Year-Round Health Plan for Your Horse

Learn more about this year round health care plan for your horse including information and tips

Keeping a horse means a lifetime of learning, as we constantly explore better ways to provide a safe, healthy environment. Our goal is to nurture contentment and well-being so our horses can enjoy their lives while we enjoy them.

The first step is providing a proper living environment. Consider that, in the wild, horses will cover 50 miles or more a day. This is a far cry from the domestic lifestyle that has many of our horses standing in stalls all day with food literally right under their noses. You’ll have to make special accommodations to keep an indoor horse fit and happy.

The horse has a high athletic potential, but left to his own devices in a quiet area with plenty to eat, he won’t exercise as much as he needs to. Horses kept outside move around more than those confined to stalls, but it’s still not enough for optimal health.

Exercise is important for the health of your horse’s joints, tendons, ligaments, muscles, heart, lungs, and feet. It also improves digestion. Maintaining a normal weight is often difficult without exercise. Horses and ponies are not supposed to be fat or have large, cresty necks-regardless of the breed. If you doubt it, do an Internet images search for your breed. You may be shocked.

Ideally, a horse should have at least 20 to 30 minutes of formal exercise (no stops to socialize or graze) every day and spend as much time outside as possible. If you can’t ride every day, try to at least longe your horse or work him in a round pen. If you don’t follow a regular exercise plan, don’t expect the horse to be fit for everything you might want to do, whenever you want to do it. Like all athletes, horses need to be conditioned, and kept conditioned. “Weekend warriors” are going to be more prone to muscle pain and injuries.

Primary Care

  • Provide your horse with at least 20 to 30 minutes of exercise every day, in addition to turnout.
  • Feed a diet consisting primarily of forage and/or hay; supplement with minerals and grain as needed.
  • Supply unlimited access to clean, fresh water at an inviting temperature.
  • Provide a sturdy shelter where your horse can get out of the wind, rain, snow, and sun.
  • Make salt, an essential mineral, readily available.
  • Administer vet-recommended vaccines; include rabies and tetanus.
  • Deworm regularly; frequency and compounds will depend on your horse’s age, health, and environment.
  • Find a good farrier and keep your horse’s feet well manicured.
  • Provide routine dental care to keep your horse comfortable and chewing well.
  • Be a good observer. Learn to recognize the signs of pain or distress.

Horses are really better suited to outdoor life, but they still need shelter from the elements in bad weather and plenty of room to move.

• Outdoor Shelters: Overhanging trees won’t do it. Three-sided sheds at least 8 feet high are best. They should face south and have an interior dimension of at least 10 feet x 10 feet per horse. Hay racks and corner buckets for water and feeding can be added. Place sheds on high ground, where water won’t pool. Bed with shavings or straw during bad weather.
• Paddocks: Paddocks can be constructed to allow horses outside “free time” when fields or pastures are not available. A 350-square-foot area is adequate as a minimum. The shape of the enclosure isn’t critical, but it should be wide enough that a horse can go down and roll freely with no danger of getting trapped against a wall or fence.
• Fencing: Whether you’re enclosing a paddock or field, correct and well maintained fencing is critical. Wood, wire mesh (heavy), plastic, and PVC pipes are suitable materials for horses. If electric fencing is used, it should be wide ribbons that are readily visible. Many (but not all) horses will respect electric fences, but it is never a good option as a primary or perimeter fence. A frightened-or determined-horse can easily go through electric fencing. Horses are also very good at knowing when the power is off!
• Barns/stalls: Barn design and layout is too broad a topic to cover here, but it’s generally not a good idea to try to design these structures yourself. There are many safety and convenience issues you might not even think of. Your state agricultural department will likely have barn construction information (call your local agricultural extension office), or you can check with local contractors. If you have just bought your first horse property with an existing barn, at least have the electrical system checked. Older barns should also have a structural integrity inspection. Check with your extension agent and local fire department for fire safety pointers.

You’ll hear many opinions regarding nutrition, but when it comes to feeding horses, what one person swears by may be entirely wrong for your situation.

The core of the horse’s diet should be pasture or hay. This is the food horses are designed to eat. Period. The horse does not need grain for vitamins, minerals, or calories-unless you own one of those unusual “hard keepers” who cannot maintain a healthy body condition on forage and hay alone.

