For first-time horse owners, getting a new horse can border on the overwhelming. You have to find a suitable boarding barn or create adequate stabling on your own property and buy tack, grooming equipment, cooling sheets and/or blankets. You have to provide for proper nutrition and feeding schedules. Then you've got to arrange for regular veterinary exams, farrier work, and deworming protocols either independently or through the boarding barn. Novices might well wonder why it's necessary for a healthy, adult horse to see a farrier every six to eight weeks, or if those vaccinations really are necessary, or what the reasoning is behind maintaining a regular deworming program, or why the veterinarian wants to do a physical and dental exam every year.

The reason horses benefit from this type of scheduled, routine health care is to help keep a healthy horse healthy and to catch minor problems before they become major problems. Think of it in terms of preventive maintenance: Replacing worn shingles on a roof is cheaper and easier than repairing ceiling damage caused from a leaky roof. Keeping your car's oil changed is preferable to having your engine overhauled. It's not any different in terms of preventive medicine for the horse.

Explains Christine Dainis, DVM, of Hagyard-Davidson-McGee, Lexington, Ky., and a board member of the American Association of Equine Practitioners, "If you can prevent problems with infectious diseases by vaccinating, foot problems by regular trimming, parasitic diseases by regular deworming, and oral problems by regular dental exams, then you really save a lot in the long run in terms of money and your horse's health."

Terry Swanson, DVM, a former AAEP president and a partner in Littleton Large Animal Clinic, Littleton, Colo., agrees. "Preventive medicine programs are designed to prevent disease or to care for horses in the early stages of disease. If we don't do those things, we increase the risk."

Like home and auto maintenance, "equine maintenance" is much cheaper for the owner and easier on the horse when preventing a disease rather than treating it, or when dealing with a disorder in its early stages rather than later. In many cases, successful outcome relies on early treatment, as when dealing with tumors, dental problems, subtle lameness, and joint disease.

A Simple Plan

In actuality, developing and maintaining a routine health schedule is not difficult. Basically, the horse should have regular vaccinations, deworming, farrier care, physical exams, and dental exams. In healthy horses, these procedures are neither long nor involved.

Vaccinations--Immunizations are the first line of defense against many infectious diseases. "Most vaccines are not 100% effective," says Swanson, "but the ones we use routinely do make a lot of difference in a horse's health." For some diseases, vaccines significantly reduce the likelihood of getting a serious, even fatal disease; other diseases are more difficult to prevent, but vaccines can reduce the severity of the disease.

Vaccination protocols will vary somewhat depending on geographic area and use. Says Swanson, "For the average horse in our practice, we vaccinate against Eastern and Western encephalitis, tetanus, influenza, and rhinopneumonitis in the spring. Influenza and rhinopneumonitis vaccines are not effective for a whole year, so in the fall we booster those."

Dainis maintains a slightly different protocol in her Kentucky practice. "In my area, I recommend that adult horses receive a yearly booster for tetanus, Eastern and Western encephalitis, rabies, and twice-yearly boosters for influenza and rhinopneumonitis. She suggests that vaccinations be done the same time every year in order to ensure consistent protection and to help the owner remember when vaccinations are due.

Deworming--Internal parasites can cause a myriad of problems in the horse. Roundworms (ascarids) can cause colic and damage the heart, liver, lungs, and gut in foals and sometimes older horses; large strongyles (bloodworms) can destroy arterial walls and blood vessels, impair circulation, and lead to colic, anemia, diarrhea, fever, unthriftiness, brain damage, and other disorders; small strongyles can lead to inflammation of the intestines, resulting in anorexia, weight loss, and chronic low-grade colic; bots induce dental disease, stomach irritations, ulcerations, and perforations of the stomach wall; pinworms can irritate the horse's tail region, causing tail rubbing; tapeworms can result in severe ulcerations of the large intestine. Preventive deworming treatments help assure your horse won't suffer from these disorders.

