Louth SPCA

How to Care for Horses, Ponies & Donkies

Owning a horse or pony can be very rewarding, but it is a huge responsibility and very hard work. You need time, money, commitment and access to suitable land.  Every responsible horse owner and handler will need to keep themselves updated on all aspects of horse care and information in order to ensure their animals live a long, happy and healthy life.  It’s no secret that horses require a certain level of care, including exercise, grooming and vaccinations.

Depending on where you live / keep your horse you may need to have a licence to keep a Horse, Pony or Donkey.

When you get your horse you should get him micro-chipped and registered on a database.  The micro-chip is injected into the horses neck and should not cause him any discomfort.  You should also keep a record of the micro-chip number on his passport or identity card.

Another thing to consider when you get your horse is horse and rider insurance – Allianz can give you full details on the cover provided.  Check out their website on http://www.allianz.ie

Most horses and ponies can live for over 20 years and some can even live into their 30’s, so owning a horse is very much a long term commitment.


Horses, in their natural state, live in herds, and they love the company of their own kind.  As such they are also designed to graze in open spaces.  It is better for them to live outside then be permanently stabled, but if the horse is to live outdoors all the time, then they must have access to suitable shelter when the weather is too hot, cold or wet.

Horses are very much creatures of habit, and are more relaxed in a stable routine with the same thing happening at the same time every day, especially when it comes to feeding times.


When handling your horse always be aware of the look in his eye.  This will help you to know his thoughts and to anticipate his movements, be they friendly or aggressive.

For everything else the golden rules are to speak quietly, handle the horse firmly but gently and avoid sudden movements that could startle the horse and panic.

Always speak to any horse before you approach it and while you are handling or working around the horse.  This allows the horse to be able to recognise the voice of the person who feeds him or from whom kindness is expected.  It can also make it easier to catch if the horse is out with his mates in a big field – he will hear your voice and know to come to you.

When moving your horse you should either use a correctly fitted head-collar or a halter.  If you are using a head-collar these can be generally left on the horse when they are out in a field, provided there is nothing for the horse to catch the collar on, such as branches or broken fencing.  Halters are not designed to be left on the horse as the excess rope that is used to lead the horse cannot be removed and so will be left to trail on the ground, which means it can get caught or the horse can step on it and injury himself.

If you are leaving the head-collar on the horse, be sure that it fits snugly – not too tight that it can rub the horse, but not too loose that it gets caught in branches.  You should also check and clean the head-collar regularly to be sure that there is no build up of dirt and causing an irritation to the horse.

When leading your horse, you should be able to lead the horse on both sides.  However, majority of horses are used though to being led from the left hand side.  When leading a horse, always walk at his shoulder – it is harder from him to kick out or step on you if you are beside his front leg.

If you must lead a horse on a road, the horse must travel in the same direction as the traffic and the person leading the horse should be between the horse and the traffic.  This is for your own safety – if the horse spooks away from the traffic he will also be spooking away from you and so you won’t end up being squished by a frightened or nervous horse.

Horse in the Field

If the field and horse are properly managed, many horses and ponies thrive on living out in fields and it can save you considerable time and money.

In the growing seasons of spring and early summer, if the fields are big enough they will be sufficient to provide the horses their full dietary requirements.  In this case, you will only need to provide fresh water and a salt-lick.  Grass-kept horses are also able to exercise themselves as they are not constricted by space – this will also reduce the necessity for you to exercise them every day.

The downside of keeping your horse at grass, is that they can get very dirty and wet, he can decide not be caught when you want him, it is very difficult to regulate the diet and during the winter extra feed may need to be put out if the grass is inadequate or the horse is doing a lot of work.

It is very hard to give you hard and fast rules about the amount of land needed to support a horse.  A lot depends on the quality of the grass in the area, the drainage of the land and the nature of the soil.  If a number of horses are being kept in the one field then the general rule of thumb on the minimum size the field should be is one acre per horse.  But a field the size of one acre is not big enough for a single horse – they need to be able to move around.

