It takes only a couple of minutes a day, but it can mean a lot. With no tools but your eyes and your hands, you can give your horse a simple health check. Once you get into the habit of doing a health check every day, you’ll be able to tell almost right away when he isn?t feeling well. But, of course, you have to know what to look for.
You can get a lot of information the first time you see your horse each day, before he’s even had time to notice you. Right now, he’s at his most natural.
Posture: How is he standing? A healthy horse normally stands square on four legs or on three with one hind leg slightly bent. See if he’s holding his legs, neck, tail or body in an unusual position. Stiffness often means pain in that area. Your horse has many normal positions for standing and lying down, and with practice, you’ll get to know all of them.
Alertness: How does your horse react when he sees you? Some horses come right over to you, looking for attention or a treat, while others keep their distance and nicker. Some just look up long enough to see who?s coming, and a few like to play tag. Is your horse’s reaction normal today? If not, could it be affected by other horses, flies or the weather? If he is unusually threatening, worried or listless, he rates further investigation. (If he’s lying down and doesn’t get up when you get close to him, it’s almost a sure sign that something?s wrong.)
Expression: What’s he wearing on his face? Horses have a lot of different expressions, but watch for anything unusual — a blank stare, an anxious look or general droopiness. For example, a horse with a mild case of colic puckers the skin around his nostrils, droops his ears and has a preoccupied look in his eyes.
Motion: How does your horse move? If he doesn’t move around on his own, put a halter on him and lead him a few steps. His steps should be coordinated and comfortable. Watch for a stumble or limp. Stiffness of the gait could mean a leg or back injury. If he’s reluctant to move his neck in a normal way, look for a problem in his back, neck or head. Eating some poisonous plants causes uncoordinated movement. If he has real trouble staying on his feet, call the veterinarian as soon as possible.
A Closer Look
A closer examination of your horse will give you more information. Hold his halter and start with his head.
Eyes: Does the surface of the eyeball glisten in a normal way? Is it too bright or too dull? Look at the cornea — the transparent ?window? on the eyeball. Is it clear? Are the eyelids open to their normal width or are they narrowed? Are the creases and wrinkles of the lids normal or are the lids thickened? Do you see more fluid around the eyes than you usually see? In normal amounts, tears lubricate and protect the eyes. In excess, they will overflow the lids and wet the face. Sticky yellow globs in the corners of the eyes may indicate an infection. Often, however, it means that the body is trying to clean dust or smog from the sensitive eye tissues.
Nose: Smell your horse’s breath. It should smell sweet and pass through each nostril equally. Is the air moving faster and louder than usual in one or both nostrils? Are the nostrils open wider than usual, even though your horse is resting? Horses with breathing trouble will flare their nostrils when they inhale and exhale. The nostrils sometimes tense up and close part way when a horse had colic or some other painful illness.
While you’re checking the nose area, take a quick look at the lining of inside the nostrils. Memorize the color of the pinkish tissues when your horse is healthy so that you will be able to recognize a difference. Any marked change in the color or moistness of the nostril lining calls for a closer check of the horse’s overall condition.
Skin: As you begin to look over your horse’s body, gently pinch a fold of skin on the side of his neck between your thumb and forefinger. Quickly release the fold and watch the skin return to its normal shape. In healthy horses, this fold may remain visible for one second or less. In some thin-skinned, athletically fit animals, up to two seconds is common. A horse’s skin is elastic, much like yours. The stretchiness changes a little with the seasons and the degree of the horse’s fitness and it also changes slightly from day to day. Once you get to know the normal feel of your horse’s skin, you’ll be able to note any unusual change. If the pinched fold stands up longer than two seconds, he may be suffering from dehydration. Check his water supply to make sure that he’s drinking enough.
Breathing: Next, cast your eye along your horse’s barrel and rib cage and watch his breathing pattern. At rest, the healthy horse breathes with a slow, swelling motion. It is regular, rhythmic and effortless. Horses who have lost the elastic quality of their lungs take more frequent and shallower breaths at rest. But even healthy horses may breathe rapidly during extremely hot weather. They are moving small amounts of air in and out to cool themselves. Breathing rates in hot, humid weather often reach 40 or more breaths per minute, as compared to the normal cool-weather rates of eight to 20 breaths per minute.
