Written by: Nicole Kitchener

The nation’s horse people are peering deeply into their pocketbooks to find the means to afford their equine pursuits. Here are dozens of clever ways to save money.

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Times are tough. And while it appears Canadians on the whole have been spared a lot of the financial angst much of the world has faced in recent years, we are still not immune to the realities of today’s economic climate. But, with some creative penny-pinching, money-saving tips, and thoughtful spending, horse owners can be more prudent without compromising on care.

Frugal on the farm

For Rick Dolan, who owns and operates Willowdale Equine Centre, a boarding and training facility south of Red Deer, AB, time is definitely money. “We’ve tried to become more efficient around the barn to try to get labour costs down and time-wise try to do things better,” he explains, and offers these suggestions:

– With 60 horses on the 160-acre property, Dolan estimates 60 per cent of the centre’s costs are labour-related. So, for example, instead of going back and forth from the barn to the manure pile multiple times with a bobcat and bucket when they’re doing stalls, Dolan bought a dump trailer and now they make the trip just once a day. By making time- and labour-saving changes such as this, Dolan has cut back from three full-time workers to one full- and two part-time. “We figure that’s worth $30,000 to $40,000 [a year],” he says.

– Dolan has also found savings by switching to high-efficiency lighting around the barn, reducing the wattage on outside fixtures and putting them on timers. You can also save on electricity by using partial lighting in the barn and riding areas whenever possible.

– Bedding is a major expenditure on most horse farms. Bag your own shavings at sawmills or have them delivered in bulk. Quantity discounts are often given when buying bagged bedding in bulk; join forces with neighboring farms to increase the size of shipments and bring the price down. Line stall floors with rubber mats to use less bedding.

– Other farm management cost-cutting measures can include using electric fencing, which offers a lower cost per metre than other forms of fencing, and maintaining your equipment regularly. Borrow what you don’t have and consider sharing the cost and use of big-ticket machinery with neighbours.

Rethinking feed

Dolan hasn’t cut back on Willowdale’s feeding program, because his clients are paying for quality in that area. But for many horse owners, it might actually be a case of less is more.

– The ultimate way to reduce feed costs is to keep horses on pasture as much as possible. A well-managed pasture can keep most horses in Canada fed for up to nine months of the year. But, when pasture is less than ideal, or during the non-growing season, horses in light to moderate work can often get by on quality hay alone. (It is critical that the hay be tested for nutritional value.) Feeding lesser amounts of hay that’s chock-full of required nutrients is a better value than offering vast quantities of inferior or older hay.

– Buy hay before the winter to avoid increased mid- to late-season cost increases. Most dealers will give you a discount if you take hay right from the field after cutting.

– While round bales are convenient, unless they have been stored inside they can be of lesser quality and contain dust and mould. (Plus horses have a tendency to use the loose bits to poop and sleep on.) Round-bale feeders or slow-feed nets can be worth the initial outlay to prevent wastage. In fact, figures he saves 20 per cent on his hay bills just by using haynets.

– Some horses require concentrated feed, however, so save by buying feed-store blends rather than brand names. Band together with others to buy feed in bulk by the pallet or, as Dolan suggests to his boarders, by totes – 500- to 1,000-kilogram bags. “You’re going to save hundreds of dollars,” he says. “A lot in our barn do that now. Instead of buying a bag from the feed store, they shovel it from the tote into a garbage bin. All of that stuff they can do in bulk – that’s the way they save big money. If you’re riding every day and you’ve got to put extra feed into the horse, those are huge things.”

– Also consider whether supplementation is really necessary. A quality feeding program should supply most horses with all the vitamins and minerals they need. Before making any feed-related changes, talk to a qualified nutritionist to determine your horse’s requirements based on his work level, age and environment.

Horse health – saving without scrimping

Cutting corners on health can often be a false economy. Skipping a hoof trimming or avoiding floating teeth, for example, can wind up costing more in the long term if your horse goes lame because he’s out of balance or colics because he can’t chew his food properly.

– By far, the best money-saving strategy is prevention. Know what is normal for your horse (i.e. attitude, vital signs) and make sure your horse and his environment are in tip-top shape to help avoid costly calls to the veterinarian or farrier for ailments or injury. An optimally healthy horse that becomes sick or injured will generally recover more quickly, saving further hits to your wallet.

– Although it’s definitely not an area where you want to scrimp, there are still ways to save money on horse care. When the veterinarian is coming for routine checks, for example, share the call fee with a group of owners from the barn or invite friends and neighbours to ship in. Likewise, you can take your horse to some vet clinics for care and checkups and save the farm visit fee.

