Know Your Horse's Health Parameters

To find out what's normal, take your horse's vital signs (including temperature, pulse, and respiration) when you can gain the most accurate reading for a resting rate.

Photo: Stephanie L. Church, Editor-in-Chief

Few people, if anyone, spend more time with your horse than you. The role of primary caretaker and horse health advocate generally falls on the person in closest contact with said equine. The well-rounded horse person is more than a good rider. He or she is educated in normal parameters of horse health and a keen observer, on the look-out for anything that is abnormal, for that individual horse.

Here, Laura Frost, DVM, a partner at Halton Equine Veterinary Services in Puslinch, Ontario, Canada, and Brianne Henderson, BVMS, MRCVS, of the Ferguson Equine Veterinary Services and Toronto Equine Hospital, both in Ontario, Canada, will discuss the important role the horse owner plays in maintaining and optimizing their horse’s health.

Get to Know Your Horse

Waiting until you have a reason to take a horse’s vitals is essentially the same as shutting the barn door after the great escape. Frost points out vitals vary from horse to horse.

“It is important to know if your horse sits at the low or high end of any given vitals range for you to have a good base line,” she said.

Take the horse’s vitals when you can gain the most accurate reading for a resting rate (i.e., not right before feeding, after being outside in the sun, while under tack, or after exercise [unless you are monitoring recovery rates]).

Frost and Henderson concur that grooming is more than knocking off the dirt in preparation for riding but a full body check that can alert owners to any swellings, soreness, changes in behavior, or ailments that might require close monitoring or immediate attention. No stranger to the sport of endurance riding, Henderson also points out one should be familiar with the numbers for their horse’s recovery rates determining how long it takes vitals to return to normal after a work-out.

Knowing how to quantify and classify ‘not normal’ is crucial when speaking to your veterinarian on the phone. Both Frost and Henderson attest that this information allows them to gauge the urgency of a call and whether they should be treating it as an emergency or scheduling a visit in their upcoming week.

The Power of Observation

“Keeping a log really goes a long way,” said Frost. “A novel is not helpful, but keeping accurate health records and knowing when a problem starts and if it is reoccurring can often tell you more about what is going on.”

Henderson added, “It is easy to get caught up with goals and the fast-pace of day-to-day life,” but it is important to take a moment to look at the full health picture on a daily basis.

Henderson said some components of due diligence include looking at the amount and consistency of manure in the stall, evaluating water consumption, noticing if feed is left behind, or picking up on an unusual stance in the horse.

“One of the first things I look at when attending a colic call is the state of the stall,” said Henderson. “I look to see if the shavings are level or if the horse has churned them up box walking.” She also said she looks at the other points of due diligence and asks when the stall was last picked out.

Another example: A horse that consistently rests the same hind leg is cause for further investigation. If you push him onto the other hind limb, does he return to the favored leg? Henderson explained that the observant horse owner will quickly notice this is a possible indication of soreness.

Springing Into Action

“Early intervention always offers the best prognosis and increases the probability of a good outcome,” said Frost.

Take for example a horse that develops swelling in the suspensory area and looks mildly lame for a day. The horse owner might employ cold therapy for a couple days and then put the horse back to work when everything seems to return to normal but later the horse comes up 3/5 lame.

“Suspensory injuries can be sneaky,” said Frost, “and what starts off as a minor injury can turn into a major one if not diagnosed and treated correctly at the onset.”

Of course, sometimes springing into action is simply a matter of treating a minor cut or scrape the moment you spot it in order to prevent infection. But when in doubt, do not hesitate to call your veterinarian. Frost noted the dangers of treating horses with the wrong medication by sighting a common example: corneal ulcers on a horse’s eye. Often they are just mild to start but if left untreated or treated incorrectly they can progress to be quite serious. Inadvertently using the wrong ointment to treat the ulcer could result in a melting ulcer—a much more serious problem. It is always best to call the veterinarian to check out any problem pertaining to eyes as soon as possible, as eye issues can be very painful for the horse and go bad quickly.

Springing into action is a definite requirement at the first sign of an infectious disease. This requires a call to the veterinarian without delay for treatment and immediate advice on biosecurity measures, which could include isolation, to help stop the spread to other horses in the barn and surrounding regions.

The All-Important “Ounce of Prevention”

Henderson can attest, thanks to her experience with horses, that this is not an old cliché. Prevention is the best medicine and thinking three steps ahead goes a long way in minimizing injuries. A simple example is avoiding an icy path by breaking it up or putting sand down. Don’t consider prevention too time consuming or costly when it is ultimately a cost-saving exercise in preserving health and welfare.

Monitor your horse's body condition score regularly to ensure he stays at an ideal weight.

Photo: Kevin Thompson/The Horse

Henderson encourages her clients to perform body condition scoring every two to three weeks, all year long. Many horse owners are caught by surprise when they look under the blanket come springtime to find a horse substantially underweight.

More cold-weather-related problem prevention methods including ensuring horses are drinking adequate amounts and are blanketed accordingly on days when the temperatures fluctuate significantly in a 24 hour period. These temperatures can be hard on horses, as can the occurrence of brutally long cold snaps. Further, Henderson stressed the importance of providing adequate good-quality forage and ensuring horses have access to shelter to escape from weather and drafts. Increasing forage during a cold spell is an easy preventive measure to help the horse stay warm and avoid dropping weight. Henderson said allowing horses to trickle feed hay is also a great way to maintain digestive health, help prevent ulcers, and promote good mental health. Remember—horses were designed to graze while moving over terrain for more than eighteen hours a day.

Frost stressed that horse owners need to cover all the basics in order to be productive in any riding discipline. This includes a solid foundation in their training methods, an understanding of proper hoof care, routine farrier appointments (every four to six weeks for the average horse), and routine veterinary care (such as annual dental work and vaccinations).

“You can do all the advanced imaging in the world on your horse, but if you are not performing basics such as performing (fecal egg counts) and deworming, you will only be as good as your weakest link,” Frost concluded.

About the Author

Equine Guelph

Equine Guelph is the horse owners' and caretakers' center at the University of Guelph, supported and overseen by equine industry groups, and dedicated to improving the health and well-being of horses.

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