Healthy-Horse

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:

  • Body shape. The body should be will filled out, with a good quantity of firm muscle, but not overweight.
  • Legs. The legs should be free from swellings, bumps or hot spots. Carefully feel down the full length of the legs, from the top to the hooves, with special attention to the lower parts.
  • Stance. Should stand evenly on all four legs, with all four hooves pointing straight forward. It is normal to rest a hind leg (but not a fore leg) for a short perid, provided that it is not always the same leg.
  • Walk. The horse should have an even walk, taking strides of equal length and with the weight evenly spread on all four legs.
  • Ears. Body language is extremely important and horses use it to communicate with other horses. The position of the ears tells a lot about their mood. Generally they should be upright and should be mobile as they respond to sounds and movement around them. A horse with droopy ears which seldom move is likely feeling tired, weak and/or unhappy. 
  • Coat. The coat should be even, flat and shinny. As the coat, mane and tail are produced over a period of months, their condition is an indication not only of how the horse feels at the moment but also its health stretching back some time.
  • Skin. The skin should be loose and supple and move easily over the horse's frame.
  • Sweating. The horse should not sweat except during vigerous exercise or hot weather.
  • Gums The gums should be pink, shiny and moist. If they are dry, tacky, pale or any colour other than salmon pink, there is a health issue. If one presses gently on the gums (careful with your fingers!), at the point where you are pressing they will turn white but as soon as you remove your finger the colour should completely return to pink within two seconds.
  • General Mood. Does the horse look happy, alert and interesting in what is happening? Alternatively, does it look sad, droopy, uninterested? A horse which is strong and healthy will project a different mood than one which is feeling sick and tired.

See 'Exceptions & Problems' below for a discussion of what to do if the horse does not meet any of the above checks. 

Hooves

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).

Teeth

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.

Digestive System

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:

  • Feed. Ask what the horse is fed, summer and winter. A horse which has a natural diet, consisting mainly of pasture grass with supplemental hay during the winter, is less likely to develop digestive system problems than a horse fed largely on grain and commercial feeds. Furthermore, a horse which requires special feeds is a horse with problems.
  • Droppings. The horse droppings should be in the form of damp balls. They should not be loose or sloppy (not like a cow's). The odour should be mild and inoffensive. The colour will depend on the diet. If a horse is under nervous stress (e.g. during transport) it is normal for the droppings to become more liquid but this should correct itself as soon as the horse is returned to normal conditions.

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.

Exercise

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.

Questions

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:

  • History. What is the horse's medical history? Has it has any problems and if so what are they? In particular, has it ever has colic or laminitis.
  • Veterinarian. Has the horse ever been seen by a veterinarian (aside from innoculations and check-ups)? If so, will the horse seller give the veterinarian permission to discuss the horse with you?
  • Records. Ask to see the horse's innoculations card and medical records.
  • De-worming. How often is the horse de-wormed? When was the last time it was de-wormed?

Monitoring

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:

  • Changes. Any changes to the horses appearance (either standing or in movement) or its behaviour can be an indication of a change to its health. All changes should be investigated
  • Droppings. The horse droppings should be in the form of firm damp balls. A change in diet may affect the colour and slightly affect the consistency, but any other changes should be checked. A healthy horse will produce droppings about 8 times or so per day.
  • Water. A standard sized horse consumes about 5-10 gallons of water per day. Any increase or decrease in the amount of water, unless due to a change in weather or activity, should be checked.
  • Feed. A horse needs about 3%-4% of its body weight in food each day, depending on the breed, activity level and food type. Decreases in appetite should be investigated. If a horse is getting the normal amount of food but starts losing weight, this also should be checked (e.g. worms, digestive problems, infections).

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.

Vital Signs

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:

  • Temporary or Permanent. Horses, like people, can be in good general health but still get injured or sick from time to time. It is possible for a minor illness (e.g. a cold) to result in a horse failing multiple checks. Before making a final decision, one can try to determine the cause of the problem to determine if it is temporary or permanent.
  • Serious or Not. Even if it is a permanant problem, it may or may not be serious. For example, it is the rare horse that has all four hooves perfectly aligned. Minor hoof deviations, although a fault, do not neccessarily interfere with the horse's performance.
  • Intended Purpose. The purpose for which the horse is intended will also affect which faults are acceptable. A horse which will be used for serious competition or that is required to work every day needs to be strong and in top health. However, a horse which is intended for occassional riding or just companionship can have certain faults.

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.

Guarantees

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.