Parents of horse-lovers, beware. It’s only a matter of time before your child starts asking incessantly for a pony. I should know – I was that child. For every birthday, Christmas, Easter, or special occasion, all I asked for was a horse. I dreamed about horses. I played with nothing but toy horses. My favorite excursions were those to the local country store so I could imagine buying a saddle and bridle of my own.
I never received a horse, and as a well-adjusted, rational adult, I understand why. Horse ownership is expensive, and kids don’t always stick to one hobby or interest. If your child is starting to show signs of horse-fever, hold off on purchasing that pony. Instead, consider the annual expenses and start with one of many cost-effective alternatives to buying a horse.
The Costs of Horse Ownership
You probably know that the initial cost of purchasing a horse won’t hold a candle to the long-term cost of ownership. So while you may be able to find a rescue pony for just a couple hundred dollars, don’t let that fool you into making a purchase.
Responses to a horse-ownership survey from the University of Maine found that the average annual cost of horse ownership is $3,876 per horse, while the median cost is $2,419. That puts the average monthly expense anywhere from $200 to $325 – on par with a car payment.
If you’re wondering where all that money goes, a huge portion goes toward food. The average horse weighs 1,100 pounds and needs to eat a minimum of 1.5% to 2.5% of its body weight each day in hay and grain. While a bale of hay or a bag of grain won’t set you back that much, that bale or bag won’t last you very long. Food itself costs about one-third to one-half of the total expense of horse ownership – averaging more than $1,000 per year.
Vet and Farrier
Another significant expense to consider is the combination of veterinarian and farrier fees. Just like your dog or cat needs regular maintenance and care, so does a horse – and it costs a lot more than the care of a small pet. Vet fees alone average $485 per year, including standard check-ups, vaccinations and tests, four annual dewormings, and minor care for non-emergency injuries.
If your horse needs emergency care, expect vet expenses to jump significantly. In fact, you’d be wise to have an emergency vet fund with several thousand dollars saved, just in case.
In addition to vet fees, the cost of hoof maintenance must be considered. Caring for your horse’s hooves isn’t an optional expense. Poor hoof care can lead to infection, joint hyper-extension, and even permanent lameness. In addition to daily care by the owner, horses should be seen by a certified farrier every six to eight weeks to be trimmed or shoed. The annual cost of trimming is roughly $350, while shoeing can cost significantly more, depending on how many hooves are shoed and how often they’re replaced.
If you’re keeping a horse on your own property, there are general maintenance costs required to make sure everything’s well cared for and functional. Upkeep of the barn, stable, or shelter, maintenance of equipment and fencing, and vehicle maintenance of a trailer all fall into this category. You also need to provide bedding for your horse if it’s being stabled inside.
All-in-all, these expenses add up. Depending on your facility and the required upkeep, horse owners can expect to spend more than $800 on maintenance per year.
Do you think horse ownership already sounds expensive? It gets a lot more expensive if you have to board your animal on someone else’s property.
Boarding fees vary extensively based on the expectations of the boarding facility. If you simply board a horse in a pasture, with no expectation of exercise, food, or other amenities, you might be able to get away with boarding for less than $100 per month. That said, if you want to board your horse in a stable, with food, water, fresh bedding, regular exercise, and other amenities, expect to pay a lot more. A presentation by Rutgers University suggests the average monthly boarding fee is $260, although some facilities charge upward of $600.
One-Time or Occasional Expenses
In addition to the ongoing costs of horse ownership, there are occasional or one-time expenses you should be prepared to pay. For instance, you’ll want to purchase horse tack and grooming supplies, such as saddles, bridles, halters, brushes, shampoo, horse blankets, and lead lines. Each of these requires an upfront investment, and depending on use, will require maintenance or replacement from time to time.
Another commonly overlooked expense is training. If you want your child to be able to ride the horse you purchased, the horse must be broke to ride. Even if you purchase a horse that’s already been through basic training, it may require additional training to work well with your child. Some horses are ornery or headstrong, and you need to feel confident that the horse will listen to and obey the commands your child provides.
In the same light, your child may need training as well. If your child hasn’t spent much time around horses, enlisting the assistance of an instructor or trainer to teach your child how to approach, care for, and ride the horse effectively can make the experience more rewarding for all.
And lastly, there are equipment expenses for the rider. Helmets, riding boots, chaps or riding breeches, spurs or crops, and gloves are only several of the items your child may need. His or her needs will vary based on the type of riding performed and the level of competition, but you should be prepared to budget for and purchase a few of these items.
Horse Ownership Alternatives
If you’ve crunched the numbers and have determined horse ownership to be too expensive, there are a number of alternatives. As much as you’d love to give your son or daughter a horse or pony, it may not make sense financially. Try to satisfy your child’s hunger by offering horse experiences without the long-term commitment and expense of ownership.