– See about doing bi-annual fecal exams and targeted deworming rather than using a conventional schedule. More veterinarians are recommending this, not only as a cost-saving measure, but because many parasites are becoming resistant to dewormers. Also, learn to perform standard health tasks such as deworming, bandaging and giving medications yourself rather than having your veterinarian do it. Although it’s not generally recommended that you vaccinate horses yourself (if administered incorrectly, the horse can suffer adverse reactions ranging from abscesses at the injection site to anaphylactic shock and death), discuss with your veterinarian what vaccines are absolutely necessary based on your location and circumstances.

– When it comes to hoof care, barefoot is of course less expensive. Ask your farrier if pulling your horse’s shoes permanently, or at least for the part of the year you are not showing, is doable.

Boarding/riding/showing

– Board is a major expense. Cut costs by switching to co-op or self-care where you contribute to all or part of the barn chores. Field board is another option, as is part-boarding, where someone pays to ride your horse for a prescribed number of days per week or month. If you can, get your horse on the payroll; ask your barn owner if he or she is open to using your horse in lessons for a reduction in board, or volunteer your services instead. Perhaps a barn owner who is feeling the economic pinch herself would be amenable to you doing work in exchange for part or all of your board.

– As for riding, reduce your lessons to bi-weekly or switch from private to group lessons. Love clinics, but can’t afford them? Audit instead, or organize sessions with clinicians at your home barn if possible.

– Cut back on or eliminate showing. If your competitive urges still burn, attend local or unrated events instead to save on transport costs, hotel, food, higher entry fees and stall charges. There are several ways to budget on recognized or “away” shows, too. Put the word out locally and buddy up with others who are taking horses to the same event. Share trailering and hotel rooms. Avoid expensive concession stands and bring your own food. Do fewer classes. Get your entries in on time to avoid late-entry fees. Braid and groom your mount yourself.

Tack and equipment

When you need tack or equipment, determine whether it really has to be shiny and new.

– eBay is popular with horse people for second-hand and even new, unused equipment, as are classified websites like kijiji and the multitude of horse forums on the internet. “There’s a lot of equipment on kijiji,” says Dolan, “and there’s no reason not to hunt around a little bit and save as much as 50 per cent.”

– Don’t avoid your local tack store, though. Check their websites regularly for promotions or specials, as well as in-house consignment areas and discount bins. Also, wait for sales and shop in the off-season for needed items. Follow your favourite tack and feed outlets on Facebook and Twitter and sign up for email bulletins to receive sale alerts.

– Ontario horse owner Jean Humphrey finds it tough to avoid spending on herself and her five-year-old Percheron-Thoroughbred, Parker, every time she walks into a tack shop. “I can’t come out without buying something. I don’t know many horse people who can. It’s like going to a candy shop and not buying anything.” So she “makes do” by borrowing equipment from friends or repairing items such as gloves.

– Make minor tack repairs yourself by investing in a leather-repair kit. You can even attempt your own blanket repairs like patching, sewing, cleaning and waterproofing. Even if you opt for professional blanket care and cleaning, it will still cost less over time than buying a new one. Better yet, doff your horse’s blanket. Most horses don’t really need them unless they’re older, clipped, showing, or grow a scanty coat. Ultimately, keeping your equipment clean and in first-rate condition will protect your investment.

Cut the extras

– Create a personal budget. You might be surprised how much of your hard-earned money goes toward impulse purchases rather than helping you enjoy your horse. Humphrey recently had to reevaluate her spending because, for the first time, she had to pay board for her horse. “Cut out the little things you buy – no extra coffees – I take a thermos to work. Stop buying lunches, cook enough for leftovers,” said Humphrey. “You don’t have to change your lifestyle that much. Just stop buying extra stuff. Don’t stop living.”

Other ideas to make horse ownership less financially painful:

– Make extra cash by selling unused tack or equipment.

– Buy at auto-supply, farm, and hardware stores.

– Sell or lease your horse trailer if you aren’t getting enough use out of it.

– Shop at dollar and discount stores for grooming and stable items like baby wipes, Vaseline, sponges, storage boxes and dustpans.

– Make homemade flysprays and hair detanglers (search the internet for recipes).

– Bake horse treats at home or contact local orchards and vegetable merchants for seconds of apples and carrots.

– Barter for services; for example, if you are proficient in web design, you could create and maintain a stable or coach’s website in exchange for lessons.

Cutting back on horse expenses requires self-control, organization, and effort, but in the end, most horse people would agree: it’s better to live thriftily with horses than extravagantly without.