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Veterinarian warns against challenges of confining horses in small spaces

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Worland – “We need to be careful how we populate small areas,” warned Veterinarian Steven Tharp during WESTI Ag Days in Worland on Feb. 20.

“There are ranches with horses spread over thousands of acres, but most of us aren’t that fortunate. We are going to be confined to a small parcel,” he added.

Describing both the nature of humans and horses, Tharp explained that many typical situations are not ideal for keeping horses.

“There was a time in this country when the relationship between mankind and the horse was much different,” he stated. “They had a daily interaction, and they had a profound understanding of one another.”

Used as work animals, they were harnessed and utilized regularly, receiving exercise and mental stimulation.

“Fast forward to today’s world. The stewards of these animals have to work in town to be able to pay for their ranchette. We have them, we own them, but for what end?” he asked.


Although most ranchers have a better understanding of their horses, as well as larger spaces and useful workloads for their animals, Tharp expressed his concern for the pet mentality that some owners seem to have.

“A cat and a dog are very commonsense pets,” he remarked. “A horse is much larger and a very powerful animal. A horse can very easily hurt us.”

Often, horses are handled infrequently, leading to fear in both people and animals because neither party fully understands their role in the relationship or how to communicate with the other.

“I would expect probably seven out of 10 horses that I deal with on a daily basis are in a very dangerous situation, and the owners themselves are in a dangerous situation,” he noted.

Hunting season is one time of the year that Tharp often sees the dangers play out. A horse that hasn’t been ridden all year is taken up into the mountains for hunting and expected to perform at a top level.

“He might be a wonderful animal, but he comes back off the mountain and can’t walk. The horse is probably in the same condition as the guy who took him up there, and both of them drag themselves off the mountain, sorely disappointed with the experience,” he commented.


The small areas horses are often kept in can also be a problem, especially when people buy small plots of land and immediately add too many animals for the area.

“A cow is a cloven-hoofed animal. She plows the ground. We can have too many cows, but a horse has no clove to its foot. It has a sole – one large foot that packs the earth,” he explained.

Too often, Tharp sees examples of what he terms the “urban enclave horse,” where a person buys one or two acres and confines a number of horses in that area year-round.

“What happens to the once-beautiful clover and brome pasture that once grew? It turns into a dust pile, forcing the owner to then buy and feed hay 12 months of the year,” he described.

Left unattended in a small pasture, the animals also become bored and destructive.

“They begin to revolt by eating the corrals. Round poles become splintered toothpicks,” Tharp mentioned.

They also begin to build manure piles in one area, and if left alone, the piles can build up high enough for the horses to walk up and over the fences of the corral.

Health issues

“If they’re well fed, and the majority probably are, they become overfed and obese,” Tharp added.

The state of their hooves can also become a problem, as they are not worn down in soft dirt  like they would be out on the rocks and rough ground of wide open pastures.

“Every time we make an appointment to see our hairdresser, we should make an appointment for the farrier to come out and trim the horses,” recommended Tharp.

Health issues also begin to arise when horses are kept in inadequate conditions. For example, hay that is being kept for feed throughout the summer can begin to get dusty.

“I’ve had calls about horses that are wheezing like they’d smoked a pack of cigarettes a day for 30 years. They have respiratory issues,” he noted.


Feeding hay throughout the year can also become very expensive, easily costing $1,500 to $2,000 annually for one horse.

“If we have six or eight horses, that’s a lot of hay to haul, a lot of hay to feed and a lot of hay to keep covered,” he continued.

Additional costs also begin to build, such as those for structures to keep hay dry or other amenities to serve the animal.

“Cost may be the limiting factor, eventually,” guessed Tharp.

Acknowledging the challenges of modern-day responsibilities, he concluded that some people simply might not have the means to keep horses.

“If we have a horse, we have to have an objective, and if we can’t meet that objective, we probably shouldn’t have that animal. There are impacts on soil issues, overgrazing and overpopulation. There are also health issues and boredom issues,” he stated. “Those are all a reflection of putting an animal in environment that is unnatural.”

Natasha Wheeler is editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be contacted at

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