There are four basic kinds of deworming protocols to address these problems; consult with your veterinarian to decide which protocol is most appropriate in terms of protection, cost, and convenience for your individual situation.

  • Continuous deworming, whereby the horse receives pyrantel (Strongid C) each day in its feed plus twice-yearly treatments of a paste dewormer to kill parasites that pyrantel does not address.

  • Interval deworming. Deworming treatments are given on a regular basis--every six, eight, or 12 weeks, per product and/or veterinary recommendations--throughout the year.

  • Seasonal deworming. Deworming is done only during the times of the year when parasites are most susceptible in that particular geographic area.

  • Targeted deworming. Deworming is done primarily on an as-need or selective basis. A fecal egg analysis is performed every two or three months during periods of maximal parasite transmission in order to determine parasite load in each horse. Horses which are shedding eggs are dewormed and receive follow-up monitoring of the feces to help measure the effectiveness of the dewormer. Horses which aren't shedding eggs are dewormed periodically in order to deal with damaging stages of parasites that might not yet be producing eggs.

Regardless of the type of deworming programs clients prefer, Dainis recommends fecal exams once or twice a year to make sure the deworming treatment is effective--parasites can develop resistance to particular dewormers.

Farrier care--Like fingernails in a human, the horse's hoof grows on a continuous basis and therefore needs trimming and/or re-shoeing on a regular basis. "The hoof generates enough growth that it needs to be trimmed every six to eight weeks," says Swanson. "Growth rate will depend somewhat on the type of terrain the horse is in. Rough ground or real sandy terrain wears the foot down; there may not be that much to do to the horse's foot except to shape the hoof wall. In a wetter environment where the ground is soft, the foot does not wear down and needs to be trimmed and shaped more regularly. Older horses may have a little longer interval between farrier attention, as their feet usually don't grow as fast. Also, hoof growth can slow in the winter."

Swanson warns that without regular trimming, the hoof becomes excessively long, leading to abnormal wear and distortion of the hoof capsule.

Physical exam--Even though your horse is in good health, it should receive a routine physical exam each year in order to ascertain any subtle or pronounced changes and to catch any developing problems. Dainis says that in a normal, healthy adult, a full physical complete with bloodwork is not always necessary.

"The veterinarian can do a decent general once-over in five or 10 minutes, which doesn't take that much time and doesn't have to be a huge expense," she says. "I generally listen to their heart, lungs, and abdomen; check their eyes and oral cavity; watch them walk and jog to look for any apparent lameness. I run my hands over their body to check the quality of their hair coat, for muscular soreness, and for tendon or ligament pain that may be present. I also look for any asymmetry in their musculature that could indicate a neurologic problem that is not yet apparent."

Similarly, Swanson's basic exam includes looking over the horse in general and checking the eyes, teeth, heart, lungs, and skin; looking for arthritic signs in the joints; noting the soundness of the feet; and observing the horse's way of going. "It's not involved," he says, "but you can notice things that can be easily managed now and extend the usefulness of the horse."

Dental exam--A dental exam should be performed annually in normal, adult horses; abnormalities in the oral cavity could lead to abnormal chewing patterns, poorly masticated food, inadequate food intake, and behavior/training problems because problem teeth interfere with the bit.

Dental exams usually are done in conjunction with the physical exam. The veterinarian looks for sharp points and hooks in the front and back, examines the dental arcade to make sure it is level, and checks for abnormalities.

Variations On A Theme

The above recommendations are good, general guidelines for the healthy, adult, backyard horse. But age and use will alter those recommendations somewhat.

Performance horses--Horses which show and travel can be exposed to horses from other regions of the country that might be carrying communicable diseases endemic to a particular region. "Therefore, it's really important that the horse is vaccinated to cover a broader range than if it was just a backyard horse," says Dainis. Those extra vaccinations might include Potomac horse fever and rabies, depending upon the usual vaccine protocol recommended for your area versus endemic diseases in the area to which your horse is traveling.

