Photo: Megan Arszman
As your horse leans into the satisfying feel of the brush and curry, you have an opportunity to do more than clean away dirt, grime, and loose hairs. Grooming also gives you visual and tactile information about your horse's health, and if done on a daily basis it can help you catch potential health problems early. Familiarize yourself with your horse's normal vital signs, sensory reactions, and physical characteristics so you can detect when something isn't quite right.
"Ideally, the grooming area should be well-lit to provide the best view," says Julie Wilson, DVM, Dipl. ACVIM, of Turner Wilson Equine Consulting LLC, in Stillwater, Minn. "The parts (of the horse) most likely overlooked are the ones you may not groom every time due to time constraints, the horse's behavior, or an 'inconvenient' location." Thus, it helps to formulate a standard pattern that you follow with every grooming, whether you work front to back or bottom to top. If you stick to a routine you're less likely to overlook an important area.
If you groom from the bottom up, you might start by picking out the hooves. This important step should be done daily to remove accumulated manure, debris, or stones from feet. But also pay attention to your horse's body language: "Reluctance to pick up a foot often signifies pain in the opposite hoof--the horse may not wish to put full weight on the standing limb," says Wilson.
Wilson recommends careful scrutiny of the sole and frog structures in particular. "The sulci of the foot (the grooves on either side of the frog) should be checked for abnormal moisture or smell that may indicate thrush."
Eleanor Lenher, DVM, of Deer Creek Equine Clinic in Powhatan, Va., concurs: "A thrush infection can be painful to the point of making a horse lame. Any foul odor or black discharge should be monitored and is worth a call to your veterinarian just to be sure it's not too serious.
"Another area to keep an eye on is the white line (where the hoof wall meets the sole), which can be prone to bruising or separation, particularly if your horse's feet are late on a trimming cycle," she continues. "Irregularities of the white line can lead to white line disease or may indicate a bout of laminitis." In addition to making your daily observations, maintain an ongoing discussion with your farrier at every trim and shoeing so you'll be familiar with potential issues and be able to recognize a problem quickly.
As you examine the shod horse's hooves, check that horseshoes are aligned properly and aren't twisted or sprung, and check that all horseshoe nails are present and taut. Tighten any that are loose by steadying the nail on the bottom of the shoe and then hammering the clinch where it protrudes on the outside of the hoof wall. Or, call your farrier to replace them. If you find that your horse has stepped on a nail or has a foreign body lodged in the foot, call your veterinarian immediately to evaluate and possibly take radiographs (X rays) before removing the object, says Lehner. "Even if your horse doesn't yet appear lame or sore on the foot, this helps determine which structures have been penetrated so the best course of action is taken to achieve recovery," she explains.
Picking your horse's feet also provides a good opportunity for checking the animal's delicate legs. "Any resistance to routine hoof picking should prompt more careful palpation for swelling of the joint areas and tendons and ligaments along the lower leg," says Wilson.
Lenher notes that picking up the feet also allows you to check the leg joints' range of motion. "Gently flex all your horse's lower joints to feel the normal range of motion," she advises. "Knowing in advance what is normal for your horse lets you detect early problems." For joints higher on the leg, Lenher points out, "The carpal (knee) joints should flex to almost touch the cannon bone to the forearm." Pain along with unusual resistance to flexion might indicate an issue that needs to be addressed.
"However," she continues, "some horses have limited range of motion, particularly in the fetlocks--this may or may not affect their athletic ability or work." Hind limb joints such as the hocks are harder to assess, but Lenher comments, "If your horse that normally doesn't mind having his legs manipulated begins to resist, contact your veterinarian to check for a problem."
Tactile evaluation of the limbs as you groom also is important. "Run hands and fingers along your horse's legs to assess for lumps, wounds, scabs, sensitivity, and anything that you might feel rather than see," says Lenher. "Look also for visible swelling or bumps. Early detection of wounds, injuries, strains, or sprains can make the difference between a short layup and a career-ending injury." If you discover a wound, clean it well (e.g., flush with saline) and try to determine its depth. Then apply antibiotic ointment and bandage when appropriate. If you have any questions about its seriousness, call your veterinarian.
After a rigorous workout, "Pay attention to your horse's reaction to post-¬workout bathing and scraping," Wilson urges. "Look for new swellings or muscle tremors." Also try to identify muscle soreness as you groom--palpate the large muscle groups of the shoulders, chest, back, and hindquarters.
"Anytime a horse is ridden harder or longer than normal or after a horse show or event, check for excess sensitivity in any one area," Lenher says. "While I don't recommend that an owner massage or knead sore muscles (without training in massage therapy), I do stress the importance of identifying any swellings or hypersensitivity." Monitor sensitive areas to check for improvement, and call your veterinarian if soreness is slow to resolve.
The Saddle and Girth Areas
When grooming around the saddle and girth areas, look for signs of saddle pressure or pinching. "Three major signs of new problems are local pain, hair loss, and/or swelling," says Wilson. "Chronic problems may lead to thickened skin, or subcutaneous or fibrous nodules." Chronic pressure on points of the body injures skin cells; white hairs growing on a dark-haired horse or dark hairs on a light-haired horse are evidence of this.
"Use gentle finger pressure along the back and loins to check for sensitivity," Lenher suggests. "Also, note any swelling, abraded, or raw spots beneath the saddle area or girth." If your horse shows abnormal sensitivity or swelling, make an appointment with someone to check your saddle fit and, in the meantime, minimize swelling by cold-hosing the injured area. Apply antibiotic salve to tack abrasions.
