You can feel it. You can smell it. Spring is in the air. Oh, to be sure, we aren't finished with cold weather in many parts of the country, but it won't be long before we will be ready to head out trail riding or be off on the spring horse show circuit.

It's time to take a good look at our equine companion or companions and find out if they are as ready as we are for another riding season. If they are show horses, they probably are ready. Today's level of competition demands that these horses be kept show-ready 12 months a year.

But what about that casual riding horse? Has he gotten that much attention all winter? Or have we been guilty of benign neglect? You know the kind. It isn't that we don't feed and water the horses, it's just that when one leaves for work in the dark and gets home in the dark, it's sometimes hard to do the little extras, like checking the hair coat, taking a look at hooves, and remembering to deworm on schedule.

Regardless of the type of care your horse has had during the past winter, some special attention is called for as spring arrives. We must address these issues so that we can travel to area shows or trails:

  • Immunization,
  • Nutrition,
  • Checking for skin problems,
  • Checking the teeth,
  • Hoof care,
  • Parasite control,
  • Starting an appropriate exercise program,
  • Training,
  • Breeding soundness (if we are going that route), and
  • Getting the necessary tests (such as a Coggins).

Those 10 areas are important, but there are two others that demand attention although they don't involve the horse itself. One is riding equipment and the other is the trailer in which we plan to haul the horse, plus the vehicle that will pull it.

Here, in random order, are the above subject areas and some tips on how to better prepare your horse(s) for spring.


We start our discussion with immunization because with the invasion of West Nile virus (WNV), it has taken on added significance. Obviously, there are more maladies against which we should immunize than WNV, but this disease has become an increasing threat within the past few years.

As of Dec. 31, 2002, the Center for Disease Control reported 3,873 human cases in 39 states and Washington, D.C., of which 246 were fatal. The median age was 56, and the median age for fatalities was 78 years old. There were 14,717 reported equine cases affected in 40 states, with 20-30% who died or were euthanized. Currently only Alaska, Arizona, Hawaii, Nevada, and Oregon are officially free of the disease.

In addition, WNV has been identified in the Canadian provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Ontario, and Quebec. The disease's spread westward has been so rapid since being confirmed in this country four years ago that during 2002 alone, it showed up in 14 states where it had not been previously reported. These included California, Colorado, Kansas, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, West Virginia, and Wyoming.

This data is presented to demonstrate how rapidly this disease has spread in four years, and to underline the importance of immunizing your horses against it.

Is the available vaccine 100% effective? Unfortunately, the answer is no; however, no vaccine on the market is ever 100% effective. There have been cases reported where horses which received both the initial shot and the booster shot have contracted the disease and, in some instances, died from it. However, it's the first line of defense and the best one we have at the moment. Even humans don't have a vaccine. The important thing to remember is that there's a time lag between immunization and protection, so it is important that the vaccine be administered in advance of the mosquito season.

Allen Preston, DVM, manager of Veterinary Field Services for Manitoba Agriculture and Food, explains that the vaccine is a killed virus vaccine that requires two doses in the initial stages to build up protective antibody levels (foals require three doses, see article #4036 at The two doses are administered at an interval of three to four weeks, with protective immunity developing two to four weeks after the second vaccination.

Thus, it becomes apparent that the vaccination program for WNV should begin well in advance of mosquito season, which varies geographically. The duration of immunity after vaccination for WNV is unknown. It behooves horse owners to establish a close working relationship with their veterinarians to determine the best time to vaccinate, not only for WNV, but for other diseases as well.

Following are some other vaccinations that are recommended by the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) as presented in its Guidelines for Vaccination of Horses, available at

Tetanus--The vaccine protects against deadly neurotoxins that can enter the body through wounds and cause convulsions and death. This disease is also known as lockjaw. Adult non-vaccinated horses normally respond well to a series of two doses of tetanus toxoid given three to six weeks apart and followed by an annual booster. With some young horses, a third shot in the initial series might be recommended.