1. Horseback Riding Lessons
Check your local area for stables offering horseback riding lessons and instruction. Lessons are a great way to introduce your child to riding and basic horse maintenance under the tutelage of a qualified instructor. You can also pick and choose from a variety of riding styles falling into the general English or Western riding categories. English riding includes sub-specialties such as dressage, show jumping, and polo, while Western riding includes sub-specialties including reining, cutting, and rodeo.
Start by introducing your child to a few different types of lessons from a few different instructors, and when he or she has fallen in love with an instructor or style, commit to a weekly or twice-weekly lesson. Most group lessons range in price from $15 to $50 per lesson, while private instruction may cost as much as $100 or more per hour.
2. 4-H Club
While most 4-H club members do own their own animals, it’s worth calling your local 4-H Horse chapter to ask whether the horse program has animals available for young riders to use. 4-H programs offer equine instruction for students in grades 3 through 12 that covers everything from basic care to the ins-and-outs of showing your horse.
If your local branch provides students who don’t own horses with hands-on experience, it may be the perfect, cost-effective solution. Some 4-H activities are free to members, while others, such as lessons or shows, may cost a nominal fee.
Call around to your local stables, horse rescues, and horse therapy programs to see if they’re currently seeking volunteers. Some organizations are willing to provide lessons or ride time in exchange for help around the stables. Even if the organization doesn’t provide lessons or ride time, your child still may enjoy volunteering his or her time to groom, bathe, and otherwise care for the horses.
4. Horse Camp
When summer comes around, give your child the experience of a lifetime and send him or her off to horse camp. Local stables likely offer day camps, but for a true immersion experience, look for overnight camps. Most horse camps pair a child with a horse for a week or two, giving the child the responsibility of caring for, grooming, riding, and feeding the horse while at camp.
Without actually bringing a horse into your life, horse camp is the closest thing your child will get to experiencing horse ownership. Trust me, I still remember the name, personality, and love I shared with a horse at horse camp more than 20 years ago – Brown Jug will forever live in my heart.
5. Horse Loans, Leases, or Shares
Just a step down from horse ownership, horse loans, leases, and shares are agreements entered into with a horse owner to gain access to his or her horse.
- Horse Loans. By entering into a horse loan agreement, you commit to the care and feeding of a horse without the long-term commitment of ownership. These are typically set for a certain period of time, during which time you take on the full costs of ownership as detailed in the loan agreement.
- Horse Leases. Very similar to a horse loan, a horse lease agreement is entered into with the horse owner, and you take on many of the expenses affiliated with horse ownership. The one difference is that you pay a monthly fee to the horse owner for use of the horse. Think of this like a car lease, but for a horse.
- Horse Shares. When two parties want to purchase a horse, but neither party wants to take on the full expense of ownership, a horse share may be worthwhile. These are essentially shared ownership agreements where both parties own the horse and chip in to cover the costs of care.
If you choose to pursue a loan, lease, or share, consider having an agreement drawn up by a lawyer to protect your interests and the interests of the other party. You don’t want there to be any misunderstandings about who is responsible for which expenses.
6. Horse Fostering
It’s an unfortunate truth that many horses are abandoned, neglected, or simply unwanted by their owners. Horse rescue organizations frequently seek out foster homes to help manage horses surrendered to their care. If you have the facilities and space to keep a horse at your home, horse fostering may be the perfect solution. Rescue organizations usually cover many of the costs of ownership, such as veterinary expenses, training, and corrective farrier visits, while foster families cover food, shelter, and other standard care.
Before jumping into fostering, there are a couple things to keep in mind:
- The foster horse may be adopted at any time. Make sure your child understands this dynamic before committing to foster.
- Some foster horses cannot be ridden. If your child wants a horse specifically for riding purposes, he or she might be disappointed if a lame, sick, or untrained horse is placed in your care.
- Some foster horses aren’t good with children. Even if a horse has been broke to ride, not all horses are appropriate for young children. Again, if your child wants a horse for riding, they may be disappointed.
Fostering is a commitment you shouldn’t take lightly. You’re agreeing to put time, energy, and money into the care and feeding of an animal that may be sick or malnourished. It’s likely to have its challenges, but at the same time, it could be one of the most rewarding things you ever do. To see a horse come into your care, regain health, learn to trust humans, and find a forever home, is a beautiful and heartwarming experience. Just think carefully about the challenges and rewards before signing up.
Truth be told, if your child wants a horse, you’re probably never going to hear the end of it. That said, there are ways to satiate the desire by offering regular horse experiences that won’t cost as much as true horse ownership. Don’t shy away from explaining to your child why you can’t buy him or her a horse. Put together a spreadsheet of the expenses and explain that someday, when he or she has a salary, the decision to purchase a horse will be his or her own.
While I still don’t own a horse of my own, I’ve never entirely given up the dream. I’m finally in a position to care for a horse on my own property, but even so, I’m not ready to bite the bullet and take on the monthly expense. Horses live upwards of 25 years, so unless you’re ready to spend $3,000 or more per year for more than 20 years, you’re probably not ready for the commitment.
Does your child want a horse? What other solutions do you use to keep your child happy?