To support a horse on pasture, you will need 1 to 2 acres of well-maintained grass. You will need to keep a close eye on your horse’s body condition. If the horse is getting fat, put on a grazing muzzle. If he’s losing weight, it’s time to start supplementing the pasture with hay. Hay should have a nice green color and be sweet smelling and free of any obvious dust, mold, rocks, trash, or weeds.

Most types of grass hay are suitable for horses, but you should avoid rye grass and fescue for pregnant mares. Sudan and Johnson grass may have toxic levels of nitrate, so they should be tested before you feed them. Feeding a variety of grass hay types provides a more interesting diet and reduces the chances of your horse having serious mineral imbalances.

Horses can also be fed alfalfa, but an all-alfalfa diet needs to be balanced so the horse is getting all the nutrients his body needs. If mixing alfalfa and grass hay, shoot for 10% to 25% alfalfa. Ask your hay dealer what type of hay it is-not just “grass,” but the actual species-such as timothy, Bermuda or brome. Once you know the type, and where it is being grown, your agricultural extension agent can help you decide what mineral supplements you may need to balance your horse’s diet. A correct mineral supplement for your area, coupled with 4 to 6 ounces of ground flax seed per day for horses getting dry hay, is all that most horses need.

Speaking of minerals, the one mineral every horse needs is salt-sodium chloride. Requirements run from 1 ounce per day in winter to as much as 3 or 4 ounces in summer to replace losses through sweat. Salt can be fed as a brick, block, or loose. Loose salt is usually consumed better than a block. Whatever method you use, keep an eye on how long your horse’s supply lasts to make sure he is taking in enough.

Although most horses enjoy eating grain, many don’t need it and will become overweight if you feed it. Growing horses, horses in regular work, and pregnant or lactating mares are another story. They often do need some grain. Grain should be fed “to effect,” which simply means in an amount sufficient to maintain a healthy body weight.

You can feed either plain grains (such as oats, barley, or corn) or a commercially produced mixture. Commercial grains are usually “fortified and balanced” so they will complement a base diet of hay, regional mineral supplement, and flax. If you feed plain grains, adding alfalfa pellets at a ratio of one part alfalfa to three parts grain (remember, “parts” should be measured by weight not volume), the ratio of calcium to phosphorus will be better balanced.

It is important not to overfeed grain, as the horse’s digestive tract has a limited capacity to handle starch. A maximum of 4 to 5 pounds should be fed at any one time. Grain substitutes include such things as rice bran, wheat bran, and beet pulp.

You don’t have to be told your horse needs water, but you may not realize just how much he needs to drink to stay healthy. He needs water to replace the fluid lost through sweat, urine, manure, and simple respiration. Water is also needed to support digestion. A rule of thumb is that the horse needs a minimum of three-quarters of a gallon for every 2 pounds of food he eats (except for grass, which is already 80% water). This is a minimum of 7.5 gallons of water per day for a horse getting 20 pounds of feed. Sweating increases this requirement greatly, as does nursing a foal or suffering from diarrhea.

Horses aren’t as picky about their water as we are, but just because they’ll drink something doesn’t mean it’s safe for them. There are different water quality standards for people and for livestock, but because horses live so much longer than the average cow or pig, it really is wise to make sure their water is up to human standards. Ponds and streams are often not suitable water sources because of the risk of contamination from agricultural chemicals. If your horse is drinking untreated well water, have it tested. The test should include the usual human tests, including nitrate, as well as toxic minerals.

Seasonal Troubleshooting

Each season brings its own list of problems and challenges. Forewarned is forearmed!

• Provide plenty of hay, the best fuel for keeping the horse warm.
• Deworm for bots and tapeworms.
• Allow the horse to grow a thick winter coat.
• Keep him dry and out of the wind.
• Towel dry and blanket if your horse gets wet or chilled.
• Keep paths, gates, feeding and watering stations, and entryways ice-free.
• Apply traction materials, such as sand, salt, or sawdust when needed to prevent slipping.
• Allow your horse to go barefoot or use hoof boots, which are better for traction than
shod feet. (Studs in shoes may be needed.)
• Provide tepid water and add salt to feed if needed to keep horse drinking.
• Check body condition weekly by feeling for ribs through his winter coat.