Ideally, you should rotate fields so that the fields have a chance to rest and the grass gets a chance to grow.  Constant grazing in the one field can make the field horse sick, and therefore, unsuitable for the horses to remain on.

In order to ensure your horses are safe from wandering off the field and into traffic or populated areas the field needs to be properly secured.  Properly treated post and rail fencing with a hedge at the back are considered the best, but so are properly maintained thick hedges and stone walls.  The main points to note when securing your fields are the following –

  • Can the horse easily jump the fence
  • Can the horse push through the fence
  • Can the horse injury himself from sharp edges, barbwire, or protruding nails.

The following plants are poisonous and they should be removed before leaving a horse in the field:

  • Privet
  • Ragwort – by law this plant should be cleared from grazing land on a regular basis
  • Foxglove
  • Yew
  • Horsetail
  • Hemlock
  • Laburnum
  • Acorn (oak)
  • Nightshade – woody, black and deadly varieties

If you decide to keep your horse in a field, you will still need to provide the horse with some form of shelter from the elements.  Our weather is getting more extreme with heavy snow falls, cold spells to heavy rain and heat waves.

A shelter shed should be built in the corner of a field with its back to the prevailing wind and easily accessible for feeding.  It should be positioned so that a horse cannot get trapped between it and the boundary fence.  A shed which is open fronted will also lessen the possibility of one horse being cornered and injured by another.  Also don’t remove the cobwebs as they act as a useful and free trap for flies.  You may not see your horses using the shelter that much in the winter, but in the summer they provide great protection from flies.

NB: Your horse should always have access to clean fresh water.

If a stream runs through the field make sure that the approach to the water is not steep or likely to cause injury to the horse.  Also the water should be free flowing and not stagnant.  If there is no stream in the field then you need to supply water to the field.  A large trough or old bathtubs with smooth edges are ideal.  They should be checked and cleaned regularly at the very least twice a day, more in hot weather and any ice taken out during cold weather.


The rules to good feeding are as follows:

  • Clean fresh water must be available at all times
  • Feed little and often (for their size horses have very small stomachs)
  • Feed according to work, temperament and condition – if you have a big cob he may need a higher energy feed then your flighty thoroughbred.  Also the sick horse will be on a different feed to the health horse.  Like people, each horse is different so you need to change your feeds to suit each horse
  • Keep to the same feeding hours each day
  • Do not work hard immediately after feeding – take your horse out of the field at the very least ½ hour before riding him, depending on the work he is about to do
  • Feed adequate roughage – grass, hay, chaff or bran
  • Introduce changes to feed gradually – horses have sensitive digestive systems if you change their diet too quickly they can get colic and other illness.
  • Feed clean, good quality forage – you would not eat bread covered in mould, so don’t give mouldy feed to your horse
  • Feed something succulent every day – depending on your horse, this can mean grass or a carrot.

If the field has not got enough grass for the horses or they are doing hard work, you will need to supplement their grass diet with hay and what are called ‘hard feeds’.  These are oats, barley, pony cubes, mixes etc.  In order to give your horse the correct hard feeds you should talk to your supplier about the right diet for your horse taking into account the amount of work the horse is expected to do each day, the type of horse you have and the condition he is in.


Most Irish horse, like the draught and cob, will not need rugs.  If the horse is fit and healthy, their own coat will keep them comfortable and warm, but if he has been clipped, or if his coat is very fine and he is groomed regularly then you will need to put a rug on to protect him from the cold.  This is why the grass kept horse should not be groomed on a regular basis.  You should check for any cuts, bumps or bruises on a daily basis, but only give him a light groom such as cleaning the feet and removing heavy mud and sweat marks.  This will allow the horse to maintain the natural oil balance in his coat and reduce the need to use a rug.