An All-Over Once-Over
Now walk around your horse and check his body for new cuts and bruises. Even a quick inspection should show you any bumps, knots and swellings on his legs and body.
Finally, look again — this time with your hands. Run your hands all over your horse’s legs and body, remembering to include out-of-the-way places such as between his ears. The ears are very sensitive area, so if your horse is already head shy, you’ll have to be careful. If you’re patient and slowly work towards his ears, he’ll learn to accept your touch and may even enjoy a gentle message around his ears. If he’s not normally head shy but jerks away from your touch, suspect a painful injury or infection around the ears or eyes.
Check his legs and body for lumps and scratches and patches of skin and hair that feel different. Feel his legs for hot spots. Heat in one leg, especially if it’s accompanied by swelling and lameness, may be a problem that needs medical attention.
Is Something Wrong?
This whole routine won?t take more than a few minutes. If you make it part of the time you spend with your horse every day, you’ll be able to spot any variations quickly. Most of the time he’ll check out perfectly normally — but what if one day he doesn’t?
First, remind yourself that some slight changes are normal. Double-check for accuracy and run the rest of the tests to see if anything else is out of order. If you suspect something?s wrong, you’ll probably want an adult who knows horses to take a look and decide whether your horse needs medical help. If so, you’ll be in a position to give the veterinarian valuable facts since you?ve observed the horse so closely.
As an added bonus, the daily routine will help your horse used to being handled and examined. And you’ll be familiar with the details of horse behavior and anatomy that some people never even notice.
For a couple of minutes of your time and no money at all, the once-over health check is one of the world?s greatest bargains.
You can also check your horse’s health by checking his environment. A quick look around his stall, done every day, can give you clues to his physical and mental condition. For example, wear and tear on the rim of a feed bucket may mean that he’s rubbing his teeth there — that could mean gum irritation or plain old boredom.
Look in the feed bucket or trough after every feeding. Did you horse finish his grain? Check for inedible items, such as string or plastic, in the bottom. Half-chewed food can put you on the track of a mouth irritation. Check his hay: were weeds or branches bound into the bale? You may have to feed an extra flake of hay to compensate for the portion he can’t eat.
Checking his water is even more important. Are there bits of hay and grain in it? He may be dunking his food to make it go down easier. Dunking could mean he has a slightly sore throat. (Or it could just mean that he likes it that way, for the same reason people like cookies dunked in milk.) How much water has he drunk? A normal horse may drink anywhere from six to 12 gallons a day. If you use an automatic water dispenser, you won?t be able to find out how much he’s drunk. But check the bowl every day for unappetizing or dangerous objects. You may even find bits of manure in the bowl. If your horse doesn’t want to stick his nose in there, he may be going thirsty.
Is your horse using his salt block? He should have free access to salt every day. He?ll usually want more in the summer than he does during the cold winter months.
Now look at the walls of the stall. Is there a stained place where he’s been rubbing himself? Check his skin for irritation.
Are there hoof marks? Is he chewing the wood? These are signs of boredom and restlessness.
Notice his bedding. Are the wet spots and droppings the same as usual? Changes can signal digestive upsets. If he digs holes into the lowest level of the flooring or rakes his bedding into a pile in the middle of the stall, it might mean restlessness — but it could also mean colic.
If you notice anything unusual, play detective — observe the clues in the stall and then check your horse for suspected health problems.
A quick tour around your horse’s pasture or turnout area can help you spot hazards before they affect his health.
First, check the fence: are there broken boards? Your horse may be rubbing himself on the boards. Look at his skin for signs of irritation. Replace the boards before he hurts himself on the jagged edges. Is he chewing the boards? It could be a simple bad habit, but he could be telling you he needs more fiber (hay) in his diet. Keep a sharp eye out for dangerous nails or splinters.
Horses sometimes have a hard time seeing wire, so make sure he can’t get tangled up in it. There should never be any barbed wire around gates and water troughs where horses like to gather.
Whenever you’re in the pasture, check the ground for cans and bottles and other garbage. Broken stakes or wood stuck in the ground should be cleared out, too. Look for chuckholes, fallen branches and other obstacles that will interfere with your horse’s pursuit of his favorite pastime — running around free and kicking up his heels.