Know Your Horse: 10 Ways to Get Better Acquainted
By Melanie Huggett
Regular care is necessary to keep your horse healthy, and can help you avoid costly vet bills later on. Knowing what is normal for your horse also makes it easy to see when something abnormal arises, which could be cause for concern; catching infection or injury early can lead to faster treatment by a veterinarian and quicker recovery. Become well acquainted with your horse in the following areas:
A horse carries all his weight on his four hooves, which are complex structures of bones, tendons, blood vessels, the keratinous hoof wall, and flesh (see figure 1). As the saying goes, “no hoof, no horse.” A horse’s hooves grow at a rate of approximately six to ten millimetres a month, and must be trimmed or shod by a farrier every six to eight weeks in order to maintain hoof balance and traction. Keep the horse’s stall and paddock clean and pick out his hooves regularly with a hoof pick to prevent infections such as thrush and white line disease.
Feel your horse’s legs regularly for abnormalities. Lumps, heat, or a pounding pulse can be a sign of injury or lameness. Also check for cuts and scratches, and clean or wrap them accordingly; hidden cuts can become infected, especially on the lower legs where they are more likely to come into contact with dirt and manure. Horses can sometimes “interfere” with their own legs during exercise, leading to cuts and bumps; horses who commonly interfere or participate in activities that could cause them to knock or rub their legs should wear protective boots.
FIGURE 1: The Horse's Hoof
A horse’s tail is used for communication and swatting flies. If you notice that your horse is losing hair at the top of his tail, it could be from a paddock mate chewing it, or it could be caused by rubbing. Tail rubbing can be a sign of itching due to insects or internal parasites. Fly sheets and fly spray can help ward off flies during the summer months. To avoid parasite infestation, a rotational deworming program, developed with your veterinarian, is recommended for all horses. Typically, this involves giving your horse a different deworming medication every two or three months throughout the year.
Though often considered an “unmentionable” area — and a topic of discussion that will send young girls into titters and squeals — a horse’s groin does need attention. Waxy buildup of dirt and dead skin (smegma) inside a male horse’s sheath, which houses his penis, can lead to infection. Smegma will also harden inside a small cavity in the tip of the penis into a “bean,” which can make it painful to urinate. For these reasons, male horses should have their sheaths cleaned and beans removed semiannually. A mare’s udder should also be checked regularly and cleaned if necessary, especially if she is a broodmare. If any soap is used for cleaning, it is extremely important that it is rinsed completely away, as any residue could cause severe irritation to the sensitive skin in the groin area. Some horses may take offense to having their sheaths or udders cleaned, so proceed with caution!
5. Digestive System
he horse has a sensitive digestive system designed for constant grazing on high-fibre forage. The majority of the horse’s diet should consist of forage such as pasture or hay. If not given free access to forage, feed many smaller meals throughout the day in order to simulate grazing as best you can. Three meals is better than two, four is better than three, and so on. Colic (intestinal upset) is the number one killer of horses. Signs of colic include not wanting to eat or drink, frequent rolling, biting at the stomach or flank, restlessness, increased pulse, or decreasing fecal output. If you suspect colic, call your veterinarian immediately.
6. Body Condition
Monitor your horse’s body condition to make sure he is neither too fat nor too thin, as both emaciation and obesity can lead to serious health problems. Common areas for fat deposits include the crest of the neck, shoulder, barrel, and tail head. The “Henneke Scale,” which rates the body condition of horses from one to nine, is often used to assess the condition of horses. A healthy horse should be a score of four (moderately thin) to six (moderate to fleshy). Five (moderate) is ideal; this horse would have a level back, ribs that are easily felt but not seen, rounded withers, some fat around the tailhead, and shoulders and neck that blend smoothly into the body.
7. Vital Signs
Know your horse’s normal vital signs, including temperature, pulse, capillary refill time, respiration rate, and gut sounds, and how to take them. These can tell you if your horse is sick or in distress. The average horse has the following vital signs:
- Temperature of 37.5 to 38.0 degrees Celcius, taken with a rectal thermometer;
- Heart rate of 40 to 44 beats per minute, taken at the carotid artery, inside the elbow joint, or under the jaw;
- Capillary refill time of two seconds, taken by pressing a finger on the gums;
- Respiration rate of eight to 16 breaths per minute at rest, felt with your hand on the horse’s flank;
- Active gut sounds, heard with a stethoscope or your ear pressed to the horse’s flank.
FIGURE 2: The Horse's Teeth
Horse’s eyes can be various colours, the most common being dark brown. Blue, hazel, amber, or multicoloured eyes are also found. No matter the colour, eyes should be bright and clear. Cloudiness of the lens, swelling of the membranes or lids, or discharge should be reported to a veterinarian. Horses with pink skin around their eyes (such as Paints and Appaloosas) are more prone to eye problems, especially melanomas, a type of skin tumour.
A horse has between 36 and 44 teeth. All horses have 12 incisors for shearing grass and 24 molars for grinding food, but they may or may not have four canines or four wolf teeth between the molars and incisors (see figure 2). Wolf teeth are often removed by a veterinarian as they can interfere with the bit, which sits in the “bars” or the interdental space between the incisors and the molars. The horse’s teeth, which continually grow throughout a horse’s lifetime, are often used to estimate age. Most horses require their teeth to be “floated,” or filed, by a veterinarian or equine dentist approximately once a year. Chewing causes the molars to wear unevenly creating points on the teeth, which makes it difficult to chew food and can cause painful ulcerations. Young and senior horses typically require more regular dentistry.
The nostrils are the beginnings of the respiratory system, and can open very wide when increased inhalation is needed. Check nostrils for signs of mucus discharge. Clear discharge is normal, but mucus that is white, yellow, heavy, or has a putrid odour can be a sign of infection or disease. Common respiratory diseases in horses are equine influenza and equine herpesvirus.
Main photo: Robin Duncan Photography - How well do you know your horse? By becoming well acquainted with your horse when he is healthy, you’ll catch abnormalities early before small problems become more serious health concerns.