Spring Health Preparations

A spring wellness exam is a great time to visit with your vet on all horse health matters.

Photo: Kevin Thompson/The Horse

 Check all these tasks off your list as you transition your horse into spring riding season

Pack up those winter blankets and dust off your riding boots! Spring is the season for pursuing equestrian passions, both for leisure and sport. Extended daylight hours and improved weather conditions tempt riders to get back in the saddle and return their horses to consistent work. But before you head out on the trail or to the showgrounds, there are some seasonal steps to follow to ensure your horse is healthy and well-prepared for the active season ahead.

Wellness Exams & Preventive Care

Doug Thal, DVM, Dipl. ABVP, owner of Thal Equine, in Santa Fe, N.M., believes springtime preparation is the key to ensuring your horse gets off on the right hoof heading into the busy riding season. “Excellent general health is critical for a horse to maintain optimal energy and immunity,” he says. “Good health is boosted by quality nutrition and general husbandry (offering stabling, shelter, and water supply), consistent exercise, and appropriate parasite control.”

He also stresses the importance of allowing your horse to “live like a horse,” providing regular turnout and the ability to socialize with a herd, these being huge factors for equine physical and mental health.

“Confinement to a stall is stressful to most horses and often contributes to gastric ulcers or stereotypic behaviors such as weaving or cribbing,” says Heather Hoyns, DVM, of Evergreen Equine, in Windsor, Vt. “Good ventilation and sanitation in the stabling areas are also important, as ammonia buildup in closed barns can damage lungs, cause coughs, and increase susceptibility to respiratory infections.” 

And what better chance for a physical health check than when gearing up for a busy riding season? “A springtime examination is a great time to consult with your vet on all your horse health matters,” says Thal. When your veterinarian comes out to administer spring vaccinations, have him or her also perform a wellness exam and discuss anything that might affect your upcoming riding plans. 

Timing your horse’s immunizations depends on the diseases you’re trying to protect him from and when cases generally appear. “It is important to time vaccines so that rises in immunity correspond to increased challenges by infectious disease agents,” Thal says.  

In many areas of the country, practitioners schedule Eastern equine encephalitis and West Nile virus immunizations, for example, in April or May to ensure rising immunity in June and July as mosquito activity increases. Giving respiratory vaccine (influenza and rhinopneumonitis) boosters in springtime helps horses maintain immunity during periods they’re more likely to be exposed to these viruses, Thal adds.

Hoyns suggests including American Association of Equine Practitioners-recommended core vaccines tetanus and rabies in your annual spring vaccine program, as well. “Spring is the time when carriers of rabies like skunks and raccoons come out of a semidormant state and become more active,” she says. In parts of the United States where Lyme disease is prevalent, some owners have their horses vaccinated against the disease in preparation for tick season. “There is currently no approved Lyme vaccine for horses, but the canine vaccine is being used off-label because of the seriousness of this tick-borne disease,” Hoyns notes. 

Large biting flies are common vectors for transmitting equine infectious anemia (EIA), a viral disease that attacks the horse’s immune system. “Requirements for a negative Coggins test at clinics, shows, and for transport across state lines have vastly decreased the number of positive horses in the country,” Hoyns says. Since there is neither a vaccine against EIA nor a cure, it’s important to test horses that commingle with other horses to identify affected animals and ensure they don’t transmit the disease. 

Thal suggests obtaining a current negative Coggins test at the beginning of spring, so you have it ready when it’s time to hit the road. Depending on each state’s requirements, a negative Coggins is valid for six to 12 months to cross state lines, attend events, and enter other horse premises. 

Parasite Control and Dentistry

As spring advances, the risk of internal parasite infection—which can cause a variety of problems in the horse, from intestinal damage to colic—increases. “The parasites ramp up egg production as weather becomes warmer,” notes Hoyns. “Spring is the best time to do fecal egg counts (before and after deworming) to identify the parasite load the horse is carrying and how well the deworming program done has worked. It’s also a good way to find out if a particular horse is a ‘high-shedder’ of parasite eggs.” 

Currently, veterinarians recommend submitting fecal samples for parasite egg counts before and at least 10-12 weeks after the previous anthelmintic dose. Then consult your veterinarian as to what deworming strategy is appropriate for your specific geographic location, climate, and fecal egg count results. 

Monitoring dental care is also important to intestinal health. “Good dentistry for horses relies on a proper examination, consideration of their ‘job,’ and then tailoring dental care to the horse’s needs, the owner/trainer’s needs and philosophies, and their budgets,” Thal says. “The key is to provide an annual dental exam, and not necessarily annual dentistry procedures.”

Because we rely on a “good mouth” to communicate with and cue our horses, it’s good practice to schedule a thorough oral/dental exam and complete any necessary dental care before asking them to perform.

