6 Essential Health Checks for your Horse

by Sarah Macey

6 Essential Health Checks for your Horse

Horses can be unpredictable creatures and can easily rack up expensive vet bills that you don’t particularly like the look of!  It’s always good to be aware of your horse’s health and carry out regular checks to ensure that if there are any problems you can catch them quickly before they escalate into something more serious.

Vital Signs

You should always observe your horse’s vital signs at rest, as this well help you to determine their normal levels. Each individual horse will differ and heart and breathing rates vary depending on the age and fitness of the individual, as with humans. The fitter the horse, the faster the rates will return to normal. Any changes to the normal vital signs of your horse, observed at rest, are often key indicators of pain or illness.

Ears, Eyes and Nose

A healthy horse is naturally inquisitive, alert and responsive to its environment. Their ears are either pricked up, flicking backwards and forwards, or when the horse is resting, held softly forward or to each side. Their eyes should be bright and clear with a pale pink colour to the skin. The nose should be clean and the breathing steady and regular at rest. Abnormal aggression, evasion, disinterest or lethargy may indicate that something is wrong. A head held low or pressed into a dark corner of the shelter or stable, with ears clenched back, may indicate more serious ill health or pain. Thick nasal discharge from one or both nostrils and congested or weeping eyes are also indicators of ill health. Routine care of your horse should include regular cleansing of the eyes and nostrils with fresh water, using separate (clean) sponges.

Skin and Coat

A horse’s skin should be supple and soft, with a natural elasticity. The coat should be smooth and shiny. Dry, flaky skin, a dull coat with hairs raised or excessive grease, can indicate an underlying health problem. Regular grooming assists in maintaining good coat and skin conditions, and can help promote good circulation.

Feet and Limbs

Most cases of lameness originate in a horse’s foot. If not detected and treated at the outset, minor foot ailments can worsen rapidly, resulting in serious infection or lameness. Daily cleaning and inspection of feet assists in the early detection and prevention of foot problems. Ideally, a horse should be inspected on a firm, level surface. The horse should walk comfortably and, when standing, the weight should be borne evenly on all four feet. Hooves should be cleaned out, using a hoof pick and hoof brush, with care taken to remove mud and debris from around the frog and the heels.

Inspect your horse’s hooves daily for:

  • Impacted stones, thorns or other foreign objects
  • Abnormal marks or patched of colour (red, purple or dirty black)
  • Unpleasant smell or discharge
  • Splits, cracks or other damage to the hoof wall
  • Twisted or loose shoes

Hooves should be trimmed and balanced by a registered farrier every four to six weeks for shod horses, and every six to ten weeks for unshod horses.

Teeth

Regular dental care is essential for healthy teeth and gums, to promote normal chewing and good digestion, and acceptance of the bit and rein contact when ridden. A horse’s mouth contains two main types of teeth – the incisors (cutting teeth) at the front and the molars (grinding teeth) at the back. Both types of teeth are important for normal food intake and proper digestion.
Teeth gradually erupt from the jaw, in response to wear, throughout the animal’s life. Wear is often uneven, leading to sharp edges and hooks developing on the molars (typically on the outside edge in the upper jaw and the inside edge in the lower jaw). Additionally, hooks at the back of the mouth can prevent the normal chewing movement of the jaw, which makes eating difficult.
Sharp edges and hooks can cut into the tongue and cheeks, causing considerable discomfort. Rasping or filing of these protrusions forms an essential part of healthcare. This can be carried out by a veterinary surgeon or a British Equine Veterinary Association (BEVA) approved dental technician. Broken, split or decaying teeth may require removal, which must be done by, or under the direction of, a veterinary surgeon.

Identifying possible dental problems:

  • Lack of appetite or reluctance to eat
  • Drooling saliva – or a discharge from the mouth or nose
  • Sores and swellings around the mouth
  • Pain or swellings in the throat and along the jaw line
  • Foul smelling breath
  • Loss of body condition

Signs of a possible dental problem when eating are as follows:

  • Chewing more slowly than normal or favouring one side of the mouth
  • Spilling food from the mouth or deliberately dropping (quidding) balls of partially chewed food
  • Sores and swellings around the mouth
  • Swellings along the jaw-line or cheek

The teeth of adult horses should receive routine professional attention at least once per year, even where no specific signs of a problem are observed. Young horses require more frequent dental inspections, to ensure that the adult teeth come into wear correctly, and to confirm that the milk teeth have been shed successfully. Older horses also require more frequent dental inspections as they are more prone to dental problems and may suffer from loose or damaged teeth, decay or infections from impacted food.

Back

A horse should be checked regularly from head to tail for signs of tension, soreness or pain. Signs to look out for that may indicate a back problem are as follows:

  • General stiffness when moving, or dragging the hind toes
  • Resistance or aggravation when being saddled or the girth is tightened
  • Dipping when being mounted
  • Hollowing the back or resisting when ridden
  • Bucking or bolting
  • Stiffness to one side
  • Refusing the perform normal tasks, such as cantering or jumping
  • Uneven muscle development or tension
  • Adverse or exaggerated reaction to touch or pressure

It is advisable to get your horse’s back checked if the animal is exhibiting any of the above signs and also to identify or rule out any of the more probable causes.

Several therapeutic treatment options may be recommended for a horse that has been diagnosed as having a bad back. In addition to rest, controlled exercise and removing the original cause, the horse may benefit from a course of physical therapy from an approved therapist. Therapies for horses are similar to those for humans, and include physiotherapy, massage therapy, chiropractics and osteopathy. Also, every riding horse should have the fit and balance of their saddle checked regularly by a master saddler at least once per year.

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