Some horses display behavioral signs while being groomed that might indicate a problem is brewing. "Odd behavior (e.g., the horse moves away, pins its ears, tries to kick or bite, or flinches when an area is touched) may signal pain," says Wilson. "More subtle problems in the saddle and girth area may elicit a behavioral change only when the owner goes to put the saddle on or tightens the girth or cinch." She also suggests owners track their mares' heat cycles to determine if changed behavior might be related to estrus.
"Sensitivity around the girth area has been correlated with gastric ulcers," Lenher adds. Therefore, know your horse's normal responses to grooming so you are aware of new behaviors that might signify physical issues such as ulcers. On the other hand, if you're well-aware your horse is ticklish in the flank area, his reaction to being groomed there shouldn't prompt a call to your veterinarian. You should, however, groom slowly and carefully around his known sensitive spots, says Lenher.
As you groom your horse through the seasons, take note of how well he sheds his hair coat, particularly in springtime. A horse that isn't shedding well or whose shedding is delayed might be a cause for concern. "If the horse is middle-aged or older, metabolic disease like Cushing's syndrome is important to rule out," notes Wilson. "Internal parasites are more often the issue in neglected or young horses. However, other illnesses affect hair shedding by impacting nutrition." Consult your veterinarian about hair coat abnormalities.
Less Visible Areas
In areas that aren't readily visible, it pays to perform a diligent tactile examination. "Use your hands to check under the girth, belly, and groin for small wounds, insect bites or hypersensitivity reactions, ticks, swelling, or other problems," Lenher urges. "Afterward, smell your hands to check for bad odors (that might be associated with a dirty sheath or udder, or with an infected wound)." Also carefully--and safely--feel between the hindquarters and inner groin, as these are common places to find ticks.
Visible Signs of Problems
As you groom, look carefully for other telltale signs of health issues. Diarrhea stains on the rump, for instance, might be associated with internal parasite infection or gastrointestinal tract problems such as intestinal irritation from sand ingestion or malabsorption. Excess dietary fat or some forms of malnutrition can elicit loose stools. And, Wilson points out that nerves or stress also can lead to transient bouts of diarrhea.
Dark, creamy material spattered on your gelding's rear legs should indicate it's time to clean his sheath to remove smegma (secretions and debris) deposits. A swollen sheath also might indicate a need for cleaning, as do broken hairs at the top of the tail--tail rubbing is a common response to sheath irritation, but it can also be a sign of pinworms or a tick lodged near the tail/groin area.
Regarding mares, Lenher says owners should remove dirt accumulation around mares' teats, check for swollen teats or udders that might indicate mastitis (inflammation of the mammary glands), and watch for redness, scaling, or hair loss that indicates dermatitis (inflammatory skin disease). Excess vaginal drainage in a mare might simply be a sign that she is in heat (estrus), or it could be related to uterine infection, urine pooling, or urinary tract problems. "A veterinary work-up is a good place to start to track down the sources of these problems," Lenher says.
"Gray horses need to be monitored everywhere for melanomas, including around the anus and under the tailhead," reports Wilson. "Likewise, when a male horse extends his penis to urinate, inspect him carefully. Look to see if nonpigmented areas of the penis or sheath appear reddened and inflamed, possibly indicating cancer, such as squamous cell carcinoma."
Face, Eyes, and Ears
As you clean your horse's face, pay careful attention to the eyes. "Eyes should be checked for discharge, cloudiness, squinting, or discomfort," says Wilson.
"Any tearing from the eyes should be noted and monitored," Lenher adds. "A small amount of drainage might be due to a passing irritation or wind, but excessive tearing, squinting, pain, or sensitivity to light are red flags that require an immediate call to your veterinarian. Eye problems are best attended promptly--a delay can cost more money and possibly your horse's vision." While waiting for veterinary attention, garb your horse in a fly mask to lessen the sun's glare and to protect from insects and wind.
"If you notice any abnormal eye position or nystagmus (rapid involuntary eye oscillations), this could be early signs of neurologic disease," comments Wilson. "Also, localized sweating around the eye could indicate localized nerve irritation called Horner's syndrome." She also recommends checking for abnormal redness or growths in nonpigmented skin around the eyes and on the third eyelid that could foretell early squamous cell carcinoma.
Ears are less commonly a problem, but Wilson recommends checking ears regularly for discharge, ticks, gnats, warts, sarcoids, or aural plaques (skin warts caused by a papillomavirus). "If your horse normally has no issues with you bridling, touching, rubbing, or brushing around the ears and suddenly becomes 'ear shy,' it's appropriate to have him examined," notes Lenher.
"An area of the face that may harbor a problem is found around the throatlatch and beneath the jaw bones," Wilson explains. There are multiple lymph nodes in these areas, as well as salivary and thyroid glands. On occasion a lump might appear from an erupting or draining tooth. If you see any abnormal enlargement in the face, contact your veterinarian. Wilson also reminds owners to check for ticks under the jaw, as well as at the roots of the forelock and mane.
"Regular grooming helps you stay on top of your horse's normal idiosyncrasies and physical characteristics and alerts you to any abnormalities," stresses Lenher. A grooming routine fosters your ability to find problems early on so that health issues don't become serious emergencies. "Your veterinarian is an invaluable resource for all questions regarding your horse's health. Call if you have questions about any odd thing you find," says Lenher. "That's what we're here for."
About the Author
Nancy S. Loving, DVM, owns Loving Equine Clinic in Boulder, Colorado, and has a special interest in managing the care of sport horses. Her book, All Horse Systems Go, is a comprehensive veterinary care and conditioning resource in full color that covers all facets of horse care. She has also authored the books Go the Distance as a resource for endurance horse owners, Conformation and Performance, and First Aid for Horse and Rider in addition to many veterinary articles for both horse owner and professional audiences.