Hoyns says, “This exam not only checks for sharp points but also identifies cheek or tongue ulcers; loose, worn or damaged teeth; hooks or ramps on teeth; malocclusions; and diastema (spaces between teeth) that can trap feed.”  

Nutrition

Be sure to pay attention to winter hay stores as they dwindle. “Inspect hay even more diligently as you approach the end of the supply,” says Thal. “Bottom bales may be moldy; when in doubt about the presence of mold, don’t feed it. If you see dust when separating a flake of hay and if it makes you cough when you inhale the dust, it will probably do the same to your horse. Either don’t feed it or agitate it while soaking it in a large container of fresh water until fully saturated.” 

As your winter hay stores dwindle, carefully inspect what's left of it for mold, dust, and debris.

Photo: Alexandra Beckstett, The Horse Managing Editor

Depending on where you live, it is possible that you’ll be receiving a newly cut and baled load of hay in the spring. Before stacking a new load in your hay storage area, be sure to clean out all the fines and dust from the prior batch to remove residual mold and debris. 

Hoyns suggests allowing newly cut and baled hay to cure for at least two weeks before feeding it to horses. “It’s also important to slowly transition your horse over from last year’s hay to the new hay over a week or so (to avoid digestive upset),” she adds. Both Thal and Hoyns suggest blending a new hay batch with the old—25% or less of the new with 75% of the old—and gradually increasing the proportion of new to old. 

Hoof Care

Keeping close tabs on your horse’s feet is important year-round; if you haven’t slacked in the off-season, his feet will be better prepared to withstand springtime mud and soggy ground. “The biggest problems I see with horse feet in the spring are caused by wet conditions,” says Hoyns. “I see thrush and many tender, shedding frogs as well as hoof abscesses. It can be quite challenging to keep feet dry and disease-free in wet conditions. Daily cleaning and topical application of an anti-thrush treatment can be helpful.” 

Be mindful of what your horse’s feet are accustomed to when changing up foot protection in the spring. “In many regions, horses may be barefoot and only trimmed during winter months,” Thal observes. “Getting your horse’s feet prepared for the upcoming season is important. Whatever approach is taken—barefoot or shod—try it out before you expect your horse to perform. For example, experiment with a new hoof boot or different shoeing approach well in advance of an important event.” This allows for your horse to adapt to changes and for your farrier to tweak fine details in sufficient time.

Biosecurity

With increased riding activities come more opportunities for horses from different barns to commingle. “Taking a horse to a show, event, or trail ride is like sending your kindergartener to school; they all appear to be healthy when they go, but within a week several of them come home sick and make their families sick as well,” Hoyns says. “What happens is that one or more individuals appeared to be healthy but were actually carriers for some communicable disease.” 

“The most common infectious agents are respiratory viruses and bacteria, which can be spread over distances by a coughing horse,” says Thal. “In many cases, these microbes may survive on people’s clothing and hands, within stalls, and on equipment surfaces—this amplifies risk of exposure to other horses.”

Thal and Hoyns share some important tips to reduce your horse’s risk of contracting disease as he comes in contact with horses from other facilities:

  • Be observant as to what is normal for your horse—learn to obtain vital signs and monitor daily water intake, manure, and urine production. If you know what’s normal, you’ll be quicker to identify abnormal and react appropriately.
     
  • Check your horse’s TPR (temperature, pulse, respiration) before hauling. Consult your veterinarian if the animal has a fever, nasal discharge, swelling under the jaw or around the throat, or cough. Don’t transport obviously ill horses to gatherings.
     
  • Avoid horse-to-horse, “nose-to-nose” contact whenever possible. 
     
  • Wash your hands with antiseptic soap after handling other horses.
     
  • Bring individual drinking and feed tubs for your horses.
     
  • Before putting your horse in a strange stall, disinfect the walls, feeders, and waterers.
     
  • Refrain from sharing tack and other equipment when possible.
     
  • Ensure that your horses’ vaccinations are current for the contagious diseases he’s most likely to encounter.
     
  • Ensure excellent general health to provide optimal immunity. 

“When you return from an event, keep the traveling horse separate from the rest of the horses in your barn for seven to 10 days since this is the typical incubation period for most respiratory diseases,” Hoyns adds. Set up an isolation area on your property for this purpose in advance.

Take-Home Message

Hoyns stresses the value of individualized horse care, particularly as you approach an active riding season. Maintain dialogue with an experienced veterinarian to give you and your horse your best chance at success this year. “Discuss your goals for the upcoming season with your vet,” urges Thal. “Confer on recommended vaccines, dental, deworming, and nutritional strategies. Have your vet watch your horse move, comment on body weight, hoof management, and general health. Your vet may add suggestions about your stabling, hay and feed, saddle and bridle fit, and behavioral issues.” Springtime attention to all these details can be invaluable for maximizing your horse’s health and performance.

About the Author

Nancy S. Loving, DVM

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.

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