How much land do I need to keep a horse (or two)?
How much land do I need to keep a horse (or two)?
By Ann Pawlak
First step: if you already have or are considering property in a development and/or within city limits, make sure the development restrictions and city codes allow you to keep a horse or horses on your property and that you understand any requirements for fencing, horse-related structures, waste management, and riding on public and private property. Some developments limit the number of horses you can have based on how much land you have. Some cities and towns forbid keeping “livestock” (including horses) within city limits. Also ask your real estate agent or county property tax office for information about whether the land is considered to be in a flood plain, which will affect insurance availability and cost and possibly even property resale.
When you’re looking at property or wondering whether your land will work, consider whether it provides:
Space. How much land do you need to keep a horse? Maintaining one (or two) horses on an acre or two of land is possible, but you will have to buy hay (and grain) because the grass will be inadequate, and you will have to find a way to manage manure. Depending on the soil and rainfall and how much fence you can afford to build, five to ten acres may have enough grass so you feed less hay and enough trees to provide natural shelter so you don’t have to build a barn. With more than ten acres, fencing cost can become a concern, and you may be able to afford to only fence only part of the land for your horse anyway! If you plan to build a barn, having high ground or an area away from where rain drains is essential.
If you only have an acre or two of horse space, planning where and how to use the space to provide the maximum available pasture is particularly important. For example, two basic requirements might be a 32’x32’ barn (room for two horse stalls, hay and shavings storage and a walkway) and a 30’ diameter round pen to exercise and ride your horse. If you want to ride on the whole one acre lot instead of just in the round pen, for example, you could create an “arena” by building a path along the outside fence—7 trips around the fence would equal slightly over one mile. To make riding more interesting, you could set up an obstacle course of logs/poles to step over, barrels to circle or dodge, and scary objects throughout the pasture or along the fence. Use your imagination and keep thinking of new ways to keep your and your horse’s experience fresh!
Grass. Most areas of Texas don’t provide adequate grass throughout the year. Bluebonnet rescues “backyard” horses who have eaten all the available grass and are starving standing on bare dirt. Owners say “well, but my horse had a lot of grass there for him this spring.” That grass lasted a few months. Then summer came, everything dried up, and the horse was left eating a few weeds and the bark it could reach on a tree outside its fence. You should plan on buying hay to feed your horses during some or all of the year.
Soil. Constantly standing on wet, muddy, poorly draining ground causes hoof problems. Disease-carrying mosquitoes breed in low areas where water collects. Rocky ground wears horses’ hooves down, and they may require shoes to protect their feet. (Farriers charge $50-$150/visit to shoe a horse, and shoes may need to be reset or replaced every six to eight weeks.) Horses enjoy taking natural baths by rolling in sand, but sandy soil drains quickly so grass dries out and dies. Clay soil holds water better than sand, but when it dries out, clay cracks and holes may develop that a horse can step in and injure its foot or leg. Sandy loam soil holds water better than sand but doesn’t dry as hard as clay. Fire ants can be a problem in any soil, and a horse who eats grass near the mound or rolls on it may be severely bitten.
Fence. Knowing how much fence work you will need to do can help you decide whether you can afford to keep a horse at home. Depending on how much land you buy, having a professional build fence around all or some of the land can cost as much as the land. Starting out with land that at least has good perimeter fences can save you a lot of money doing repairs and building replacement or new fence. When you’re looking at property, walk the fence line and watch for signs of poor fencing like: sagging or missing wire or broken wooden rails, fence posts leaning in or out (probably from livestock rubbing or pushing on them), wooden fence posts that look rotten or termite eaten at the bottom, and obvious gaps where fencing is missing and only thick brush is keeping livestock in or out.
If you have land or are buying land and plan to build a house on part of the land and keep your horse(s) on the rest, in addition to perimeter fence, you probably will have to build “cross-fence” to separate the house and horse areas. If cross-fence already exists, check its condition the same way you checked the perimeter fence.
Trees and water. A few trees can provide shade and shelter for your horse(s) during hot, cold, or stormy weather. A “stock tank” is a scooped out hollow that holds rain water for livestock to drink. Many stock tanks go dry when the water evaporates during the summer so, if you’re looking at land with a stock tank, check how deep it is (the deeper, the better) and don’t assume your horse always will have water. Sometimes properties have a “seasonal creek” that fills when it rains and then gradually dries out. If you see a dry or running creek bed, ask when, how much and how long you can expect the water to flow. Because full seasonal creeks can wash out driveways and flood barns (and houses) after a heavy rain, you should make sure the land offers safe sites for your road and buildings. If the land already is developed, ask about previous wash out and flooding situations. Your real estate agent and/or county office should be able to tell you whether the property is in a flood plain.
Manure disposal. When thinking about having your horse at home, you should decide how and where you will dispose of the manure. You won’t really understand how much manure horses create until you see it start piling up! If you keep your horse in a stall for part of the day, you will clean the stall and put the manure somewhere. Most horses also establish a “toilet” area or areas in the pasture, as well as leaving random deposits, that you should clean up to discourage flies and prevent soil and water pollution caused by water running off the manure during rains.
Manure attracts flies and it smells bad so you don’t want it near your house or a barn. If you intend to pile the manure
somewhere on your property, choose a place far enough away from your house so you don’t have to live with the flies and odor. . .and perhaps start thinking about buying a manure spreader! Given enough time and care, manure can become excellent compost. Look online for plans for building manure composting bins. Some recycling companies accept manure, but may charge for picking it up or accepting it if you deliver it.
“Fly predators” – insects that reduce the fly population by eating fly eggs – are available by mail from various suppliers. Predator eggs arrive in plastic packets, and, when they begin to hatch, you distribute the tiny flies to areas where manure collects. Feed stores stock various kinds of fly traps, sticky fly strips, and automatic insect spraying systems to help control flies.
Last words. Being greeted by a cheerful nicker or grumpy “what took you so long?” whinny is a great way to start each day. Keeping a horse at home is a lot of work – but it provides a very high return!