Competent Horse Care
Proper care of a horse is a multi-faceted endeavor. In fact, when one looks at the big picture, it is almost overwhelming because there are so many aspects with which to be concerned. However, there is a relatively straightforward approach that will simplify horse care on a 12-month basis.
Unfortunately for some who abhor any form of paperwork, this approach involves recordkeeping. This can be as simple as hanging a clipboard--with important dates noted--on the tack room wall, or it can be as complicated as maintaining detailed charts for deworming, immunizations, farrier work ... the list goes on. Whatever the approach, it is important that you schedule the various procedures and make note when they are carried out.
With minimal effort, you can create an efficient system that you and your veterinarian will come to appreciate. You will know exactly when shots are due, for example, and you will be able to schedule them well in advance. The same is true for farrier work. Making appointments in advance with these two professionals can eliminate frustration for all of you. Guaranteed to create a source of friction is phoning your farrier and demanding that your horse be shod the day before heading out on a weekend trail ride.
There has been research at many institutions to determine appropriate schedules for deworming and immunizations. The American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) has evaluated these findings and has established schedules for when these procedures should be carried out. The recommendations are too involved to be included here, but they are available through AAEP.org or your veterinarian.
The Seasons of Care
Timely deworming, immunizations, and farrier work are only part of the equation. Ongoing observation is required to ensure your horse is properly fed and cared for. You might consider dividing the year into seasons, with special emphasis on appropriate surveillance for varying conditions as the seasons change. For example, conditions affecting a horse's health might be vastly different during winter layoff than during a hectic and strenuous summer.
Henneke Body Condition Score
Horse owners have a valuable tool for checking equine body condition, thanks to Don Henneke, PhD, who developed a body scoring system in 1983, when he was a graduate student at Texas A&M University. The system involves observing and palpating six parts of the horse--neck, withers, shoulder, ribs, loin, and tailhead. Those six parts are listed as being the most responsive to changes in body fat.
Henneke's system assigns a numerical value to fat deposits as they occur in these six areas. There are many factors that can be involved in equine body condition: nutrition, activity, weather, parasites, and dental problems, to mention only a few.
To begin with, you must establish a base body condition score. The scores, as promulgated by Henneke, range from 1 to 9. To establish a score for your horse, palpate and study the six areas listed. This means more than just running your hand lightly over the area. Henneke recommended that the pressure applied be more like a massage. For example, press your hand firmly against your horse's side to get an idea of the fat covering over the ribs. When checking the withers feel all around the area, probing and massaging with your fingers. The same approach should be used for the other four locations.
After thoroughly checking all six areas, assign the horse a score for each area of the body. A horse that has an overall score of 1 is emaciated, while the horse with an overall score of 9 is obese. Most veterinarians recommend that the score of a healthy horse range between 4 and 7, with 5, perhaps, being the ideal.
We won't provide Henneke's criteria for each of the numerical scores, but we'll list what he feels you can expect to find at scores 1, 5, and 9.
Body Condition Score 1 Bone structure of the neck, withers, and shoulder are easily noticeable; ribs protrude prominently; spinous processes of the loin project prominently; and tailhead, pinbones, and hook bones project prominently.
Body Condition Score 5 Neck blends smoothly into the body; withers are rounded over the spinous processes; shoulder blends smoothly into body; ribs cannot be visually distinguished, but they can be easily felt; back is level; and fat around tailhead is beginning to feel soft.
Body Condition Score 9 Fat is beginning to be deposited on the neck, withers, and shoulders; fat over ribs feels spongy; might have slight crease or groove down the back; fat around tailhead feels soft.
It would do well to have the complete Henneke chart in hand when establishing a body condition score. (It can be found at www.TheHorse.com/pdf/nutrition/bcs-poster.pdf.)
The next obvious question is this: How often should you check the body condition score?
The answer can vary for a variety of reasons, from climate to strenuous use to changes in nutrition program, whatever the situation. However, it is recommended the body score be checked at least every two months. It is more important to check the score during the winter months when the horse is carrying a long coat of hair because fat deposition changes then are less discernible to the eye. During that season, it would be well to check the body score on a monthly basis.
Palpating various body parts regularly during the winter months can provide additional benefits, such as rapid identification of skin problems or external parasites. Geography can play a role in potential problems. For example, when we lived in Kentucky, we were constantly on the alert for rain rot during the rainy winter season. In arid Wyoming where we live now, however, the condition rarely rears its head.
For the uninitiated, rain rot, also called rain scald, is caused by the Dermatophilus bacterium that can only survive in anaerobic conditions--without oxygen. It dies when exposed to air.
