- Keep your horse’s weight in control, with a body condition score of 5-6.Feed primarily grasses and hays to make it easier for him to maintain a proper weight.
- Regular, moderate exercise will keep your horse’s immune system running smoothly and his joints working well.
- Put together a checklist to ensure a safe environment.
- Observe your horse for any variation from normal, a first sign of trouble.
We’ve all learned to keep our horses up-to-date with vaccinations and deworming. But a veterinary wellness exam for your horse can often prevent equine diseases from ever attacking your horse or catch a problem early enough that it poses little or no danger to your horse’s health. Read more on the benefits a veterinary wellness exam for your horse can bring to your horse’s health.
Weight control is as important to equine health as it is to our health. The hard truth is that excess weight is never good for any horse, at any age. It greatly increases the burden on his feet and joints, stresses the back, makes it harder to breathe, can change the hormonal and metabolic profile, makes the horse less heat tolerant and in some instances even puts the horse at risk for laminitis.
The reverse is also true. Weight loss improves metabolic efficiency and exercise tolerance and greatly releases stress on the feet, legs and back.
Improper feeding and not enough exercise cause most weight problems. If your horse still can’t lose weight despite regular exercise and appropriate feeding, you need to let your vet know so that the horse can be checked for hormonal disturbances.
A good way to determine whether your horse is carrying the proper amount of weight is with the body condition scale (see “How Does your Horse Measure Up,” page 8). Ideally, his overall body score should be a 5 or 6.
A horse roaming around a field seems to be getting a lot more exercise than someone who spends hours a day at a desk, in front of the TV, on a computer or playing video games. But horses require much more exercise than humans, and the average horse, even in pasture, doesn’t get as much exercise as he needs.
Everyone knows that regular exercise improves the horse’s exercise tolerance and fitness, but it does much more. Joint cartilage has no blood supply and thus depends on exercise to keep it supplied with the nutrients it needs for repair and maintenance. Cartilage, which takes its nutrition from the joint fluid, has a sponge-like structure, emptying out when compressed and refilling when released. Regular, formal exercise makes joints healthier. It even improves the condition of arthritic joints as long as you don’t overdo it.
Moderate exercise also improves the health of the immune system. Maintaining the immune system requires a lot of the amino acid glutamine, which is released from muscles during exercise.
Exercise has a profound effect on how calories are used. In addition to directly burning calories during exercise, the body shifts emphasis away from storing fat and toward building muscle for 24 hours after exercise.
You don’t have to train your horse to the fitness of an Olympic athlete
to get these benefits. A minimum of 30 minutes a day, every day, will
If the horse is out of shape, start with uninterrupted walking on level ground, working up to more trotting and cantering/loping slowly. An added bonus is that the exercise will have the same beneficial effects on you.
With reference to weight control, it’s usually not how much the horse is eating, but what he is eating that is causing excessive weight. Yes, horses are designed to live on grass, but in nature they might have to cover 20 miles a day to find enough. If your horse is getting too heavy on nothing but pasture, invest in a grazing muzzle.
The next best thing to grass is hay, plenty of it. A pound of a commercial grain mix can contain three times as many calories as a pound of hay. Grain is simply not a natural part of the horse’s diet. A horse’s diet should be based on a mixture of high-quality hays, with grain fed only if the horse cannot maintain a healthy weight with hay (or pasture) alone. A mixture of grasses usually does a good job of avoiding severe mineral imbalances.
Horses fed with the emphasis on grass/hay have a much easier time avoiding excessive weight gain, and some can often be allowed to eat whenever and however much they please. This is a more natural eating pattern and provides abundant fermentable materials for the microorganisms in the horse’s intestinal tract, which in turn decreases the risk of digestive upsets or colic.
Your horse’s diet should also include the vitamins and minerals he needs. Every process in your horse’s body, from growing healthy feet and hair, to generating exercise, to keeping his immune system operating
well and avoiding allergies depends on good nutrition. For a horse eating a good mixture of grasses, you should only need to supplement that with a vitamin/mineral mix that matches the common deficiencies found in your area.
