Mapping Out the Unexpected

Saturday, February 12, 2011

There is no cookbook or step by step system which horse owners can follow to guide their major decision making processes.  Instead we all seem to muddle along, trying to make the best decisions for our horses, until finally we are faced with the inevitable.
In college I took a personal finance course and boy do I wish I had paid better attention!  There is one thing that I vividly recall from that particular course: the professor, who cooked “cigar butt chili” annually for his business students, swore by the adage, “Never let your car know when you have extra money!”  Countless vehicle breakdowns later, I am convinced that he was right.  I also firmly believe the same can be said about horses.  

Occasionally I hear about horse owners who have tried to do right by their horses to the point that they are overwhelmed with veterinary bills and cannot afford the normal expense of basic horse care and preventative practices.  I wonder, what happened?  How did they get in this situation?  And, how can I protect my own personal finances, while still providing for the care of my animals?

I think the first step in developing a strategy for managing equine expenses is to start with a clear budget.  What are your annual horse ownership expenses?  How much should you plan to spend on emergency/unplanned veterinary medical care annually?  What is your financial limit?  What is your plan for handling the euthanasia of a horse?

Annual Horse Care Budget
My veterinarian recently asked me how expensive it is for me to provide for my horses care at home rather than at a boarding facility.  In all honesty, I couldn’t answer his question very well, since my greatest expense in horse keeping over the past twelve months has been veterinary care.  My regular feeding and preventative care costs are fairly stable with the only variable really being the price of hay on any given year.  My horses live outside with access to run-in sheds, so I don’t have the added expense of bedding.  Over the past summer, I was exceptionally lucky and purchased decent quality hay at a real bargain, so my annual cost of horse care (including vaccinations, dental care, hoof care, and parasite control) for 2010/2011 is roughly $1650-$1750 per horse, whereas in 2009/2010 my per head cost of horse ownership was closer to $1850 annually.  

So let’s say I spend $1850 per horse per year on feed and basic care.  Presumably the normal, healthy horse will have on average one incident a year that requires veterinary attention (colic, cut requiring sutures, infection, etc.) at perhaps an estimated cost of $500.  Thus an annual horse ownership budget for me might be $2350 per horse.  

Take a few minutes and figure your annual per horse cost of ownership.  Items to factor into the equation should include at a minimum:

* Cost of hay
* Cost of grain
* Supplements
* Bedding (if applicable)
* Board (if applicable)
* Parasite control (internal and external)
* Vaccinations
* Dental care
* Hoof care
* Other preventative care (i.e. chiropractic, therapeutic massage, etc.)
* Regular veterinary needs (does your horse have a condition that requires regular veterinary care?)
* Additional expenses (i.e. does your horse get a new blanket, halter, etc annually?)
* Examine your veterinary bills from the last year or two.  Total those invoices and divide by the number of horses and the number of years.  This should provide you a good estimate of your normal “expected” veterinary bills per horse per year.

Expect the Unexpected
Now that you know what you spend on each horse annually, you need to develop a plan for managing unexpected expenses (which typically come in the form of vet bills!).  You might choose to set a per horse limit which would mean that you would only consider veterinary care less than or equal to that set cost.

Another option is to develop a horse care fund, which would operate much like a health care fund.  You could set aside money each week, month, or year into a separate horse savings account, from which you could draw in the event your horse required care in excess of his normal expenses.  In healthy years the fund would grow and likewise if your horse had a spike in medical needs it would decline.  

Another increasingly popular option is to purchase health insurance for your horse.  There are a number of companies specializing in equine insurance (the expense varies greatly dependent upon the types of coverage purchased) and they should be able to tailor an insurance plan for your horses.

The Thing No One Wants to Talk About

As animal owners and caregivers we are faced with life and death decision making often when we least expect it.  Make sure you have a plan in place that includes your financial limitations and expectations for your horse’s quality of life.  Talk with your veterinarian now, in advance of the onset of illness about what you are able to manage, so that there are no surprises.  

Euthanasia and burial or disposal may cost up to $500 dependent upon where you live and the options available.  More information about that type of advanced planning can be found at

There’s no question that owning a horse is expensive.  By developing a clear budget and planning ahead horse owners can develop a roadmap for negotiating unexpected costs.