If you’re like most busy trail riders, you rise early, ride, do the chores, then race off to work or other commitments. Or, you race home at the end of a grueling day and ride as long as you can before darkness sets in. Weekends are better, but you’re still anxious to get in as much on-trail time as possible, so hurriedly tack him up. Distractions and haste can cause you to miss some early signs of problems. Just as an airline pilot would never consider flying without running through a checklist of all the working system of a complicated machine, so too should you scrutinize your horse both before and after each ride. By performing a simple pre-ride and post-ride checklist, your horse’s body language can tell you if there’s a problem. At first, this routine will seem time-consuming and require a lot of thought. But after a few days, it’ll enter into your subconscious and become second nature. (Note: If you find a problem, call your veterinarian for an appointment. Report to him or her exactly what you observed, as well as what’s normal for your horse.)
In the Pasture
A lot of opportunities for scrutiny exist between pasture and mounting up; here’s what to look for.
Good to go: Your horse appears eager and ready. His posture is erect, and he’s standing comfortably in a position familiar to you.
Potential problem: Your horse appears flat and deflated. He’s cocking a leg, pointing a foot, or shifting his weight from side to side. He’s standing in a position that’s not normal for him.
What you should do: If your horse seems despondent or lethargic, take his temperature to make sure he doesn’t have a fever. Normal would be below 101 degrees Fahrenheit. Look for any nasal discharge or a cough. Check his manure for quantity and consistency. Offer him food to check his appetite. If he seems sore in his limbs, check for a rock or nail in his foot, and feel for any swelling. Call your vet if anything continues to appear off.
Good to go: Your horse swings his tail as his pelvis moves. His pelvis swings freely. He carries his head and neck in a comfortable, balanced position that’s familiar to you.
Potential problem: Your horse’s tail movement appears out of sync with the rest of his body, or hangs lifelessly. His pelvis movement appears stiff. He carries his head and neck lower or higher than usual.
What you should do: Palpate along your horse’s neck, back, and topline, looking for a pain response. Usually when a horse’s pelvis is braced, there’s pain in his hind end (hocks or stifles) or back. If your horse exhibits pain, call your vet for an evaluation.
Good to go: Your horse allows you to catch and halter him, or puts up his usual resistance. He walks nimbly out of the pasture, and backs freely on the lead rope without bracing his body.
Potential problem: Your horse resists more than usual to being caught and haltered. He drags his feet, stumbles, or leans back on the rope as you lead him from the pasture. He braces his back when you back him.
What you should do: These are signs of pain or discomfort; contact your vet as soon as possible. Reluctance to move at all may signal an acute injury, a fracture, a foot abscess, or laminitis. Call your vet immediately.
As You Groom
As you groom your horse, your eyes and hands should paint a story of his condition; here’s what to watch and feel for.
Good to go: Your horse’s haircoat has luster and bloom, and he stands calmly for brushing. His skin feels smooth.
Potential problem: Your horse’s haircoat is dull or broken. You notice any sensitive areas beneath the brush-that is, he tightens his muscles, flattens his ears, nips, or moves away from your touch. You see or feel any abrasions, lumps, or bumps on his skin.
What you should do: Such problems don’t warrant emergency attention, but it’d be smart to review the last few weeks and months of your horse’s diet, workout schedules, and travel stress. Modifications may greatly improve his general health and well-being.
Good to go: When you pick up your horse’s feet, his shoes are aligned and the clinches are tight. There’s no excessive wear on the toe. (For more information, see “7 Secrets to Hoof Health,” Safe & Sound, July/August ’04.) You don’t feel any tenderness or abrasions on his heel bulbs.
Potential problem: Your horse’s shoes aren’t aligned with his hooves. You detect loose clinches. You find interference injuries from one hoof striking the other. Excessive wear of the toes hints at toe drag from pain or fatigue.
What you should do: Call your vet for a lameness exam, looking for subtle problems. Talk to your vet and farrier as to the best way to shoe your horse. Consider the frequency and duration between shoeings, and develop a timing strategy that works for your horse’s needs.
Good to go: When you run your hands along each lower leg, they feel normal and cool to the touch. Legs appear uniform-you detect no abnormalities. When you pick up each limb and very gently squeeze along each flexor tendon (along the rear surface of the cannon bone) and suspensory ligament (nestled between the flexor tendons and cannon bone), you detect no swelling or heat.
Potential problem: You detect distention of joints or filling of tendons. Signs of this would be abnormal or asymmetrical swelling, pain, heat, or lameness. You detect swelling and/or heat along any tendon or ligament. (Note: By checking your horse’s legs in this manner on a regular basis, he’ll become less sensitive to your firm touch, thereby telling you of a real reaction when you squeeze a tender area.)
