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|Written by Kelsa Staffa|
|Wednesday, 16 November 2011 00:00|
The other week I found myself stressed out to the max, researching for hours and agonizing over a decision, based solely on my barn owner's recommendation that my horse might want a sheepskin half-pad. For those of you not familiar with what that is, a saddle pad goes underneath the saddle... and a half-pad goes either above or below the saddle pad (depending on its purpose) and adds some extra padding to the saddle's weight points (i.e. on the muscles along the horse's back).
The forums I was frequenting (and these ranged among everything from Yahoo answers -- never a good place to get horse advice, by the way -- to Olympic-level dressage riders) included every answer under the sun. The Internet has made a wealth of information available to riders and horse owners,which is great -- but also exceptionally overwhelming, especially for the new or average rider/owner. So I thought I'd put together this Dummy's Guide to Understanding Your Equine Needs, which will break the requirements down by category, and discuss what the average, non-competing, owner-who-has-a-horse-to-enjoy-it needs to keep horse and rider happy.
Your horse has to live somewhere, and for most people that somewhere is not at home. If you are lucky enough to have enough land, solid fencing, time to feed your horse morning and night, a flexible enough schedule to get the farrier and vet out regularly, your own hay fields, and tractors or a dependable hay deliveryman -- and enough money and time to keep the infrastructure up-to-date and safe -- then please adopt me. But seriously, it's a great option, though very time-intensive. For that reason, most average owners board at commercial facilities.
And this is where the options start to overwhelm. Some barns charge extra for blanketing your horse, some charge extra for grain feed. Some only offer outdoor board, some offer only indoor board. Some have indoor arenas and some have extensive trails. And the difference between these options can be significant -- for example, Queenswood Stables, a dressage-based stable east of Ottawa, offers indoor board for $620 per month, and comes with all amenities, including grain four times a day, an indoor arena, acres of trails, a former Canadian Equestrian Federation's Coach of the Year on-site for lessons, and monthly horse training. Conversely, Hallview (no website), a small barn east of Ottawa, offers indoor board for $200 per month with grain twice a day, but has no outdoor ring or indoor arena, is close to public trails that you can access by hacking on the road, and has an outhouse.
What is right for you? In my opinion, the average owner doesn't need more than what is offered at Hallview. An outdoor ring is certainly nice, but for the last three years I've worked with horses without the privilege of a winter-groomed outdoor ring, and just hacked along the side of the road and through public trails. The horses had snug shelters and plenty of hay and water, and grew thick coats and were perfectly happy. Some horses require blanketing in the winter: those in heavy training, those with medical conditions, and the older or younger horse. Some owners really prefer heated tack rooms and warm indoor arenas to practice in, and they are certainly nice, but not necessary. As long as your horse is well-fed, well-monitored, and has a snug shelter for those nasty days, you will generally be fine leaving him with outdoor board and using an outdoor ring and trails.
There are a few basic types of saddles out there: Western (think cowboys), English (think the riders you see on TV; this category includes Dressage, Jumping, and All-Purpose), Australian/stock (sort of like Western), and Endurance (also sort of like Western but lighter).
The average owner I know wants to do a little bit of everything. Work in the ring, fun on the trails, lessons once a week/fortnight/month, maybe a show here and there. English saddles at Apple Saddlery range from $495 (used) to $2,770 (new) at the time of this article. How do you know which saddle you need?
Honestly, the only big question for the average rider is: which category do you want your saddle to fall into? Do you ride Western (more casual, more stability, often more comfortable) or English (more formal, more contact with the horse, much more useful for jumping)? After that, look at your budget. There is no reason in my mind, other than a very oddly-shaped horse, that the average rider would ever need to buy a new saddle. Apple's selection of used saddles is beyond fantastic. They explain how to measure your horse to determine size (many online resources are available also: just google "whatsize saddle does my horse need") and then sit you down on saddles they think would suit you best. After you've decided which saddle(s) you like best that are in your horse's size, you take them on a 10-day trial to confirm that your horse is comfortable in it. And viola -- you have yourself a saddle.
Bridles are even easier! The average horse owner has a horse that is already trained. In which case, ask the previous owner what the horse wears as a bit -- a snaffle, a curb, a bosal. A new bridle isn't too expensive (unless you get the deliciously soft designer bridles, which aren't necessary); then, slap in the correct bit and you're good to go. There are also a LOT of people out there selling used tack. The reason I didn't suggest this for the saddle is because often saddles just don't fit your horse even when they're supposed to, and rarely does a private seller have the same trial period or selection as a tack shop.
As for martingales, breastplates, boots, half-pads, or drawreins.... In my opinion, they are rarely needed. The exception is if a horse has bad habits from a previous owner, such as throwing his head sky-high, in which case a martingale may be needed. A horse may also have a "downhill" conformation, in which his withers are lower than they might otherwise be, causing a saddle to slip forward. In this case, a crouper might be necessary to keep the saddle in place. In general, start with the basic saddle and bridle, and add accoutrements as deemed necessary by a knowledgeable expert.
Where to start.
First, I want to point out that every single diet -- human, animal, and plant -- can always be better. Unless you have a nutritionist watching your every bite, you can always improve on your diet. And this is the same with horses.
