have had our farm and horses, our expected yet surprise vet care has included: three eye injuries, spine injections, hock injections, stifle injections, one sarcoid removal surgery, four skin cancer treatments, one hind leg injury requiring stitches/stall rest, navicular issues, and a horse that ripped a basketball size flap of muscle and skin from his body.
Then there are the costs that you can’t calculate in dollars. You spend hours maintaining your property for the safety of the animals, just to watch them destroy your work in minutes over a pecking order dispute. A horse colics, and you spend four hours walking it in freezing temperatures in the middle of the night until the threat has passed. Say goodbye to spur of the moment getaways. The lunar landings required less logistical planning than leaving the farm for a week. There is the emotional devastation of a newly arrived horse that drops dead after two weeks with no previous warning signs due to a parasite infestation because it had not been de-wormed on a consistent schedule at its prior home. If you are training your own animals, you have dedicated thousands of hours to every single horse show success.
To own horses or any form of livestock for that matter, is to dedicate yourself to the care and comfort of them full time. They are a financial and emotional investment. The idea of keeping 1200 lb animals is romantic, but in reality it’s shoveling $hit, cleaning water troughs, wrestling wormer into an animal, lifting 50lb feed sacks, and 100 lb bales of hay. It’s paying vet bills larger than your mortage payment, and making tough decisions when vet care can no longer do anything for an animal’s pain. Many people experience this to a lesser degree with small animals, but the responsibility is proportional to the size of the animal. When Mittens the cat passes, you bury her in the back yard. When a 1200lb animal passes, you need a trailer and backhoe to prepare the final resting spot.
There are no cheap horses. They cost your soul. You will spend a fortune in dollars and time. In the end, for those of us insane enough to love them and then some, there is no other way of life. For those in love with the idea of horses, find an equine professional that has already sacrificed their soul to do the heavy lifting for you.