Bringing Your New Horse Home

Whether “home” is your property or a boarding facility, there is a lot to do to make sure the horse’s transition is as smooth as possible.

So you’ve decided to purchase a new horse! Whether it’s your first horse or your fifth, and whether “home” is your property or a boarding stable, you have some work to do to make sure the transition is smooth and easy. This article will focus on bringing home your first horse, but any horse owner can pick up some new tips.

Before He Arrives

This may seem obvious, but it’s important to identify an appropriate place to keep your horse. Some backyards may be large enough to graze a horse, but many are not appropriately fenced or set up to house livestock. While you may not think of your new horse as livestock, he certainly is, and you need to consider factors including manure management and disposal, pasture upkeep and related costs and equipment, fencing and gates, shelter, and feed and hay storage. In addition, there may be municipal restrictions on keeping livestock, and you will probably need to acquire permits before building stables or shelters.

For those inexperienced with horses, it is not recommended to keep your first horse at home. You should have an experienced mentor to teach you the basics of horse care and safe horse handling. You must learn the signs of health problems, which may not be apparent to the untrained eye. Many people think that getting a horse will be just like getting a dog, but they are very different animals. Horses are large, flighty prey animals that are meant to live in herds. Housing a horse by itself is not recommended. They must have firm behavioral boundaries, but the use of force in training is not recommended. There’s a much steeper learning curve when handling and training horses, and some horses will quickly figure out if you are inexperienced. In addition, the amount of time and money required to care for a horse is typically higher than a dog or cat.

Instead, consider boarding your horse with a reputable and experienced horse person to teach you the ropes first. Here you can learn the basics of horse handling, grooming, riding, and general care. In addition, the barn manager will likely have established contacts with a veterinarian, farrier, dentist, and other equine professionals that they can share with you. You could look for local riding clubs or attend competitions in your preferred discipline to find trainer recommendations.

Tips on Selecting a Boarding Farm

Finding the right boarding facility for you can be a long process. First, consider location. If you want to visit your horse multiple times a week, how far away are you willing to drive? The closest barn is not always the best fit. Explore different areas to find the best facility for your needs.

Secondly, consider the type of board you will need. There are a few different boarding options. Full board means that the staff will do all of the feeding, stall cleaning, turnout, etc. There may also be a la carte services like changing blankets, holding the horse for the vet/farrier, etc. This is typically the most expensive option, but it can be a good way to learn about equine care. Some barns allow for volunteers to take some of the barn work shifts in exchange for reduced board cost. Self-care board means that you will be provided with a field and/or a stall, but all horse care is up to you; you will need to come out daily to feed and clean stalls. Cooperative board is similar to self-care, but a group of boarders takes turns caring for all of the horses. Pasture board means that the horse is turned out 24/7, and may or may not include feeding of hay and grain and other full board services. You will want to make sure the pasture has a sturdy shelter and good water source.

Once you have found a few possibilities in your area, call ahead and set up visits. Be honest if you are new to horses and looking to learn the ropes. During your visit, you will get a feel for the atmosphere of the facility. Is it laid back and quiet? High-pressure and competitive? Could you see yourself learning from the trainer? A boarding facility does not need to be “top of the line” to be a perfectly acceptable place for your horse.

Other Things To Notice During Your Visit:

  • Horses: Do they look bright and healthy? Or skinny and listless? One ribby horse could be a rescue that they are nursing back to health, but if all the horses are underweight, you should consider looking elsewhere.
  • Cleanliness: Does the barn look like it is well-managed? Barns can be dusty, dirty places, and a facility doesn’t need to be spotless to be a good place for your horse to live. But cleanliness and organization, or the lack thereof, can be a sign of the farm owner’s management style.
  • Safety concerns: Look for hazards that could injure horses, such as exposed sharp metal objects, nails sticking out, fences falling apart, junk in pastures, etc.
  • Water: Do all horses have access to clean water, both in stalls and outside? Are water buckets/troughs empty or dirty?
  • Turnout: How much turnout space is there? Does it look like enough for the number of horses that live there? Horses do not require lush pasture to be healthy, but daily turnout is very important for horse health. Even if there’s no grass, dirt paddocks should be relatively clean of manure and have some dry areas when it’s wet out. Feel free to ask the manager about their pasture management strategies to learn more about their goals and methods.
  • Riding space: If you are interested in riding, look at the number and state of the riding arenas. Do they have the items you will need based on the discipline you want to ride (jumps, poles, barrels)? Is the footing hard and packed, or soft and well-maintained? How many riders are in there at once? If year-round riding is important to you, is there an indoor arena?

Another thing to consider is your new horse’s previous management, and how much your new barn will differ from that. Ask the previous owner about its diet, turnout schedule, herd makeup, training level, and riding frequency. Major changes to the horse’s management may cause some temporary stress and attitude changes. You can expect some problems if you take a horse turned out 24 hours a day and put it in a stall for 24 hours a day. Horses can and will adapt to new management over time, but the sudden change will be stressful. Therefore, you should try to reduce this as much as possible by making significant changes to management as gradual as possible. If the horse is stressed, you may notice stereotypic coping behaviors like cribbing, weaving, or stall-walking, or just a particularly grumpy horse. Try to change management techniques to prevent these behaviors from becoming a habit.