Equine Influenza--The AAEP recommends that all horses be vaccinated against equine influenza unless they live in an isolated facility that is totally enclosed. The intranasal vaccine now on the market has made vaccinating easier and more effective. Because there are varying protocols for vaccinating horses for influenza based on age, exposure, and other factors, a veterinarian should be consulted and an overall immunization program designed for each individual horse. Remember that show horses which are exposed to numerous horses at events will need to be vaccinated more often. Consult your veterinarian.

Equine Herpesvirus--This malady can cause mares to abort and all horses to develop serious neurologic disease and/or respiratory tract disease. Show horses in particular need to be vaccinated every three to four months. The AAEP recommends that all pregnant mares be vaccinated during the fifth, seventh, and ninth months of gestation. Primary vaccination of foals involves administering three doses of the vaccine three to four weeks apart, beginning at four to six months of age. Again, there are variations, so consult your veterinarian.

Potomac Horse Fever--The AAEP says vaccination for Potomac horse fever might be called for in areas where there have been outbreaks. There are still questions about the effectiveness of the vaccine. If vaccination is done, the AAEP suggests a primary series of two doses administered three to four weeks apart. The vaccine manufacturer also recommends revaccination at six- to 12-month intervals.

Equine Encephalomyelitis (sleeping sickness)--There are three varieties of this disease and vaccines are available to prevent them. Western equine encephalomyelitis (WEE) has been found primarily in western and mid-western states, while EEE (the Eastern variety) has been found mainly in the eastern, southeastern, and some southern states. The third variety, Venezuelan equine encephalomyelitis (VEE), has been found in Central and South America, but not in the United States. After the initial series of shots to prevent WEE and EEE (and VEE if your horse lives in Central or South America), there should be annual vaccinations. EEE, WEE, VEE are all transmitted by mosquitoes. If you are in an endemic area (for example, Florida or other southeastern states), you might have to vaccinate more frequently (two to three times per year). Consult with your veterinarian to develop a specific vaccination program for your horse(s).

Rabies--This is not a common equine disease, but horses can pass this along to humans, who could die from the exposure. This disease is preventable with vaccination. Don't forget to vaccinate dogs and cats to prevent the spread of the disease.

There are other diseases against which some horses should be vaccinated in certain locales, but the ones listed here seem to be of prime concern to most horse owners.


Many horse owners work together with their veterinarians and obtain vaccines so the owner can give the shots. If you are not very experienced in giving shots, don't do it. Let the veterinarian handle it.


When we ride a horse on a regular basis, we have to make certain that he is getting enough nutrients to provide the strength and energy to take us on trail rides or around the show ring. Where a problem can arise is when the horse is turned out for the winter and not used. Then it becomes easier to ignore his condition.

Some horses graze large winter pastures, others eat only hay, and still others are fed both hay and a grain supplement. But how do we know if the horse is in the correct condition to withstand the stresses of cold weather, snow, wind, and sleet?

Researchers have provided us with
a good system known as body condition
scoring. Much of the groundbreaking work on developing this system was done at Texas A&M University. The system rates horses from 1 through 9. Here, in brief form, is how the body condition score works.

1--Horse is thin, emaciated.
2--Very thin.
3--Thin, with ribs and backbone easily discernible.
4--Moderately thin with a faint line of ribs discernible.
5--Moderate with ribs not discernible, but they can be easily felt.
6--Moderately fleshy with fat around the tailhead and fat beginning to be deposited along the sides of the
withers, behind the shoulders, and along the sides of the neck.
7--Fleshy, often with a crease down the back.
8--Fat with a crease down the back and a noticeable thickening of the neck.
9--Extremely fat with bulging fat in areas like the tailhead, along the withers, behind the shoulders, and along the neck.

There is about a 45-pound (20.4 kg) difference between each of the body scores. Researchers at Purina Mills maintain that the ideal body condition score for a performance horse is 5. The same could be said for the wintering trail or pleasure horse.

