Monday, July 23, 2012

Why is Riding Expensive?

The number one question I am asked by prospective clients is, "how much do you charge?"  Now, it's a reasonable question, as everyone has a budget, but I urge people not to use price as the only consideration when selecting a barn and trainer.  While price isn't always an indicator of quality, I would never recommend that anyone select a barn or riding instructor solely because they are the least expensive option.

I understand that the cost of riding does deter some people, and a lot of people, especially beginners, simply don't understand why riding is so expensive, aside from knowing that horses are large animals that are expensive to feed.  I can assure you that it isn't high because I'm trying to gouge clients to get rich.  I am also not trying to justify unreasonably high rates with this blog entry, as mine are in line with average prices in my area.  I do, however, want to explain why reputable, safe facilities like my own are usually not the cheapest options.

Putting aside the cost of purchasing a farm and the countless hours and expense I have invested in my own training with some of the top riders in the country, there are several other reasons why riding at my barn and at other respectable facilities isn't "cheap."

Safe, Quality School Horses are Expensive.  First and foremost, in horseback riding, the horses are the most important part of the equation.  Safe, healthy, sound, well-trained school horses that can patiently accept different riders on them every day are difficult to find and expensive to acquire.  I go to great lengths to find safe, appropriate school horses for my students, and I don't sacrifice soundness, a good mind, or good training for the cheapest option.  While they may not be the fanciest show horses around, they are experienced, well-trained horses with a quiet, safe disposition.  They also have the patience to deal with beginner riders and the athleticism to allow more experienced riders to also learn on them.  They have no vices like regular bucking, rearing, bolting, excessive spooking, or refusing or running out on jumps.  While they aren't the most expensive horses on the planet, they aren't inexpensive to acquire or maintain.

Our school horses work hard and deserve the
best care possible. Here, one of our school horses
is having his legs iced after giving a jumping
lesson to an advanced student.
Proper Horse Care is Expensive.  Properly caring for any horse is expensive, and I don't scrimp on care for any of my horses.  My school horses receive the same quality veterinary, dental, and farrier (hoof) care as my show and pleasure horses, and I wouldn't accept anything less.  My school horses work hard.  They must be well-maintained to stay healthy and sound so they can continue teaching my students to ride for years to come.  They receive all their vaccines on time, have their teeth floated once or twice a year as necessary, see the vet when they have any health or lameness issue, and get regular hoof care.  Those that need shoes get shoes and aren't kept barefoot just because that is less expensive.  Ailments are treated immediately and thoroughly and, if necessary, they get time off to heal an injury or illness.  They are never expected to work when they are lame or sore.  They are fed high-quality hay and grain as necessary and not just whatever is cheapest.  Lesson facilities should not only be places where students learn to ride; they should also be places where students learn proper horse care and horsemanship.  As such, I hold my program to high standards and always keep in mind that my barn should be a model for my students.  Other "good" barns do the same.

My School Horses are Not Overworked.  My barn is not a lesson factory.  I don't teach dozens of large group lessons, and I don't expect my school horses to work for more than 2 lessons per day.  When they do work two lessons in a single day, they are never expected to give back-to-back lessons.  I also arrange it so that they don't have to give two advanced or jumping lessons on the same day.  If one of their lessons is with a more experienced rider, the other will be a lower-intensity beginner lesson.    Lesson barns should have and stick to a school horse policy dictating the amount and intensity of the lessons their horses can do.  There are unfortunately some barns that expect their school horses to give 4 or 5 or more hour-long lessons in a day, sometimes with multiple lessons scheduled back-to-back.  While fit horses can certainly be expected to work hard, expecting a horse to do that many lessons with that many different riders in a single day can take a physical and mental toll on the horse.  I want my school horses to be sound, fit, and willing partners for their riders, not sore and ring sour from being overworked.  I will not sacrifice the physical and mental well-being of my horses simply to make more money per school horse.  Additionally, all of my school horses get at least one day off per week.  This is essential to their physical and mental well-being.

I Ride My School Horses at Least Once a Week.  School horses that are ridden only by beginner and intermediate riders can quickly get sour and develop bad habits.  I school each of my lesson horses once a week to give them a tune-up and to make sure they aren't developing any bad habits.  Yes, this is one less lesson each horse can teach in a week, but it makes sure that the horses are safe and appropriate mounts, so my riders can have the best learning experience.

