Spring Horse Health Checkup
By Steve Chiasson, DVM, CVMA
When winter finally releases its icy grip, horse owners are eager to begin another riding season. While Canadians take national pride in fully embracing our cold snow-filled months, it’s hard to deny that springtime is a welcome sight, and horse owners are especially excited.
Winter horse care can mean different things depending on your geographic location. Fluctuating temperatures in Eastern Canada create challenges for indoor housing. The Prairies cope with their incredibly frigid minus 40-degree C days (how you just “dress for it” I don’t know!). While in Western British Columbia there is constant rain from November to March. Dealing with any of those conditions makes both horse and human welcome the arrival of spring sunshine and open barn doors!
The transition between seasons is a natural time to do some spring cleaning around the house and barn. Just as important is the seasonal transition for your horse. Whether spring sees you switching from indoor arena to outdoor riding, changing your horse’s housing from stable to pasture and paddocks, or beginning new training for the upcoming show season, you will be affecting your horse’s living and working conditions in significant ways. This is a perfect time for getting a spring horse health checkup.
The Vet Exam
A spring horse health exam can be quite different from a mid-season exam. During the riding season, veterinarians will often be called to investigate a specific problem that is occurring, such as respiratory difficulty at rest, or worsening lameness that is affecting performance. But the pre-season exam is generally focused on a broader view of your horse’s health. It is a snapshot in time that takes into account both medical history and potential future plans for your horse activities. And it is incredibly valuable.
It seems cliché to say “You and your veterinarian are important partners in the health care of your horse,” but the history of health and performance is critical to making evaluations and future decisions for your horse. Nobody is more in tune with how things are going than the person who sees the horse every day - and that’s you. Your checkup exam will always start with a good history.
If you recently purchased the horse, you may have an in depth pre-purchase exam report that will have a very detailed summary of past medical history and exam findings (see Unravelling the Mysteries of the Pre-Purchase Exam). Having this information on hand is always helpful when your veterinarian is seeing a new horse for the first time. Everything that has happened over the winter season is also important information:
- Has the horse been in work through the winter?
- Describe the horse’s feeding program. Have there been any changes in feed? Is he eating normally or have you noticed any peculiar habits?
- Has there been any weight change? Are you feeding a special diet to control body condition?
- Have there been any respiratory concerns, coughing, or nasal discharge over the winter?
- Has there been any movement of horses in/out of the facility?
- Have you observed any lameness in your horse? Any lumps or swellings?
- Describe foot care over the winter. Is your farrier happy with the condition of the feet and/or shoes?
- Is your horse receiving any treatments or medications?
These may seem like a lot of questions to answer before we even get to examining the horse, but they help to identify what to look for. Even if you’ve owned your horse for years, things can quietly change over a winter season, and clues from the owner help the vet put the puzzle together.
Baseline General Exam
Now for the actual exam. Regardless of the type of horse or your riding discipline, a thorough physical exam is the basis of your spring checkup. More detailed exams might be indicated for specific problems mentioned in the history or for increased levels of performance, but every horse evaluation starts with the baseline general exam.
Cardiovascular and respiratory
Proper heart and lung function is obviously crucial for any horse no matter what level of activity makes up their day. Your vet will listen for heart sounds on both the left and right side of the chest while evaluating the rate and rhythm of the heart beats. Murmurs (abnormal sounds) may indicate abnormal heart function. Feeling the pulse strength at different locations can help locate any potential areas that may be experiencing abnormal blood flow. Presence of edema (fluid accumulation) in the legs, abdomen, groin, and neck should all be noted and recorded.
Clear nostrils free of discharge and odour is the first sign of a healthy respiratory system. The nasal mucous membranes should be light pink and show no evidence of ulcers or a bloodshot appearance. Lymph nodes under the jaw and around the throat area should be normal size and not painful to touch. The trachea is very easily evaluated in horses, and owners should be able to do this themselves. The first step is listening with a stethoscope right over the midline on the underside of the neck. Normal tracheal sounds are loud and sound the same on inspiration (breathing in) and expiration (out). In most horses, minimal or no mucus fluid should be heard gurgling in the trachea. The next step is testing for an induced cough. Rub the same area very aggressively with the palm of your hand for ten seconds. One dry cough or no cough is normal for most horses. Airway irritation and inflammation will produce repeated coughing or require only light rubbing to induce.