Horses with rain rot develop crusty scabs that when pulled off with tufts of hair reveal raw spots. Rain rot is contagious and can be spread through physical contact and shared tack and grooming equipment. The good news is that it rarely causes permanent damage and is readily treatable. If you palpate your horse and feel a series of bumps under the hair, contact your veterinarian immediately to learn about the best approach for treating the condition.
Prevention involves keeping horses with long coats out of wet conditions and frequently grooming them.
External parasites can also be a problem, especially when a horse has a long coat. The presence of lice, for example, can be discovered in the early stages of infestation with close observation and, with your veterinarian's recommendations, it can be quickly treated and cured.
These tiny, blood-sucking creatures can cause the horse to itch, and the subsequent rubbing can result in loss of hair. According to the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, lice have a simple lifestyle. They transform from egg to nymph to adult with the entire life cycle completed on the host. The average sucking louse--the most common found on horses--is only one-eighth of an inch long. The female lays eggs attached to hairs that hatch 11 to 20 days later. Nymphs begin sucking blood immediately. They complete their life cycle in two to four weeks.
Dusting powders are available to rid the horse of lice. Prevention centers around good grooming and clean equipment.
As this magazine goes to press, spring is arriving in most of the country and another trail riding season is upon us. This time of year is open season for a variety of ticks that have hidden out in animal burrows and other shelters during the cold winter months.
For the layman's consideration there are four basic ticks--wood ticks, dog ticks, deer ticks, and spinous ear ticks. However, for those who are interested in delving further, it should be noted that there are many species of ticks within each of the four categories.
Ticks are troublesome little arachnids that just as readily attach themselves to humans as to animals. In addition to being irritating, ticks can cause serious maladies to humans and horses: They can spread Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain fever, piroplasmosis, equine infectious anemia, and erlichiosis (a bacterial disease that affects humans and animals), among others.
Ticks have powerful jaws, and once they attach themselves to skin, they can be very difficult to remove. The general recommendation is that you remove them with tweezers, grasping the tick just behind the head and as close to the skin as possible. Pull firmly, but don't jerk. You want to remove the head as well as the body from where it is attached, and a sharp jerk might pull the body free from the head.
Hugh Philip, PAg, an entomologist with the Ministry of Agriculture and Lands in British Columbia, Canada, tell us that the life span of the common wood tick varies from one to three years and that three hosts are required for its survival. Wood ticks lay eggs in the late spring. When larval ticks hatch, they feed on small rodents, such as mice, and they molt into nymphs that feed on larger rodents, such as rabbits and marmots. Nymphs can molt into adults in the fall. The adults will take refuge underground during the winter, then they emerge to attack large animals and humans the following March to May. If two hosts aren't present, the nymph might remain in that stage for another year.
Because of their flat body construction, ticks are difficult to kill when removed. The surefire way is to drop them into a container of alcohol.
If one were to select a single area where most horse owners are negligent in the horse care category, it would likely be hooves, especially during the winter months. For most of us ongoing hoof care is a top priority during show or trail riding season. The "no foot, no horse" adage is uppermost in our minds at that time. We are fully aware that hooves are growing constantly and that hoof condition, along with shoeing when needed, must be maintained in order to have a sound, healthy horse.
Unfortunately we often aren't quite as careful when the horse is turned out to pasture or paddock at the end of the season. True, the horse's hoof doesn't grow as rapidly in the winter as it does in the summer, but it does continue to grow and needs attention on a regular basis, especially if the horse is wintered on pasture grass that does little to cause natural hoof wear.
There is no magic formula for establishing a trimming schedule, says Mike Eppler, a Riverton, Wyo., farrier. Trimming needs during the off-season will vary horse to horse, he says, and the only way one can know what is right for a particular individual is to keep a close eye on hoof wall length and quality and have your farrier out to assess the horse's feet. With some horses, Eppler says, trimming might be necessary every six to eight weeks even in the winter. With others it might be eight to 10 weeks.
One thing is certain, he says: Lack of attention might result in problems that will compromise the horse's ability to perform when another riding season rolls around. The problems can range from a piece of hoof breaking off, to cracks that open the door to hoof disease and lameness.
The solution is regular hoof care. Check that schedule posted on the tack room wall to remind yourself when you last had the farrier tend to your horse's hooves during the off-season.
As mentioned at the outset, horse care is an ongoing endeavor, but if we pay close attention to our horse's needs on a year-round basis, both owner and horse will be happier and the better for it.
About the Author
Les Sellnow is a free-lance writer based near Riverton, Wyo. He specializes in articles on equine research, and operates a ranch where he raises horses and livestock. He has authored several fiction and non-fiction books, including Understanding Equine Lameness and Understanding The Young Horse, published by Eclipse Press and available at www.exclusivelyequine.com or by calling 800/582-5604.