You don’t need to have all the latest products and gadgets to keep your horse clean and happy.  A few basic pieces will be sufficient.  The necessary things you should have are:

  • Hoof pick – absolute must have, if your horse can’t walk, you can’t ride him
  • Curry comb – either plastic or rubber, very good for lifting dirt off the coat, massaging the muscles and cleaning the body brush
  • Body brush – removes the dust and scurf from the coat, mane and tail
  • Water brush – for use with your bucket of water to remove heavy mud and stains
  • Sponge or cloth – for cleaning eyes, nose and muzzle and dock.  Don’t clean the dock and then the face – it would be like you cleaning your bum and then using the same towel on your face!!


Remember, ‘No Foot – No Horse’

Depending on your horse and the type of work he does your horse will need to see the farrier between 4 and 8 weeks, and they will also be able to tell you how you should look after their feet and whether or not they need shoes.  You should talk to your farrier about the best practice for your horse or pony.

Your farrier will also be able to help and advise if your horse has laminitis or other hoof related injuries / aliments.

Laminitis is a very serious condition which can cause severe lameness and deformity in the horses hoof.  There is no one cause for laminitis and there is no cure – but it can be controlled and prevented.  Every horse is different, so while one horse in a herd may develop the condition it does not mean all the horses will.  Some causes of Laminitis are too much rich feed, not enough exercise, standing still on hard ground all the time, pregnancy.

Laminitis is the inflammation and swelling of the sensitive areas in the horses hoof around the bone and behind the hoof wall.  The level of discomfort would be something akin to you putting on and wearing 24/7 a pair of shoes a size to small for you – causing your foot to be pressed into the narrower area with no room for movement.

If you suspect your horse has laminitis contact your vet immediately, followed by your farrier as he may need to remove or re-adjust the shoes on the horse to help relieve the discomfort.

Bad shoeing can also lead to laminitis, so make sure your farrier is fully qualified.


Just as you should go the dentist once a year for a check up so should your horse.  Horse’s teeth also need to be seen to on an annual basis.  Due to the nature of a horse’s diet and the way they eat, horses teeth can develop very sharp edges which will result in discomfort for the horse and in turn for you as the rider / handler.  There are specialist equine dentists in Ireland and some do come from the UK on an annual basis to visit yards.  So check with your local yard to see when the next dentist visit is planned.

Looking after a sick / injured horse

With the best intentions in the world, we cannot always prevent our horses and ponies from being sick or getting injured.  We can reduce the risks but sometimes these things just happen.  And when they do happen – the important thing is not to panic and not to leave the horse in pain.

To help reduce the chances of your horse getting Equine Flu or Tetanus you should have him vaccinated once a year and keep clear records of the injections on his passport / identification card.

A big problem facing a herd of horses is worms.  To prevent your horse getting ill from an infestation of worms you should worm your horse on a regular basis – roughly every 6 – 8 weeks.  Talk to your local vet to confirm the type of worming dose to give your horse throughout the year.  Different types of worms appear at different times of the year and no one product is effective against them all.

If your horse is sick or injured contact your vet straight away – it does not matter the time of day or night.  Depending on the severity of the injury / sickness the vet may tell you what to do over the phone or he may call out.

If you suspect your horse to have colic, contact your vet immediately.  Colic is a very serious condition.  The symptoms of colic include laying down and getting back up again repeatedly, the horse looking at their quarters (bum / hind legs), stamping the ground, swishing of their tail, unable to go to the toilet though they keep trying.  The horse may not present himself to you with all these symptoms – he may only show one or two, but you should be able to recognise in your own horse  through constant handling when he is not feeling well.

If your horse has an injury or illness, don’t keep riding the horse, unless the vet gives the all clear.  Give your horse a couple of days rest and then start back with gentle walking in hand before sitting up on him and taking him for gentle hacks.  You would not like to be asked to play a football match if you hurt your leg or were sick – so allow your horse time to recover before putting him back to hard work.

Going away on holiday

If you are going away on holiday have a friend agree to look after your horse while you are away.  Leave them the contact numbers of your vet and farrier and also any special diet requirements your horse is currently on.