The lungs are more difficult to hear and your vet will need a quiet environment and/or a rebreathing test (plastic bag over the nose). The vet will evaluate airflow through all regions of the lung and check for abnormal sounds at different phases of respiration.
Related: 5 Steps to Spring Horse Care
Your vet will listen for normal bowel sounds in all quadrants of the abdomen on both left and right sides. There should be constant gastrointestinal sounds with no pain or spams present. Fecal balls should be uniform in size, with short/medium fibre particles, and have some water left to squeeze out.
The vet will listen to gastrointestinal sounds on both sides of the abdomen both high and low. These rumblings and gurgles are normal in healthy horses, and an indicator of digestive function and intestinal movement. Photo: Shutterstock/135pixels
This area of the exam can easily have the most variation depending on the history and intended use of your horse. While some horses might be totally fine to comfortably live out their days with some minor abnormalities, others need to be monitored and maintained at very high standards to pursue their athletic careers.
There are three distinct levels of musculoskeletal evaluations you can do at your spring checkup:
- Pleasure and Companion Horse - Every horse should have this level of exam. Your vet is checking for Body Condition Score (BCS) from very thin (1) to very obese (9). This is a combination of both muscle and fat coverage over the body. Understandably, most horses fall into the BCS 5 to 6 range with varying levels of fitness vs. fat. We are also palpating the legs to check for any swellings or painful areas. This is where the accurate history is vital for determining old vs. new findings. Digital pulses should be evaluated along with assessment of the feet and trimming.
- Casual Performance Horse - This category includes pleasure horses that may have an above-average amount of riding, horses that may do a few amateur shows for fun, lesson horses, and horses that will see an increase in their workload for the coming season. Careful palpation of the entire neck, back, and pelvis will help identify any areas of soreness. Detailed limb exams including ligament and tendon palpation is also done, along with range of joint motion and hoof testing. Your veterinarian will discuss any findings that may affect riding or training plans.
- The Performance Horse - These horses should have a full detailed examination as above, with the addition of soundness evaluation in motion. This would include flexion testing of limbs and evaluation of gaits on both hard and soft ground. We find it helpful to utilize the Lameness Locator® computerized analysis to establish an objective evaluation of baseline soundness. If any concerns are found or a problem develops later, we have a springtime comparison to fall back on.
Photos (above/below): Performance horses benefit from a full detailed examination and soundness evaluation. The Lameness Locator® provides a computerized analysis that assists in establishing an objective evaluation of baseline soundness. This is particularly useful for comparison if problems develop later on. Photos courtesy of Agwest Veterinary Group Ltd.
Most owners are familiar with the annual visit by the vet to have their horse’s teeth looked at. This is best done with a fully rinsed mouth and a dental speculum. Your horse may or may not need some light sedation for this exam, but sedation does make for a more thorough and safe procedure.
Inspecting the gums and each tooth both visually and by palpation will help identify any loose teeth or other abnormalities. These may include diastemas (spaces between teeth) that have impacted feed, gum recession, transverse ridges, and ulcers to name a few. Not every oral exam finishes with a dental float. On average, within a year most horses will make sharp enamel points significant enough to warrant dental correction. Occasionally this interval is shorter, or longer, but your veterinarian will advise you on a schedule that fits your horse best.
More frequent oral exams may benefit the show horse. Removal of the sharp points eliminates that source of distraction and pain when under saddle. The pain tolerance among horses is extremely variable and sometimes correction of minor abnormalities can make a huge difference in comfort and riding performance.
Related: Equine Dental Care
Over the course of a year, most horses make enough sharp enamel points to warrant a dental float. Light sedation during the dental exam allows for a more thorough inspection of gums and teeth for abnormalities. Photo courtesy of Agwest Veterinarian Group Ltd.
If we heard that a friend had been to the doctor for their yearly checkup and had some blood work done, we would think nothing of it. Sounds pretty routine, right? Well, your horses are really no different. Diagnostic testing can be a valuable tool, and money well spent if it’s done wisely.
Just like your human physician, your veterinarian will use a detailed history combined with physical exam findings to determine what diagnostic tests would be of value to you and your horse.
There are several types of diagnostics available:
- Bloodwork is easily the most commonly recognized type of checkup test for humans and animals, and with good reason –evaluation of some body functions is just not possible with a physical exam. There are a variety of blood tests available depending on what is being assessed.