Unfortunately, to improve a horse's diet very quickly becomes cost-prohibitive for the average owner. Mineral supplements, sweet feed, beet pulp pellets, oil, flaxseed, oats, selenium powder, and apple cider vinegar are all feed options that are often encountered at commercial barns. Equine nutritionists are available to review your horse's health and feed, and make recommendations. I have yet to hear of an instance where a nutritionist didn't recommend a change in the horse's feed. And it's never the cheaper option.
For example, hay in the Ottawa area has been tested to generally be selenium-deficient. In response, some owners decide to supplement their horse's daily hay and grass intake with a selenium supplement such as Horse Guard. For a 320-day supply, it costs $126.83 to order from the website (not including tax or shipping). That's not bad. But here's where I start approaching hyperventilation: I'm positive that hay and grass in the area is also deficient in other nutrients. How many of these supplements will I need? There are formulas designed for young horses, middle-aged horses, performance horses, older horses, chestnut horses.... OK, I was joking with the last one, but the options are overwhelming. And the scary thing is that everyone has a different opinion as to what is necessary.
So in my mind, the average horse, with average work, needs nothing but good-quality hay, some pasture grass if possible, and fresh, clean water at all times. Again, this can change with extreme age (both young, growing horses, and older horses), medical conditions (Laminitis, Cushings Syndrome, etc.), hay quality (there is a definite nutritional difference between fresh-cut, local hay, and end-of-season trucked hay), and workload, as well as a myriad of other conditions. Keep an eye on your horse -- any weight changes, behaviour changes, or other physical changes can indicate an unbalanced nutritional diet.
So you've got a horse. Now what?
Good riding apparel is a must, if you plan on enjoying your horseback experiences. This does not always mean new, and it certainly does not mean expensive. I do recommend getting a pair of riding pants -- they have extra material on the parts of the pant in contact with the saddle, and will save you from some serious saddle sores. A riding helmet must never be skimped on -- never buy used, as you don't know its history, and it should be replaced after every five years maximum (and after every accident) according to Troxel, a popular manufacturer of equestrian helmets. A boot with a heel is an absolute must -- the heel is necessary to catch on the stirrup if your foot is on the way to sliding through, which will stop your foot from getting stuck completely in the stirrup, rendering you incapable of extracting it in the event of an emergency.
Other than the pants, helmet, and boot, nothing else is set in stone. Riding gloves are certainly nice in colder weather -- they have specific leather patches or extra cloth sewn in areas of rein contact, and provide good grip on leather or nylon reins. Shows or certain events may require specific attire. For the average rider, who attends a few shows a year for fun, used show clothes can be purchased during tack meets/swaps, online, through private sellers, or sometimes through local tack shops. This generally knocks 50% off the price, with no discernable loss of quality. Even better -- you can sell it when you're done with it, if you're careful!
I left this for last, because it's the hardest. You're the average rider, and you want a horse - what kind should you get?
This article will be no more helpful than the rest of the Internet on this subject. Truly, finding your perfect horse is much like finding your perfect life partner. The upside is that no one judges you for trying out five horses per week, and you're not necessarily making a life commitment to one horse and one horse only. Don't worry about the "breed characteristics" -- yes, most draft crosses are slow and steady, and yes, most Arabians are spunky and intelligent. However, there are exceptions in every breed, so don't close your mind to other possibilities than the one that you believe will suit you best. Leave no stone unturned in your area -- test drive every horse you believe will be a suitable partner, and do it safely (an enclosed area with a friend to help you if things get squirrely).
Ask a million questions. The average owner is looking for a horse to enjoy, not a horse to turn into a project. Everyone has different criteria. In general, the average rider wants a horse that can: be calm while navigating a trail situation; pop over a 2" jump on occasion; truck a young nephew around the arena safely at a walk; allow them to ride bareback or, should the mood strike them, backwards; and, be an affectionate and willing partner. This is not too much to ask. With enough research, patience, time, and guidance, the average rider will find the perfect horse.
To conclude: do not scour the internet for answers. Research now and again, if you have a specific question, but for the most part, horses are a matter of common sense. If they are happy and comfortable, you will be happy and comfortable. They may not use words, but they communicate their discomfort or happiness. They will show physical signs of conditions not being right. You do not need expensive products or equipment to be happy with your horse. If you believe that you are missing something, ask someone knowledgeable. But above all, remember: you are not aiming for the Olympics. You bought a horse to enjoy it. And most of all, life is way too short to be obsessing for hours over whether your horse may prefer a sheepskin half-pad over his current perfectly-good saddle pad.
Hello my lovely! Thanks for sending me this article, I really enjoyed it and have shared it with other of my horsey friends! I got a few good laughs in some of those paragraphs ... These things couldn't be more true. Your last two lines are the best! So many people spend way too much time obsessing over how much tack they have that they miss the basic joys of horse ownership! I do love the reference to the Arabs Not all of them are fiery and fidgety. I will definitely keep sharing this article. Keep 'em comin'!
Great article! Funny and loads of useful advice for current and future horse owners. I agree that starting with the basics is good and is often sufficient for most horses. And I especially enjoyed the point about not being judged if you try out 5 horses a week while searching for the perfect one! Chances are, you'll learn something interesting from every horse...