• Vaccinate against diseases carried by biting insects.
• Initiate a deworming program.
• Check hooves frequently for signs of abscesses, thrush, or other problems.
• Keep feet well trimmed. Use sideclips to help keep shoes on or pull the shoes and
use hoof boots as needed.
• Reintroduce your horse to pasture slowly and limit grazing time as his system readjusts to being on grass. Use a grazing muzzle if necessary.
• Watch for diarrhea and/or rapid weight changes.
• Keep the horse with a history of laminitis off spring grass.
• Help your horse shed his winter hair with regular grooming.
• Check for signs of skin problems.
• Reintroduce your horse to riding or work slowly, being careful that he does not sweat heavily, breathe rapidly, or raise his heart rate above 80 beats per minute.

• Stay on top of fly control by utilizing all means possible: fly traps, predators, repellants, and regular manure removal.
• Provide your horse with protective fly clothing, masks, sheets, and leg boots.
• Keep your horse well hydrated by providing unlimited access to fresh, clean water.
• Encourage a liberal intake of salt, two ounces a day minimum and up to four ounces a day if he’s in heavy work.
• Ride cautiously and conservatively, if at all, if the heat index is 120 or above.
• Provide your horse with shade. Use fans if necessary to keep him cool.
• Supplement pasture with hay as the quality of forage declines due to heat or drought.

• Pay attention to changes in grass quality, as rain and low temperatures can revive
pastures and make the forage dangerously high in sugars.
• Pay special attention to older horses or overweight horses and have them tested for
Cushing’s disease.
• Pull shoes and let feet have a break if your riding schedule allows it.
• Adjust the diet to reflect changes in your horse’s activity level.
• As the quality of forage changes to include more dry matter, prevent impaction colic
by keeping your horse drinking; adding salt to his ration may help.

Manure Storage and Disposal
Of course, what goes in, must come out. But if you’ve never kept a horse before, the sheer weight and volume of manure can be staggering. The average-size horse produces 8 to 10 tons of manure a year. It will create a pile that occupies a 12- x 12-foot area, 5 feet high.

Manure storage and disposal is something you need to plan for in advance! Sure, manure can be used as a fertilizer, but too much of a good thing is actually harmful to plants. Also, it should not be used on fields the horses graze until it has been thoroughly composted. Composting kills bacteria and parasite eggs and destroys the seeds of noxious weeds. It’s also what turns manure into a valuable soil amendment. For more information, see the composting story that appeared in the April 2007 issue of Perfect Horse.

If you have a farmer for a neighbor, he may be willing to take the manure off your hands. But if you don’t, and you’re not set up to compost the manure, odds are you are going to have to have at least some of it hauled away periodically. In the meantime, you will have to store it. There will be zoning regulations regarding where you can place manure to avoid contaminating water supplies due to run-off. In fact, your best source of advice about how and where to store manure is the zoning commission. And remember, your storage area needs to be accessible for heavy equipment. Also, to minimize flies, keep the manure pile covered.

Bedding Choices
Thanks to a special arrangement of muscles and tendons that allows them to lock their legs in position, horses are capable of sleeping standing up. However, they can and do lie down to sleep as well. In fact, lying down allows horses to go into a deeper, more restful sleep. Horses are perfectly happy to nap on bare ground or grass outside. But like us, when given a choice, they prefer soft, comfy surfaces to hard ones. If a horse is confined to a stall, rubber mats combined with a generous layer of bedding offers the advantage of protecting the body from scrapes while absorbing moisture from urine and manure.

Straw and wood shavings are the most commonly used beddings. Straw is made from the dried stalks left over after harvesting grain crops such as wheat, oats, and rye. Rye straw should not be used for horses because of the potential for toxic molds. Wheat or oat straw should always be sweet smelling and a uniform yellow color.

A study in Denmark found that horses spent three times longer in deep sleep when bedded on straw than on shavings. This is a plus. The downside is that straw can harbor molds that are respiratory irritants even in small amounts. Also some horses add considerably to their calorie intake when bedded on straw because they eat it.