- CBC/Chemistry is the most common type of blood screening done. CBC (complete blood count) looks at many characteristics of the horse’s red and white blood cells. The lab reports on the hematocrit (how many red blood cells in a volume of fluid), hemoglobin levels for oxygen carrying, and the appearance of the red blood cells. White counts are extremely useful and tell us the levels and types of white blood cells. This is the primary way to measure response to infection. The chemistry tests look at organ function and electrolyte levels in the body. Liver, kidney, muscles, and the immune system can all be evaluated. Mineral testing of blood serum can also be of value depending on which specific mineral you are interested in.
- Metabolic testing or screening for certain conditions may be suggested if your veterinarian suspects your horse may be having specific health issues. Examples of this include PPID (Cushings disease) with ACTH hormonal testing, or insulin and glucose levels for insulin resistance or equine metabolic syndrome. Most of these procedures can be done on the same visit as your checkup, but discuss this ahead of time with your vet if you have concerns. Some screening tests require special feeding times prior to blood collection for accurate results.
- Fecal testing - There is definitely a move away from just blindly deworming of horses on a random schedule. Many of the dewormer programs used in the past have been guilty of administering medications at the wrong time, or treating horses that did not actually need deworming. Incorrect and indiscriminate use of dewormer leads to drug resistance and less effective options for when the medications are really needed. Spring checkup is a great time to get a fecal egg count done on your horse. While there is certainly debate about what is considered a low vs. moderate vs. high shedder, knowing your horse’s tendencies for parasite shedding will help you develop a seasonal deworming plan with your vet.
- Radiographs (x-rays) and ultrasound imaging can be included in the spring checkup for different reasons. You may be monitoring the healing response of an injury that was rehabilitated over the winter, or perhaps the coming season will be the start of more intensive training for your horse. Well-chosen imaging can give you information to confirm whether future plans are right for your horse, or highlight areas to monitor carefully throughout the season.
X-rays can monitor the healing progress of a previous injury, and provide information to help you decide your horse’s training plans. Photo: Dreamstime/Kenktennapel
This is probably the most common service associated with the spring vet visit. However, as simple as it is to administer the vaccines, the decisions that go into developing a proper vaccine strategy for your horse are complex. This is an excellent time to discuss with your vet exactly what should be done to give your horse optimal protection though the coming season. The two categories and guidelines of vaccines that the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) recommends are core vaccines and risk-based vaccines.
Core vaccinations are defined as those “that protect from diseases that are endemic to a region, those with potential public health significance, required by law, virulent/highly infectious, and/or those posing a risk of severe disease. Core vaccines have clearly demonstrated efficacy and safety, and thus exhibit a high enough level of patient benefit and low enough level of risk to justify their use in the majority of patients.”
The following equine vaccines meet these criteria and are identified as core requirements:
- Eastern/Western Equine Encephalomyelitis
- West Nile virus
Risk-based vaccinations are included in a vaccination program after the performance of a risk-benefit analysis. The use of risk-based vaccinations may vary regionally, from farm to farm within an area, or even between individual horses within a given herd. These include:
- Equine Herpesvirus (Rhinopneumonitis)
- Equine Influenza
- Equine Viral Arteritis
- Potomac Horse Fever
- Rotaviral Diarrhea
- Snake Bite
As you can see, a proper vaccine program has a lot of moving parts and developing the best one for your horse calls for several decisions to be made. The vaccine strategies your friend uses for his horse may not necessarily be correct for yours. For the best advice on choosing the correct vaccines for your particular horse, talk to your veterinarian. You can also visit the AAEP website for more detailed information about the above diseases and to see suggested vaccine schedules for different scenarios.
The spring vet checkup is the ideal time to develop a vaccine strategy with your veterinarian to give your horse optimal protection throughout the coming season. Photo: Shutterstock/Vchal
Any time of the year is a good time to give your horse a complete health checkup, but consider taking advantage of the change of seasons as a reminder to get things up-to-date. When possible, combine your vet’s visit with friends at the barn for the opportunity to observe the exams and procedures on other horses. This is a great way to learn all the details of the spring checkup visit, and join discussions with other owners and your veterinarian. We always appreciate an informed, educated owner who wants to be part of their horse’s health care team.
Related: Spring Pasture Precautions
Main photo: Dreamstime/Viktoria Makarova