"Immunization schedules may be more frequent," Swanson adds. "A lot of horses are vaccinated for respiratory diseases--influenza and rhinopneumonitis--on a quarterly basis."

Many horse events also require that participating horses test negative for equine infectious anemia (EIA) via a Coggins test. Swanson states, "A lot of our clients do that once a year."

Additionally, some clients opt for a pre-show-season tune-up, says Dainis. "This is to detect any kind of latent problems that we can address before the horses get into their high level work activities. Not all my clients do this, but there are those who do think it's money well spent, and I do, too."

Young horses--Youngsters and young adult horses have needs that mature adult horses do not have. Their vaccination protocols are different during their first year, and research is teaching us that early vaccination isn't always the best protocol because of maternal antibody interference with vaccines.

The veterinarian also needs to evaluate the growth plates in growing horses' legs, Swanson states. "It's particularly important to establish whether they are growing properly without showing signs of nutritional imbalance or trauma to the growth plates."

Adds Dainis, "In my area, where there is a concentration of Thoroughbred foals raised for sales, conformation is really important. With these foals, we often do frequent conformation evaluations--on some farms we look at all foals on a monthly basis--so we can address conformation as the foals are growing rapidly. We can easily correct some conformational defects with corrective trimming or with simple orthopedic procedures that work in the quickly growing foal, but once that window of opportunity is gone, when the growth plates close, we lose the ability to improve or correct most angular limb deformities."

Younger horses (two to four months old) might have more frequent dental problems because the eruption of their permanent teeth could require that baby teeth be removed. "Sometimes when permanent teeth first erupt, they are very sharp and may need attention," Swanson says. "Usually twice-yearly dental exams are sufficient for horses that are less than five years old, with emerging problems being handled on an as-need basis."

Senior horses--Older horses have their own special set of problems and needs, too. Regular checkup's can reduce many common old-age afflictions.

Twice-yearly oral exams are generally recommended for the older horse. As horses age, they expend (use up) their dentition. As the cheek teeth finally wear out, there is increased risk for secondary tooth problems, such as tooth root abscess, fractured teeth, and twisted teeth. These create difficulties in chewing, which, in turn, can cause undernourishment.

Body conditioning--"In older horses, we need to pay special attention to body condition," Dainis suggests. That's because older horses often have difficulties maintaining weight and properly metabolizing nutrients. Thinness and malabsorption can be due to dental disorders, a number of medical reasons (necessitating blood work to determine if there is an underlying cause), or simply because the horse's ability to digest nutrients is reduced.

Preventive blood work--Some veterinarians recommend a CBC, blood serum chemistry, and thyroid testing annually or bi-annually for the senior horse in order to monitor any changes that might be occurring. Preventive blood work often can detect early disease processes and minimize or slow down progression. But opinions on this are far from uniform. Both Swanson and Dainis usually perform blood work on an individual basis rather than routinely.

Pregnant mares--Mares in foal have an aggressive vaccination schedule in order to pass along immunities to the unborn foal and also to prevent abortion. Says Dainis, "We make sure their vaccination schedules are up to date. Along with their yearly boosters, we also want to vaccinate them against the abortive form of rhinopneumonitis, botulism, and rotavirus." Rhinopneumonitis vaccines are usually given at five, seven, and nine months of gestation with the annual influenza, tetanus, and encephalitis boostered at 10 months gestation.

Penny Wise, Pound Foolish

Maintaining a faithful health schedule for your horse is money well spent. For sure, skipping vaccinations now and then, extending the time between farrier visits, ignoring deworming protocols, or denying your horse a physical and dental exam will keep a little extra money in your bank account--for the present. But in the long run, the price of those shortsighted and short-term savings likely will cost you and your horse dearly in diagnostics, treatments, time off from training, or reduced usefulness.

Is it worth the gamble?

About the Author

Marcia King

Marcia King is an award-winning freelance writer based in Ohio who specializes in equine, canine, and feline veterinary topics. She's schooled in hunt seat, dressage, and Western pleasure.

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