By monitoring a horse's body condition throughout the winter months and changing his diet accordingly, one can avoid coming into the spring with a horse that is grossly overweight or underweight. This is important because it takes a horse time to put on pounds, and time to take them off. There is also the danger that a sudden change in diet can bring on a bout of colic, laminitis, or both.


Keep your horse as close to a body condition score of 5 as possible throughout the entire year. The ideal way to check on an animal's condition is to weigh him regularly. Not everyone has the equipment to do this, but a weight tape that can be placed around a horse's girth gives a good indication of his weight. And, as all equine nutritionists will say, be sure you know how much you are feeding your horse by weight of grain and hay; not by coffee can or flake.

Skin Problems

During the cold winter months, nature provides the horse with a warm coat comprised of long, thick hair. The hair is designed to protect the skin from wind, rain, and cold. It does it in good fashion unless it is compromised in some way.

There are many ways in which both the hair coat and skin of a horse can become compromised. The animal might develop lice, rain rot, ringworm, or a host of other problems (see "Common Skin Problems" on page 49).

Complicating the issue is the fact that, like humans, horses can suffer from allergies that produce skin problems or dermatitis. Dermatitis can be caused by agents such as external irritants, burns, allergens, trauma, and bacterial, viral, parasitic, or fungal infections. Dermatitis can also be associated with systemic diseases. Horse owners should be alert to horses scratching and rubbing their bodies against hard objects, since this is one of the outward signs of dermatitis.

When a horse suffers from dermatitis, the important thing is to determine the underlying cause. If you don't know or aren't sure, consult with your veterinarian. Treatment would be vastly different, for example, if the horse were suffering from a fungal infection than it would if the problem were the result of an allergy. If you live in a rainy, humid part of the country and feel bumps along your horse's back and spots where the hair is missing, it could be rain rot. In another part of the country, finding spots where hair is missing could indicate a form of ringworm.


At least once a week, rub your hands over your horse's coat, fluffing up the hair in the process to determine if skin problems exist.


In order for a horse to properly chew his food, he must have teeth that function properly. With a horse, proper function is more difficult than one would think.

First, the equine tooth is hypsodont, which means that it continually erupts or grows out of the gum, says F. Jack Easley, DVM, of Simpsonville, Ky., an equine dentistry expert who has spoken on the subject at conventions. As the surface wears down sort of like a piece of chalk, more of the tooth is pushed out. As time goes on, the "chalk" becomes shorter with use.

Second, there's the matter of the upper jaw being about 30% wider than the lower jaw. As the horse grinds his food between upper and lower teeth, there often is uneven tooth wear and the possibility that sharp edges will develop on the outside of the upper cheek teeth and the inside of the lower cheek teeth. A variety of other problems, such as retained caps, sharp points, hooks, and ramps can also develop, says Easley.

And when these problems occur, the horse can't properly chew his food, which quickly becomes a losing proposition for horse and owner. The horse loses nutritive value from food that isn't being masticated properly, and the owner loses money purchasing feed that doesn't provide the maximum nutritional benefit for the horse.

Some horse owners feel that the only way to make certain that a horse's teeth are functioning properly is to have them floated annually. Floating means to file off the rough edges so that the teeth grind together correctly. Easley and others in his profession stress the importance of regular and routine dental examinations so that problems can be detected and resolved before they compromise the horse's health.


Watch your horse eat to determine if he is "quidding," or has food falling from his mouth while he eats. A quidder usually has dental problems that should be dealt with immediately.


"No foot, no horse." We've all heard--and believed--that old refrain in one form or another many times in our lives. Yet, we often approach foot care as if it weren't true. We might be good about having the farrier out on a regular basis during the riding and performing season, but when the horse is put up for the winter, we often turn our backs on our equine partners' feet.

True, the hooves don't grow as fast in cold weather as they do when temperatures are warmer, but they do continue to grow. If we ignore hoof care in winter, there is a danger that the hoof will get out of balance and hoof cracks will develop. Or, they might get so long and uneven that chunks of hoof will break off. This is a particular danger when shoes aren't removed and pull free during daily wear and tear.