Always use wood beddings labeled specifically for horses. Pine is commonly used because it’s nontoxic, although shavings and sawdust can be irritating to the horse’s respiratory tract due to dust. Shavings are generally preferable to sawdust, although you can lightly spray sawdust with water to settle the fine particles. But beware of what you buy. Contamination with even small amounts of black walnut shavings or sawdust can cause laminitis.

As you might imagine, regular grooming contributes greatly to the health of your horse’s skin and coat. It removes built-up dead skin cells and hair where bacteria can breed. Daily grooming also allows you to detect skin problems or early signs of heat and swelling in the lower legs before they turn into major issues. Include a careful search in the mane, tail, and fetlock hairs for ticks during tick season. Grooming should always include inspection of the feet. Check the walls for chipping or cracks. Check shoes to make sure they are on tight before you ride. Always pick out the hollows beside the frog where small stones can become lodged and infections, such as thrush, may start. Brush off the soles to check for punctures or bruising.

You need to discuss vaccinations with your veterinarian, since your decisions will depend on which diseases are prevalent in your area and your horse’s likelihood of exposure. However, all horses should be vaccinated against rabies and tetanus. These diseases are fatal. Most equine vaccines provide protection for a very short period of time compared to vaccines used in other species and will need to be repeated yearly. (For more information, refer to our vaccination chart on page 31.)

You can easily deworm your horse yourself using paste, pellet, or liquid dewormers. However, how often your horse needs to be dewormed, and with what products, is something else you should discuss with your veterinarian. Both under- and overdoing it are possible. Your horse’s age, exposure risk, and general health are all factors. (For more information on deworming drugs, refer to the chart on page 28.)

Dental Care
Horses are designed with their upper teeth slightly overlapping the lower, and they chew in a rotary manner. This usually leads to the development of sharp spikes or “points” on the cheek side of the upper teeth and the tongue side of the lower. These points can put painful pressure on the soft structures. They need to be filed smooth periodically. The average interval between dental care visits is one year, but some horses require attention every six months. Failure to do this can lead to inadequate chewing , which means less efficient utilization of food, and behavior problems if bit pressure causes pain.

Hoof Care
The horse’s hoof is a specialized “fingernail” and needs to be kept trimmed to function properly. The hoof wall, sole, and frog are your horse’s true shoe. Like any shoe, it has to fit the internal structures of the foot properly. Feet that are improperly trimmed or allowed to become overgrown are uncomfortable to move in, straining the structures inside the hoof and the rest of the leg as well. The usual interval between trims is about four to six weeks in warm weather (when hooves grow faster) and six to eight weeks in cold weather.

Vet Visits
You don’t have to call the vet anytime your horse sneezes, stumbles, or seems out of sorts, but you also don’t want to wait too long to make that call if your horse has, or is developing, a significant problem. As you gain experience with horses, making that judgment gets easier. As general guidelines, these are the types of things that should get you on the phone to your vet:

• Decreased appetite
• Not drinking
• Unexplained changes in activity level or alertness. (Horses naturally move around and play less when the weather is hot. But if it’s nice and your horse is isolating himself while the others are playing, you need to check this out.)
• Change in amount/consistency of manure
• Change in amount of urine output
• Persistent cough or nasal discharge
• Decrease in exercise tolerance
• Heat or swelling anywhere on the body
• Lameness
• Injury where the skin edges are gaping
• Injury where pressure does not easily stop the bleeding
• Signs of pain

Ask your vet to recommend a good first aid book-and read it! If you don’t know how to take your horse’s temperature, pulse, and respiratory rates (TPR), ask your vet or an experienced horse person to show you. (See the Perfect Horse article on vital signs in the January 2007 issue.) Being able to provide this data when you call your vet will be helpful to him or her. When in doubt about whether your horse needs to be seen by a professional, make the call and let your vet decide. Don’t feel foolish if it turns out to be nothing. It’s always better to err on the side of caution.

There’s a lot to take in as you start on the journey of learning how to care for your new four-legged “kid.” Horses are gracious and beautiful creatures, usually willing and eager to do what we ask of them. The least we can do in return is take our stewardship seriously. It’s not all that difficult once you get organized.

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