My School Horses Get Dignified Retirements.   My school horses have a valuable job and work hard for a living.  When the time comes that they can no longer work on the school line, I give them a dignified retirement.  They are never taken to auction and are never sold or put in any position where they could be sold to kill buyers for slaughter.  They aren't shipped off to a cheap facility with questionable care or turned out and expected to live on only pasture with no regular attention or care.  (Note that there are many reputable retirement facilities out there, and I don't knock any barn that sends its retired school horses to a quality retirement farm.)  My schoolies stay here, where they are given proper care and attention for the rest of their lives.  While it is certainly a cheaper option to take them to an auction (where they risk being sold to kill buyers), that is not an option for any of my horses.

My Facility is Not Overcrowded.   I keep the numbers at my barn low for a reason.  First, this makes sure that the horses have enough turnout space and my pastures don't become overgrazed.  Second, this allows me to make sure that every horse gets the time, attention, and care that it needs.

My Facility is Well-Maintained.  A lot goes into keeping horse facilities clean, safe, and well-maintained.  Please note that a good barn does not necessarily need to be "fancy."  Fancy and well-maintained are two separate things.  While they can go hand-in-hand, they don't always.  Properly maintaining horse facilities is both expensive and time-consuming.  The cost of maintaining pastures (bush hogging, fertilizing, over-seeding, spraying for weeds, and applying lime when necessary) can run into the thousands of dollars each year -- and that is assuming we do most of the work ourselves, which we do.  Building and maintaining a ring with excellent footing takes time and expense, as does proper manure and pest management.  Managing biting insects in warmer months is also expensive and time-consuming, but essential for proper sanitation and the health and safety of horses and humans.  Add in repairs and normal wear and tear on the facility, and the cost of upkeep keeps rising.  Additionally, tack, riding gear, and farm vehicles must get proper care and regular maintenance to keep them functional and safe.  While all of these things are expensive, they are also absolutely necessary to maintain a safe, functional facility for our horses and riders.

Fuel is expensive.  I know everyone is sick and tired of hearing about how expensive gasoline and diesel are these days, but the price of fuel directly impacts the cost of keeping horses and maintaining a barn.  My truck, tractor, and 4-wheeler, all of which are necessary to run the farm, all require some type of fuel to run.  The cost of fuel also impacts the cost of even locally-produced hay and grain because the machinery used to produce the feed runs on gasoline and diesel.  It also impacts the cost of veterinary and farrier services because these professionals must travel to farms to provide their services or the horses must be hauled to them. We do as much as we can to cut our fuel costs and conserve fuel, but gasoline and diesel are essential to our business.

Most barns, like my own, try hard to offer affordable services, while still maintaining a high standard of care for their facility and animals.  I completely understand and respect that riding is a luxury and everyone has a budget.  I also want to stress that there are many reputable, responsible barns out there that take the same great pains to keep their facility, their animals, and their riders healthy and safe.  Asking the cost of lessons and/or boarding is certainly a reasonable and very important question to ask when looking for a trainer or a barn.  Just make sure that you also take into consideration the experience of the trainer, the treatment and lifestyle of the barn's horses, the training and temperament of the barn's lesson horses, and the time and attention given to maintaining the farm's facilities when making your decision.  I also always encourage people to visit a prospective lesson barn before committing to a lesson to meet the trainer and see the facility and horses in person.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Surviving Stall Rest

The dreaded words many horse owners hate to hear – stall rest.  Whether it’s a week, a month, or several months on end, stall rest can be stressful and frustrating for horses and owners alike.  Here are a few tips to help make stall rest a little bit safer and less stressful.  As the reasons for a horse to be on stall rest vary, please check with your veterinarian before making any changes to your horse’s diet and routine. 


          Break the Boredom

While it is tempting to give your stalled horse toys to keep him occupied during stall rest, be careful that the toys won’t cause your horse to be too active.  Most horses are on stall rest to limit their movement; therefore some toys (like “grazing” toys) may actually do more harm than good.  Before giving your horse a boredom breaker that requires a lot of movement, check with your vet to make sure it won’t be detrimental to your horse’s recovery. 

One of the best ways to limit your horse’s boredom while on stall rest is to keep him or her occupied with plenty of hay.  If your horse is prone to being overweight or eating too quickly, try a small-hole hay net, like a Nibble Net.  These hay nets slow down the horse’s consumption of hay and keep them occupied longer.  


A few simple changes to your horse’s diet may help keep him healthier and happier while on stall rest.  As always, be sure to make any dietary changes slowly. 

