It is important to be able to tell how healthy a horse is, especially if it is a horse which you are considering buying. Following are our tips.
Exterior General Appearance
The exterior appearance provides the first indication of the overall health of the horse. Here is a checklist:
See 'Exceptions & Problems' below for a discussion of what to do if the horse does not meet any of the above checks.
Good hooves are critical to a working horse. The old saying 'no hooves, no horse' is a reflection of not only the importance of hooves, but also the frequency with which an otherwise good horse is unuseable due to hoof issues. This is perhaps the single most important area to closely inspect.
All four hooves should point straight forward when the horse is standing. Check that there is no deviation to the left or the right. Sometimes a horse may stand with a foot cocked to one side or another, but if one walks the horse for a short distance and then stops, this should correct. If it does not, there is a problem (the severity of which depends partly on the degree of deviation).
The hoofs should also be correctly angled (you may need a farrier, blacksmith, or specialist horse veterinarian to advise you on this). An incorrect angle can be the sign of a permanent defect or merely incorrect trimming, but needs to be considered prior to purchase (and corrected after purchase).
The hoof walls should be uniform in shape and appearance, free of cracks or blemishes. Variations in colour and colour bands are normal; they are only of consideration from a cosmetic perspective. If you intend to breed or show a horse, note that with some breeds coloured hooves are considered a plus and with some breeds they are considered a minus, from a cosmetic or breed standard perspective.
Rub you hand down the leg and gently lift on the hoof. If the horse does not immediately and easily lift its hoof, there are two possibilities. One is that the horse has not been fully trained in this regard. The other is that the horse has a problem with another leg or hoof, so is relucant to lift a good hoof and put additional weight on a bad one.
Check the underside of the hoof. The sole should be correctly shaped and free of any visible injury. Anything less than a perfectly shaped underside should be regarded with suspicion. Minor issues may simply be due to incorrect trimming but anything else could be an indication of genetic issues, previous injury or disease (e.g. laminitis).
Good dental work is important to a horse's health. Older horses in particular may have problems either with their teeth or the joints of their jaw, which limit the type and quantity of food they can eat. In some cases, the horse may not be able to eat hay or even grass in quantity and consequently require special soft feeds, which is not only more expensive but also increases the risk of future digestive system problems due to inadequate dietary fiber.
Some dental issues (e.g. minor spurs) can be easily treated by a horse dentist. Others (e.g. teeth worn down, painful jaw joints) cannot normally be corrected, although they can be managed through suitable dietary changes.
A quick test for good teeth is to take the horse away from food and give it about 5kg (10lb) of hay. This is a far from conclusive test, but may give some useful indications. The horse should eat all of the hay, eating steadily and continuously. It should eat with both sides of its mouth equally. If it eats some and then stops, it could be due to pain in eating (unless of course the horse has recently had its full of food it prefers). If it produces partly chewed hay balls, then it has an issue chewing.
After hooves, the digestive system (stomach, intestines, colon) is the most frequent source of serious health issues. Unfortunately, it is difficult to determine the digestive health from examination. One can ask if the horse has ever had digestive problems, such as ulcers or colic.
In the absence of any evidence, the best indication is what goes into the horse and what comes out:
One should also listen to the stomach (press your ear to the abdomen). There should be various noises and gurgling at all times. Lack of such sounds indicates a problem, although the presence of these sounds does not mean there isn't an issue as many issues (e.g. ulcers) can occur even with normal gut sounds.
Check how the horse behaves when exercised, at various gaites (walking, trot, gallop). At all gaites, it should remain alert, with a smooth and even stride. It should not favour any leg. Circle the horse in both directions (left inside and right inside) to make sure that it performs equally well in both directions.
It should not start to sweat (unless the weather is hot) until it has been worked for some time as a fast gait. Likewise, it's respiration should not be fast unless worked hard, although a gradual increase in respiration as the gait speeds up is normal. After working the horse fast for a while, gradually slow down, spending some time in each gait. As the gait reduces, the respiration should quickly reduce as well. Once the horse stops exercising, its respiration and pulse should rapidly return to normal. Failure to meet any of these criteria may indicate a health issue. Alternatively, they may simply mean that the horse has not received regular conditioning exercise.
After exercise, the horse should quickly return to pre-exercise condition. Not only should its respiration and pulse return to resting levels, but it should look alert and comfortable. Any sign of pain, limping or discomfort should be carefully investigated.
When getting a horse from someone else, there are a number of questions worth asking. Be wary of any responses which are incomplete or evasive:
The above provides a number of quick checks. If a horse is stabled with you, there are a number of other checks which may be practical:
Of course, some of these items may be difficult to evaluate. If you have automatic drinkers then it can be difficult to know how much water your horse is drinking. Likewise, changes to droppings may not be noticed if a horse spends most of its day on pasture. However, if you have the chance to observe the above, they can provide a useful early indication of health changes.
A horse at rest should breath 8-12 times per minute. If you have trouble seeing the inhalations, watch the flanks from behind.
Temperature should be 38°C (100.5°F).
The resting heart rate should be 25-40 beats per minute. The resting heartbeat depends partly on the breed and build of the horse, as well as the level of training condition.
Exceptions & Problems
A healthy horse should pass almost all the checks above. If it fails a check, one needs to consider:
Consequently, one may well consider purchasing a horse which does not meet all of the checks above. One needs to go beyond the checks to determine the duration, seriousness and functional implications of any issues.
That being said, even if the faults are acceptable, any fault should make one cautious. To begin with, one fault may hide another, so if you buy a horse and treat it to correct one problem, after it is better and you reappraise it, a different problem may then be apparent. If a horse has one fault, it can sometimes be difficult to see how many others may be lurking behind. If there is a temporary problem (e.g. a cold), wait until it has cleared and then repeat the full examination.
Finally, one must realise that although it is possible to state that a horse is not healthy, it is never possible to state with 100% certainty that a horse is healthy. Even if you closely examine the horse, with the assistance of a veterinarian and other professionals, there is always the risk of a problem which is not apparent.
This risk is increased by the fact that horses will not always show that they are sick or in pain. In the wild, a horse which appears weak is the preferred target of predators, as well as at risk of having its position in the hierarchy challenged. Consequently, it is normal for a horse to hide problems.
As one can never be 100% sure, when buying a horse one should try for a written money-back guarantee should problems be found at a later date. One should also try to buy from reputable breeders, who have invested in building a good reputation and consequently are interested in protecting it. One may wish to take out horse health insurance, at least for the first year.