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Homeless Horses Part Four: The Cost of a 'Free' Horse

In the current national economy, "free" horses abound but is a free horse really free?

Over the past few weeks as I've written to tell you about the abundance of homeless horses and what happens to most of them, I’ve been thinking a lot about the horses in my life. Okay I always do but what triggered the recent reflection is a new horse that has entered my life. No, it’s not Ari but another equine that came to me for “free” recently from someone experiencing an extreme financial hardship.

Horses have come and gone over the years for many different reasons, and the reason is often that someone can no longer keep the horse so I get the horse for “free." I rehabilitate some and find new homes for them. Some horses stay with me.

I’ve been strictly a trail rider for the past 10 years. Each horse that is part of my life needs to be a trail horse, nothing more. The only special talent needed is to be a safe mount. Of course the horses being given away for “free” are often described as trail horses, but are they ever truly “free”?

Acquiring a new horse can be precarious, especially for an inexperienced person. Unfortunately, I have run across people who have sold or given me a horse that has not quite measured up to its description, but they've been wanting to get rid of it. That can be a danger to the less experienced equine lover.

There are a few people who will flat out lie about the horse's abilities or personality traits. Yet, honestly, I really think it’s sometimes a perception issue. What one person considers a well-trained horse may not be in someone else’s opinion. Take for example the most recent addition to my herd.

I got him for “free” which means I paid nothing for him. A friend of mine knew someone that was in dire straights and also knew I was looking for an additional trail horse and that I have the means to care for another one. She called me and told me she had picked him (and others) up and dropped him off at my house. So he was waiting for me when I arrived home in the afternoon. I would never recommend anyone get a horse sight unseen at any time, by the way. I have years of horse experience and I have a trainer I trust to work with, so I do have this happen in my life once in a while.

I am fully aware that a free horse is rarely ever “free." There are usually health or training issues with the horse that end up costing you in the long (or short) run. I said usually not always.

The very first thing I had to do for the new herd mate was to have his hooves trimmed. They were quite overgrown, which I expected, since I had been informed of his previous owner's economic situation. I was told he was 11 years old, when in fact he is 15 according to his pedigree and birth papers. I was told that he has had a ton of training, including loads of time in a dressage center, but that it’s been about six months since he was last ridden.

How do I know how long it’s truly been since his last ride? Pretty simple really. I worked him. His fear and mistrust let me know that he had some issues going on. In the round pen he was flighty and seemed confused and unfocused. Then I saddled him. Upon saddling him his hopping around and almost, but not quite, bucking and bolting across the round pen in utter fear told me it’s been more than six months since he’s had a saddle on his back. Not only did he hop and bolt, his eyes were huge and he was as stiff as a board. So common sense told me not to mount this horse and to call my trainer.

So this “free” horse within the first week cost me approximately $200 for the farrier and the initial assessment from my trainer. Of course with my limited time to train a horse I had to hire my trainer to work with and ride this horse.

Upon the first ride—in addition to hopping and bolting—the horse tossed his head feverishly, had no idea how to back up when asked, and his leg cues were extremely undeveloped. He’s not a bad horse, don’t get the wrong idea. He is very willing and tries to figure out what he is being asked to do.  I asked my trainer to take him over for a month. My trainer is wonderful and has to get paid for the work he does, so the thought ran through my mind, “How much time (thus money) might it take to get this horse safe to ride?”

Within the first month of owning this horse, I figured he might cost me $700 minimum, which does not include feed of course. I suspected going into the deal that he would not truly be free so I was prepared for the additional expense.

I share this with you so that if you have the opportunity to obtain a “free” horse—and especially if you are newer to horse ownership or have a very excited young horse lover in your life—that you honestly think about the possible costs involved.

With the economy in its current shape, ads for free horses are more numerous. It may be better in the mind of the "seller" to give a horse to someone rather than have the horse end up at the feedlot, auction house or slaughter yard—which is where more than 100,000 equines end up annually.

But buyer beware, even if the horse is "free."

Even those that are very inexpensive fall into this category. Ari cost me $225 to save from the feedlot and she is wild. She has never been handled by any person, ever. I know what I am in for.

Cricket was also a wild horse and I've had others in my life as well. Experienced horse people may be able to handle the wild ones but if you are inexperienced and looking for a horse to add to your family don't allow the price to make your decision. Take an experienced friend or trainer with you when horse shopping.

If you can save a life great, but please be honest with yourself about your finances, time constraints and your abilities regarding horse ownership. A free horse is rarely free and horses are always an ongoing expense.

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