First, I like to wet or soak the hay of any horse on stall rest, especially a horse that is used to being out on pasture.  Grass has a high water content (much higher than hay), so wetting the hay helps replace some of the moisture lost by not grazing.  This helps keep the horse properly hydrated, and hydration is essential to keep the horse’s gut moving and prevent colic.  Certainly, many horses will adjust their water intake when not on pasture, but wetting the hay is just one more way to make sure your horse is getting enough water.  Also, be sure to monitor your horse’s water intake every day and call your vet if you fear your horse is getting dehydrated. 

Second, make sure to adjust your horse’s diet to keep him or her at a healthy weight during prolonged stall rest.  If your horse was active prior to stall rest (working regularly and/or getting a lot of turnout), you may need to reduce or eliminate the amount of grain you are feeding.  Reducing grain not only helps the horse maintain a healthy weight, it may also help to keep the horse calmer.  While individual needs vary, even my hardest keeper needed only a ration balancer and free-choice hay to maintain a healthy weight on long-term stall rest, whereas he needed upwards of 6 pounds of high-quality senior feed and 1 cup of oil in addition to free-choice hay when in full work.  When possible, I like to replace grain with a ration balancer (such as Triple Crown 30% or Blue Seal Sunshine Plus) or a pelleted vitamin/mineral supplement so I know the horse is getting all of the necessary nutrients its body needs.

If your horse is prone to ulcers or tends to stress when confined, ask your vet whether a daily maintenance dose of UlcerGard or an ulcer preventative supplement is warranted.  I prefer to spend the money on a preventative than have to treat a full-blown case of ulcers and the other issues (like colic) those ulcers can cause.  Alfalfa is rich in calcium, so adding some alfalfa hay, pellets, or hay cubes to your horse's diet can also help buffer the gut.  Because alfalfa is rich in calories, though, some horses may not be able to maintain a healthy weight on stall rest if their diets include significant amounts of alfalfa.   

            Hoof Health

When wet shavings and manure pack into your horse’s feet, they create the perfect environment for things like thrush and white line disease to thrive.  To avoid this, bed deeply and clean your horse’s stall thoroughly at least twice a day.  If you can clean it more often, that is even better.  Pick your horse’s hooves after you clean the stall, to remove all wet shavings and manure.  Treat any thrush or white line disease at the earliest signs to avoid serious infections.
Exercise and Hand Grazing                 

Follow your vet’s guidelines for exercise and hand-grazing.  If possible and agreeable to your vet, break up hand walking and hand grazing into shorter, more frequent sessions so your horse gets out of his stall more than once per day.  Pay close attention to the footing outside and avoid hand walking and hand grazing on slippery surfaces or in mud, especially if your horse is recovering from an orthopedic injury.  Rehabbing a horse on stall rest, particularly one with an orthopedic injury, should be done very slowly.  Better to go slowly in the beginning than have your horse strain or re-injure itself, leading to even more stall rest. 

   Sometimes, Drugs Are Your Friend

Hopefully your horse will adjust well to stall rest and won’t require any medication to keep him calm and safe to handle.  Unfortunately, some horses do not deal with confinement as well as others and may become difficult to handle or become a danger to themselves or their handlers.  As much as we may want to avoid it, some horses on long-term stall rest will require a long-acting sedative to keep them calm enough to heal without worsening the injury or causing undue stress.  Still more horses may need a shorter-acting sedative so they can be safely hand walked or ridden while on stall rest. 

If your horse becomes difficult to handle or if you fear your horse is getting so excitable that he may worsen his injury, ask your vet about sedatives that may be helpful.  Always ask about the potential side-effects and make sure to remind your vet about any medications your horse is already taking. 

While stall rest is often unpleasant for horses and owners alike, the above tips may help make stall rest a little less stressful for your horse.  Hopefully your horse’s stall rest sentence goes by quickly and your horse makes a full recovery!  With some extra precautions and a bit of patience, you'll be back in the saddle in no time.  


Monday, July 9, 2012

Home Remedies to Help Stretch Your Horse Dollar

Properly caring for horses can quickly get expensive.  If you are like me, you are always looking for ways to save money without sacrificing the quality of care you provide for your horses.  In this week's blog, I've compiled a list of some of my favorite "home" remedies for horse care that may help you stretch your dollar.

Listerine® or its generic equivalent is probably my favorite home remedy.  It can treat mild to moderate skin infections like rain rot and can also treat mild thrush.  When conditions are ripe for the development of skin crud or thrush (i.e., wet), I will spray some Listerine® on my horses' legs and on the soles of my horses' hooves to prevent infection.  Note that you should use the plain brown-colored mouth wash, and not any of the flavored alternatives.