Questions To Ask Barn Managers/Owners:

  • What is the turnout schedule? How many horses go out together? How do they decide which horses go out together?
  • How much hay do the horses get? How often are meals fed? How long do horses typically go without hay or pasture? (A horse should get about 2% of its body weight in dry matter feed daily, and at least half of that must be forage such as hay, pasture, or forage alternatives like hay cubes.)
  • What grain do you feed? Can boarders add different products or supplements if needed?
  • If you want to take riding lessons, ask about the lessons available for your experience level. You may need to take a few private lessons before you can start group lessons. Is the clientele mostly adults or children? Ask if you can watch a lesson to see if you like the instructor’s teaching style.
  • How busy are the riding arenas? Is there a busy lesson program that will prevent you from using the arena at the times you are usually available to ride?
  • What services are included in board? It may or may not include blanket changes, holding for vet/farrier, deworming, 2-3 meals per day, stall cleaning, bedding, and feed. In some situations, you may have to provide your own feed.
  • Do they use a boarding/liability contract? These important legal documents protect both parties. They should clarify basic management details, what will happen if there is an emergency with your horse (can they make medical decisions if they can’t get in touch with you?), minimum notice for both parties to leave/terminate the contract, and what happens if you are late/delinquent with board payments. Ask for a copy of the contract and read it carefully, making sure you are comfortable with everything outlined.

Preparing For The Arrival

Once you have decided where to keep your horse, you may need to make a few other preparations. Your horse will need some basic items like a halter, lead rope, grooming tools, and first aid items. Ask a mentor for advice on selecting these, as there are many different options, and they may let you try out theirs. If riding, the horse will need tack like a saddle, bridle, bit, and saddle pads. Ill-fitting tack can cause pain and a poor attitude, so consult a professional to make sure it fits correctly. If keeping the horse at home, you will need miscellaneous farm items like feed and water buckets, wheelbarrows, pitchforks, shovels, hoses, and brooms.

You will need to determine horse transport logistics; are you picking up the horse, is the seller delivering him, or will you hire someone to transport him? There are some well-known nationwide haulers that you can hire. Make sure to look up reviews on any company you choose. Your mentor would be a good resource for local advice. Determine if the horse will come with a halter and lead rope or if you should bring your own. Sellers typically do not include tack with the horse. Bell boots and shipping wraps/boots are also a good idea, especially on long trips.

Make sure you have everything worked out with the seller, including transportation logistics, form of payment and what paperwork you will be receiving. You will want any breed registration papers, a negative Coggins test, a health certificate (typically required if crossing state lines), past health records, and a bill of sale. Find out what feed the horse is on and try to find the same product. If you can’t, you might ask if the seller can provide you with a week’s worth of the horse’s current hay and/or grain to make the feed change gradually and hopefully avoid a colic episode.

The Big Day

Whether your horse is being delivered to you or you are picking him up, make sure you do not forget the paperwork accompanying the horse. The move may be stressful for him, so don’t be surprised if he doesn’t settle right away. Before releasing him into his pasture for the first time, it can be helpful to lead him around the fenceline in hand so he knows where the boundaries are. He may run around in the pasture snorting or neighing. This is normal and it may take a few hours for the horse to calm down. Be extra careful if you are interacting with the horse at this time as they may act more excited than usual.

The barn owner may insist on quarantining your new horse for up to 3 weeks. This is to make sure he isn’t bringing any contagious diseases (like strangles or equine herpes virus) onto the farm that could spread to the other horses. Your horse would be turned out separately and stalled away from the other horses. During this time, you should not touch any other horses after touching your horse. If you are bringing your horse to your own farm with other horses, this 3-week quarantine is highly recommended. The new horse should be able to see other horses, but not touch noses. Watch for any signs of illness like fever, nasal discharge, cough, or diarrhea.

Settling In

Slowly transition your horse to his new hay and grain. The proper protocol is to start with 100% of his old feed for a few days, then replace 25% with new feed. After a few more days, replace 50%, and then 75%, and then 100% new feed. The entire process should take two weeks.

The pasture transition should be slow as well, especially if he is going from no pasture or poor-quality pasture to lush pasture. Start with 15 minutes of grazing per day and add 15 more minutes each day until he’s up to your target grazing time. When he is not grazing, it would be ideal if he could still be turned out in a dry lot with his hay.

Make sure he is drinking plenty of water by keeping an eye on his buckets or asking the barn manager to do so. The new farm’s water might taste different and cause him to drink less. Some people will add salt to the feed for a week or so when moving barns, which will encourage him to drink more while he adapts to the new water.

Don’t be surprised if his behavior changes as he settles in and adapts to the new routine. Try to keep up with his previous riding schedule so that his exercise level remains the same. You may want to let him explore the riding arena in hand or at liberty first (ask for permission from the barn manager). Have your trainer ride him if you are not yet confident enough. Make sure to have your tack checked for good fit.

Learn how to take his vital signs(link) so that you have a good baseline for his normal state. Take them regularly and keep a record. You should also record his weight (using a weight tape or measurements and equations) and body condition score on a monthly basis. It’s easy to miss subtle weight changes when you see your horse frequently, but this will allow you to pick up on small changes before they become a problem.

Plan out health care appointments based on the health records you received. Plan on having the veterinarian out to give vaccinations in the spring and the fall, the farrier out every 4 to 6 weeks to trim hooves, and the dentist out annually to float teeth. If you are boarding, you will likely fall into their existing health care schedule, but double check on this. Work with the veterinarian to perform fecal egg counts and develop a deworming protocol that is tailored to your horse’s needs.

Lastly, enjoy your horse! Spend some time getting to know him by grooming him, hand grazing him, and just hanging out quietly together. Learning some groundwork exercises like clicker training, longeing, and long lining can be a great way to form a good relationship with your horse.

Courtesy of PennState Extension