What you should do: If you find an abnormality, call your vet. While waiting for a veterinary appointment, ice the affected area two to three times a day for 20 to 30 minutes each session. Place a standing bandage on any affected lower limb to limit the swelling. (If you’ve never done this, ask a knowledgeable person to help you.)
Good to go: Your horse allows you to gently stretch each limb forward, backward, and to the side, without any adverse reaction. He relaxes to your hold, ears forward, and his head and neck down and relaxed as you gently manipulate his limbs.
Potential problem: Your horse appears to resent any of this movement by pulling against you or flattening his ears.
What you should do: First, make sure your horse is comfortable with such manipulations. If he appears resentful at first, try again later, or go more slowly. If you detect a true problem, contact your vet for an in-depth evaluation.
Shoulders, chest, hips, thighs.
Good to go: Your horse offers no resistance when you lightly hold each limb near the torso and gently manipulate in all directions. Range of motion appears normal for him. He doesn’t react adversely when you lightly knead his shoulders, chest, hips, and thighs.
Potential problem: Your horse resists when you manipulate his limbs. His range of motion appears diminished compared to usual. Pain or tightness of upper limb muscles tells of overuse, fatigue, or strain. If those large muscle groups are tight, they can’t carry your horse’s weight properly and evenly; eventually, problems may develop in the suspensory ligaments, flexor tendons, or lower-leg joints.
What you should do: Have your vet evaluate such changes in range of motion to localize the source of discomfort. If your horse’s large muscles are afflicted with fatigue or strain, consider complementary veterinary treatment, such as massage, acupuncture, and/or chiropractics. Find one or more professionals certified in these alternative-treatment specialties, and have these professionals work closely with your vet. With the help of your vet, design an exercise and conditioning program that builds up your horse’s body, rather than tearing it down.
While Tacking Up
Your horse may resist the tacking process because he was scared or injured in the past. Or, he may’ve simply developed bad habits. Yet, just as often, saddling or bitting problems (and under-saddle resistance) arise from true pain related to ill-fitting tack or poor dental care. Have your equine veterinary dentist check your horse’s mouth and teeth at least every 6 to 12 months, and correct any problems as soon as they arise. In the meantime, watch for these signs.
Good to go: Your horse allows you to check his teeth and mouth without undue resistance. His teeth, tongue, mouth, and lips are free from injury. He gets regular checkups by your vet or veterinary dentist.
Potential problem: Your horse unduly resists bridling. Sharp hooks have developed on his upper or lower molars. His teeth haven’t been professionally checked in over a year.
What you should do: Call your equine veterinary dentist today. Ask a knowledgeable riding instructor or trainer to help you evaluate bridle and bit fit.
Good to go: A visual check reveals no sores, rub spots, or other abnormalities on your horse’s withers or back. When you carefully run your hands along his back, you don’t feel anything out of the ordinary. He stands quietly for saddling.
Potential problem: You find spots where the hair is rubbed off in the saddle area. Your horse resists saddling unduly. When you run your hands along his back, you find thickened tissue or texture changes in his skin and hair. After a ride, you see twisted clumps of hair where there’s been abnormal friction or rubs beneath the saddle, or you find dry spots indicating pressure points.
What you should do: Consult with your vet about saddle fit. Also consider consulting a knowledgeable riding instructor or trainer, and/or certified saddlemaker. Avoid saddling or riding your horse until the problem resolves.
In-Hand & Under-Saddle
Good to go: On the longe line or in a round pen, your horse trots naturally and in balance. He doesn’t appear to favor a leg. He holds his head naturally and normally.
Potential problem: In a tight circle or on hard-packed dirt, your horse shows signs of lameness. These might include an unbalanced gait, favoring a leg, or exaggerated head movement. (Note: Subtle lameness problems often don’t show up on a straight line, but will under more demanding conditions, such as circles, inclines, or mounted under saddle.)
What you should do: Call your vet today. Avoid saddling or riding your horse until the problem is identified and resolved.
Good to go: As you warm up your horse, he happily accepts both leads at the canter. He executes upward and downward transitions fluidly.
Potential problem: He resists picking up his leads. When changing gait, he trips, stumbles, collapses a hip, twists his body, throws his head in the air, bucks, or wrings his tail. These are signs of possible pain.
What you should do: Call your vet today. Avoid saddling or riding your horse until the problem is identified and resolved. TTR
Nancy Loving, DVM, of Boulder, Colorado, graduated from Colorado State University-Fort Collins. After a lifetime of trail riding, she began participating in endurance riding and became an FEI Endurance Veterinarian. She’s a team vet for the USA Endurance Squad for World Endurance Competitions. She’s authored hundreds of magazine articles, as well as three books: Go the Distance: The Complete Resource of Endurance Horses; Conformation and Performance; and Veterinary Manual for the Performance Horse.