The horses most at risk from developing hoof cracks as the result of improper care, says Steve Mellin, Certified Farrier, who teaches a farrier course at Colorado State University, are stalled horses. He recommends that stalled horses have their feet cleaned thoroughly each day to prevent bacterial build-up that can cause problems such as thrush. Mellin also recommends that stalled horses be led frequently through a wet and muddy area to give the hooves an opportunity to absorb moisture.

He says that water is superior to any hoof dressing in helping maintain correct moisture content in the hoof. The secret, he indicates, is to find the correct balance. Too much water can weaken the hoof wall.

Many owners don't think that it is necessary to have farriers trim their horses' feet during the winter months. They operate on the theory that hard, frozen ground will wear down the hoof if the horse is kept outdoors. The problem with that theory is that the hoof might indeed wear down, but it might not wear down evenly. And Mellin says that when that happens, the foot is out of balance and cracks will occur.

Complicating any hoof problem is the length of time required to get it healed. The hoof of the average adult horse grows at the rate of about three-eighths of an inch per month, so if he breaks off an inch of toe it will take almost three months to grow back. Keeping a horse's feet healthy is better than letting them get in bad shape and then dealing with a lengthy recovery period.


Have the farrier out regularly, even during the winter. Also, at least once per week on horses kept outside, pick up all four feet, examine them, and clean them. 

Parasite Control

Internal parasites are thieves--they steal from both horse and owner. They rob the horse of much-needed nutrition and the owner of at least some of the money he or she spends on feed that is doing the horse no good.

Most veterinarians will recommend that horses be dewormed at least four to six times per year. Many practitioners recommend deworming foals and weanlings every 30 to 60 days for the first year of their lives.

The timing of deworming is critical, says Craig R. Reinemeyer, DVM, PhD, president of East Clinical Research in Knoxville, Tenn. Deworming is most effective, he says, when it's done during peak parasite infestation.

Many horse owners who live in cold climates mistakenly believe that cold weather breaks the parasitic cycle of life and, for that reason, they welcome the first freeze. It doesn't work that way, says Reinemeyer. Cold has little effect on survival of parasite eggs, but heat does.

The parasite eggs, he says, are similar to plant seeds in that they flourish at temperatures that range from 45-85°F. When temperatures push above 85°F, the eggs often are destroyed.

What this means, in Reinemeyer's opinion, is that deworming programs should begin in early autumn and continue through February or March.

However, in a densely stocked pasture or one in which the grass is eaten down to the ground and horses are grazing near manure, then a deworming program might need to be run every two months all year round. Consult with your veterinarian about what is the best program in your area, and stick closely to his or her recommendations.

The magnitude of the parasite problem is underscored by the fact that there are more than 150 types of internal parasites known to affect horses.


During winter, avoid feeding hay on the ground amid manure where parasite eggs can be ingested. Second, because geography has a lot to do with what types of parasites are endemic in a particular area, consult your veterinarian about an appropriate deworming program for your particular locale and climate, then stick to it.

Exercise and Conditioning

There is always that temptation on the first balmy spring day to saddle up your favorite horse and head out onto the trail for a couple of hours, loping across awakening meadows and climbing hills that afford great views because of the lack of foliage.

All of this is fine, providing that you properly prepared the horse before asking him to exert himself. If the horse has been put up for the winter, he has been a couch potato. He has walked from the feed bunk to the water tank and back again. Oh, there might have been a gallop across the pasture on occasion if he happened to be spooked by something or feeling frisky, but that has been about it in the exercise department.

If we take our couch potato out and ask him to exert himself, we're setting the stage for a variety of possible injuries of muscles, ligaments, tendons, and even bones. The horse has to be rounded into good riding condition gradually, not suddenly.

Here's a conditioning approach espoused by the Upper Midwest Endurance and Competitive Rides Association (UMECRA). The entire program would not be necessary for the average horse owner who doesn't plan to compete in competitive trail rides or endurance races, but following what UMECRA suggests for the first three weeks could be beneficial.

Week 1--Start slowly, especially in the spring. Perhaps do some longeing and ring riding. On Days 2 and 3, go for a pleasure ride on an easy trail. On Day 4, rest. Starting with Day 5, continue with up to 45 minutes daily of walking and slow trotting. Back off if the horse shows signs of stress.

Week 2--Keep workouts easy and interesting. Intersperse trail riding with ring work and longeing. By midweek, you should be able to ride up to one hour, slowly. On shorter rides, begin asking for some extension of both the trot and walk. Vary terrain with easy hills, but don't overdo it.

Week 3--Two one-hour workouts should be done under saddle this week with the first being about five or six miles. The second one-hour workout, a day later, should be shorter and faster with some extended trotting and a little cantering or loping. Then allow a day of rest and longe the following day. By the end of the week, seek to cover seven miles in one hour.

This basic conditioning program should have most horses fit for trail riding or performing in about three weeks.

After a workout, always walk your horse back to the starting point. This does two things--first, you don't have a horse which wants to race back to the barn, and second, he'll be cooled out when you get home.


Condition your horse for your preferred equine discipline before the season starts to prevent overexertion and injury. (Another tip--don't forget to get your own body in shape!)


There is nothing more disheartening than to look forward all winter to another season of riding and having your horse pitch you to the ground that first trip out. If you have any doubts about your horse and his level of training for what you want to do, you should take him to a training facility and have him ridden and evaluated before the riding season begins. Not only might this prevent injury to you and your horse, but it will enhance your riding enjoyment.


Training horses is a very specialized field and not one in which the novice owner should dabble. Don't be proud. If you and your horse need help, ask for it from a reputable trainer. Your safety and the safety and future of your horse depend on it.

Breeding Soundness

A great many horse owners are not--and will not be--in the breeding business, but a number of you are. If you are planning to breed your mare, don't wait until the last minute to book her to a stallion. Also, you should make certain that she is reproductively sound. The only way to accomplish this is to have her examined by a veterinarian. This topic has been covered extensively in previous issues of The Horse. (See "Further Reading" section for references.)

If you want to breed your horses, be sure that it is for the right reasons, such as a great bloodline you want to perpetuate or a favorite mare you want to replace. Managing a broodmare and raising a foal are challenging; also, you should not add to the equine population without a sound reason.


If you're considering breeding a horse, think about your reasons carefully and have a breeding soundness exam done by the veterinarian early enough to treat any problems. Also, don't wait until the deadline to book a stallion for a mare.


If you are planning to trail ride in various parts of the country or travel to horse shows, your horse will have to have a valid negative Coggins test to show he doesn't have equine infectious anemia, and does have current health papers. In the western United States, you must travel with proper brand inspection papers to establish ownership. Registration papers are usually only necessary if you are going to show where you will use them to verify the horse's identity to the show committee.

TIP 10

Because regulations vary from state to state, contact your state veterinarian and ask for a printout of regulations for the states through which you will be traveling. Get your health papers in order ahead of time.

These 10 areas are important in getting a horse ready for the upcoming season, but we should also add tack, trailer, and truck into the mix. Tack should be examined to determine whether any repair work is needed before being placed on a horse's back, and equipment used to convey him from place to place needs to be reliable and safe for you and the horse. 


See the following references online at

See the Dentistry, Deworming, Hoof Care, and Vaccinations categories under Basic Health Care.
See the Skin Problems category.
See the Nutrition/Supplements category.
See the Breeding Soundness Exam category under Breeding/Reproduction.
See the Conditioning for Competition category under Sports Medicine.
Issel, C. Coggins Test. The Horse, April 2000, 122. Article #679 at

About the Author

Les Sellnow

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 or by calling 800/582-5604.

Stay on top of the most recent Horse Health news with FREE weekly newsletters from Learn More