Be aware that over-supplementing of vitamins and minerals can be just as bad as shortages. More is not necessarily better and could even be worse.
If you are currently feeding a number of different supplements, it’s time to get some independent advice from a vet interested in nutrition, or an equine nutritionist. The money you will save by streamlining your supplements, and the better results, make it well worth the investment.
A wellness exam gives your vet a good chance to develop a relationship with your horse that doesn’t involve doing something the horse may find unpleasant.
Even if your horses play in the pasture, they aren’t getting “regular” exercise. If your schedule is tight, a brisk walk around the farm will give you and your horse a little workout and time together.
To save money, schedule a wellness exam at a time the vet’s coming to the farm for another reason.
Your vet may pick up on subtle gait irregularities or muscle tensions that you may not notice when you see your horse all the time.
Ask your vet to write any recommendations or observations in your horse’s chart, especially concerning feed, supplements or medications.
A Safe Environment
Your family doctor probably has a long list of questions for you about whether or not your children buckle up in the car, wear protective gear for sports, have operating smoke alarms in their rooms, etc. Concerns are different for the horse, but there are just as many. They include:
-Is your fencing material appropriate for horses and kept in good repair?
-Are gates and stall doors secure?
-Are pastures walked regularly to check for glass or other potentially hazardous rubbish (for example, batteries) that someone might have thrown there?
-Are feeding areas kept clean of rotting/sprouting grains and hays?
-Do you know how to recognize poisonous wild plants in your region?
-Are there shrubs or trees around your turnout, barn or house that are potentially poisonous?
-Are your grains and supplements stored in horse-proof containers in the event of an accidental break-in?
-Are water sources checked frequently to ensure they are fit to drink?
-Are the horses prevented from access to water that might be contaminated by runoff from fields that have been treated with chemicals?
-Do you use breakaway halters or remove halters when horses are not being observed?
-Do you have a basic first aid kit (human and equine) in the barn, including extra halters, lead lines and key phone numbers?
-Do you have a game plan in case of fire in the barn?
-Do you regularly inspect your trailer to make sure the floor is secure and non-slip, the hitch functions properly, the brakes and lights are working?
The list will be different for every setup, but the point is to keep your eyes open for accidents waiting to happen. If there’s a board with protruding nails to step on or a ditch to fall into, sooner or later a horse will find it.
Habits, Appearance and Mental Health
Part of your visit to your own doctor will involve questions regarding things like your sleep patterns, appetite, bowel habits and activity level. Changes here can be a sign of physical or mental problems.
It’s important to be observant about your horse as well. This can give you early warning of problems before they become something major, and help you determine if your horse is really suitable for the activities you would like him to do. Be alert for:
-Changes in appetite
-Changes in manure or amount
of urine produced
-Changes in skin, coat or hooves
-Decrease in activity level, for example, more time lying down, less spontaneous trotting and playing
-Change in “status” within the herd
-Resistance to cues that wasn’t there before
-New fearful behavior
The more you observe your horse, the more familiar you will be with what is normal. If you notice something different, don’t automatically brush it off as minor.
Check the horse carefully for any obvious injuries, or areas of heat or swelling. Check his temperature, pulse and respiration. If you think there might be a physical problem,
at least call your vet and talk it over.
Behavior issues could have a physical cause, be rooted in the horse either not liking what you ask or not understanding, or even be a carryover from a change in herd dynamics. Horses can just have “bad days” too, but drastic changes, or even minor ones that don’t go away, should be investigated.
Many veterinary practices are now encouraging wellness exams. You can schedule them for a time when your vet will be coming out for something else, such as routine vaccinations.
Wellness exams are basically “checkups,” with a physical exam, check of the premises and a chance for you to ask any questions you might have about nutrition or other topics. It’s also important for you to think of wellness on a daily basis. Prevention really is the best medicine.
For more information on how to maintain your horse’s wellness visit: