A checklist of observations for good horse health

Being able to identify any changes to your horse’s health can significantly improve the prognosis. Getting to know what is normal for your horse or each of your horses will take some time but is certainly time well spent.

Being able to identify any changes to your horse’s health can significantly improve the prognosis. Getting to know what is normal for your horse or each of your horses will take some time but is certainly time well spent.

Last time we talked about taking your horse’s vital signs: temperature, pulse and respiration. Today we are going to look at more visual indications of good health.

Make a point of checking each horse at least once daily. Below is a list of indications you can look for to observe your horse’s health:

Behaviour — Understanding each horse’s personality will help you to recognize when something is ‘off’ and that the horse isn’t feeling well.

A confident and content demeanour indicates health. The horse should be standing and aware of his surroundings; lying for short periods is normal but not all day.

Did you know that horses can sleep standing up? They can! Horses normally take shorter naps throughout the day rather than nestling down for the 8 hours we enjoy.

Any unusual behaviour should be monitored carefully. A restless or uneasy horse may be just that, or they may be feeling pain or discomfort. A horse that is lying down all day should also be kept an eye on.

He may be recovering from a busy evening of playing with his friends or simply basking in the warmth of the sun, but horses that lie down for unusually long periods of time could be in trouble. Another reason to know your horse’s behaviours!

Coat Condition — Run your hand across your horse’s coat. The skin should be loose and move easily under your touch. The coat should be shiny, even a clipped horse should have a shiny coat. These factors indicate that your horse is well hydrated and that they have adequate fat in their diet

Sweating in extreme heat is normal, especially if the horse has been active or out in the direct sun.

Horses should not sweat at rest; this can indicate pain and should be monitored. Horses should sweat when working hard; an inability to sweat is called Anhidrosis. Although uncommon, this condition can develop in horses in hard work over time and is extremely serious as the heat is unable to dissipate and the horse overheats.

Eyes — The eyes should be clear and free from gunk. Any discharge could indicate illness. Any puffiness or swelling around the eye should be dealt with immediately. Any cloudiness, redness, tearing or sensitivity to light should be regarded as serious and is reason to contact your veterinarian.

Our horse’s vision is nothing to fool with; small problems such as a tiny scratch on the cornea can be resolved quickly with veterinary attention or if ignored and allowed to get out of hand can cause permanent vision impairment.

Body — Your horse should stand evenly and carry weight on all four feet. Horses will rest a hind leg, but any signs of not wanting to bear weight on a front limb should be considered suspicious. Your horse’s legs should be free from swelling and feel cool to the touch (body temperature warm versus the heat of inflammation).

Look at your horse’s underline. If it resembles the tucked up at the flank appearance of a greyhound you may have a horse suffering from dehydration. Some horses have a conformation trait called herring gut, which is similar in appearance and normal for that horse; another example of needing to know what is your horse’s normal!

If you suspect your horse might be dehydrated perform a capillary refill test. Press your finger into your horse’s gum just above his front teeth, the spot will turn white. Normally, color should return within 1-4 seconds.

If the horse is stressed or dehydrated horse, the spot will stay pale and bloodless longer.

Appetite — A horse that normally eats his entire ration aggressively suddenly turns up his nose at dinner. Should you be worried? Yes.

This change in appetite could indicate a multitude of concerns ranging from dental issues to colic or a sore throat. Inspect the ration carefully to ensure that nothing is mouldy or spoiled and monitor the horse carefully.

Be aware of how your horse eats. Food should be consumed efficiently not falling out the side of the mouth. If the horse shows desire to eat but then appears to be uncomfortable he probably is suffering from dental issues and needs to see a veterinarian.

Excretions — What goes in must come out. Your horse should pass droppings on average 8 times daily. The balls should be firm but break open when they hit the ground.

Horses on grass will often have looser manure but should not have diarrhea. You shouldn’t see grain or pellets in the manure.

Color will vary with diet but should not smell offensive. Urine should be colorless or pale yellow and passed several times daily.

Looking for the visual indications of good health will ensure that you are on the right track to keeping your horse healthy and at his best. Checking your horse from muzzle to tail at least once daily (more is better!) will help you to catch changes that may indicate something’s wrong.

Shelly Graham is a local rider, trainer, horse keeper and Equine Canada certified coach.

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