Equal Parts Listerine®, Ivory Soap, and White Vinegar make a fantastic scrub to treat skin infections like rain rot.  Put the mixture in a spray or empty shampoo bottle and shake well before use.  Wet the affected area, and scrub the mixture thoroughly into the skin.  Let it sit about 5 minutes and then rinse thoroughly.  Fore more serious cases, you can let it sit a few minutes longer before rinsing, but never more than 10 minutes total.  After thoroughly rinsing, dry the area as well as you can.  Moisture makes these skin infections worse, so do your best to dry the area after treatment.  Repeat every other day until the infection is gone.  On the days you don't scrub the affected area, you can spray straight Listerine® onto it.

A Mixture of Listerine®, Witch Hazel, and Baby Oil in a 2:2:1 ratio makes an excellent topical spray for itchy tails and itchy skin.  Tail rubbing can be a sign of parasites or a dirty sheath or udder.  If you've ruled those out, however, try spraying this mixture on the dock of the tail, making sure it wets the skin.  If you don't have all these ingredients, you can try using just witch hazel to soothe the itch or just Listerine® to treat any skin infection that may be developing.  You can use this spray daily or as needed to give your horse some relief.  Please note that frequent, persistent tail rubbing and itchy skin may be a sign of allergies, assuming you have ruled out parasites and a dirty sheath or udder.  You should consult your vet if you suspect that is the case.

Generic Triple Antibiotic Ointment made for human cuts and scrapes can also be used as a wound dressing for your horse's cuts and scrapes.  Just note that it doesn't replace a product like Swat for keeping flies out of cuts and scrapes during bug season.

Wintergreen Rubbing Alcohol makes a wonderful, inexpensive liniment.  Apply full strength to your horse's legs and hard-working muscles after riding or dilute in water and sponge onto your horse for a refreshing post-workout brace.  It can also be used under standing wraps.

(Left) Oliver, one of my school horses, getting proper post-workout care after a jumping lesson, including having his legs iced and rubbed down with wintergreen alcohol. 

Protect sensitive pink noses from
sunburn with sunscreen or Desitin

Sunscreen (the kind made for humans) is great for preventing sensitive pink noses from getting sunburned.  Buy no-name brands or whatever is on sale, and apply before turnout or riding.

Desitin® or its generic equivalent contains zinc oxide, which also works extremely well to prevent sunburn.  It tends to last longer than sunscreen and doesn't wash off as easily in water troughs.  It can also be applied to already-sunburned or blistered noses to soothe and prevent further burns.

Above & Below are the same horse.
This is why I love Ivory Soap!

Liquid Ivory Dish Soap makes an excellent, inexpensive, mild shampoo for bathing.  It can be used full strength or diluted in water to stretch your dollar even more.  If you have a palomino like my hunter, Beau (left), who loves to roll in the mud, you will quickly learn to appreciate the savings!

Cheap Human Hair Conditioner works great to condition tails after bathing.  Stock up on generic or on-sale conditioner instead of spending extra money on horse-specific brands.

Baby Diapers are great to use as a hoof wrap when treating an abscess or protecting a hoof from a lost shoe until the farrier comes.  If treating an abscess, first pack the hoof with Animalintex, ichthammol, or poultice.  Then, wrap the hoof in the diaper and secure with vet wrap over the entire hoof.  For turnout, cover the entire hoof with strips of duct tape over the vet wrap.

(Above) A hoof wrapped with a diaper and vet wrap.

(Below) Under the bell bot, strips of duct tape added to
the top and bottom of the hoof add durability to the hoof wrap.   

Baby Oil or KY Jelly can replace harsher, more expensive sheath cleaners.  Apply as you would any other sheath cleaner, and let it sit for a few minutes to loosen smegma.  Then, rinse thoroughly as usual.  

Olive Oil can be used in a pinch if you are out of leather conditioner or saddle oil.  While I don't use it exclusively to condition my tack and I don't think it is necessarily less expensive than most saddle oils, I have used it with good results when I am out of leather conditioner or saddle oil.  

I will note that I frequently use products specifically designed for horses, so I am not always reaching for the "homemade" substitution.  That said, over the years, I have found that these common household products can be effective and often cost-efficient as well.  Remember that none of these suggestions is a substitute for proper veterinary care.  Be sure to consult your veterinarian if you have any questions about your horse's health.