In addition to properly feeding and exercising your horse, other aspects of general care are needed to keep your horse healthy throughout his or her life. These include routine veterinary care for vaccinations, parasite control, and dental care; grooming and hoof care; and protection from the elements.
Importance of Veterinary Care
Adult horses should have a complete veterinary examination at least once a year. Geriatric horses (older than 20 years old) should see their veterinarian twice a year or more frequently because illness is more common in older animals and it can be identified sooner. Your veterinarian may recommend a wellness program for your horse, including routine blood tests.
Signs of Illness
You should monitor your horse regularly for signs of illness, such as during daily feeding and grooming times. General signs of illness include a lack of appetite, diarrhea, coughing and sneezing, or a discharge from the eyes or nose. Illness can also show up as a loss of hair or itchy areas on the skin. Problems with the musculoskeletal system are often seen as lameness (such as not putting weight on a particular leg), reluctance to move, or head bobbing. If your horse shows any of these signs for more than a day or two, a visit with your veterinarian is a good idea.
Generally, administering medication to a horse is not difficult if you use common sense and follow good handling principles for keeping both you and your horse safe. Maintain physical contact with the horse by keeping your shoulder pressed against the horse’s shoulder or flank (depending on where and what you are treating) and make sure to use a sturdy halter and lead rope (hooked to the left halter ring). Never let a loop of any rope that is attached to your horse get wrapped around any part of your body.
If you need to apply medication to the horse’s feet or lower front legs, lift the hoof to be treated and cradle it between your knees. If you need to treat the rear feet, pick up the foot, put in on your thighs and then walk the foot back behind the horse slightly, as your farrier does when trimming the foot. This extends the hock and gets the leg into a stable and safer position. It should allow you to have both hands free to perform the necessary treatment.
Oral medication for horses may come as powder, tablets or paste. Powders are applied directly to the feed. Tablets are usually soaked in water or crushed and combined with water and applesauce or molasses; these can be added to a small feed if the horse will eat them willingly, or they can be delivered into the mouth directly using a dosing syringe provided by your vet. To give your horse a paste medication, or other medications using a dosing syringe, stand next to the horse on the left side of the head. Use your right forearm to gently brace against the head, cup your fingers over the horse’s nose and slide your thumb between the lips and into the space between teeth, as you would to bridle the horse. Use your other hand to place the syringe in this area and squirt the syringe contents into the mouth.
Some medications can be administered only by injection, which is usually given in the neck area or thigh. Ask your veterinarian for a demonstration and guidance to make sure you know how to give the injection properly.
Regardless of type of medication or how it is to be given, it is important to read and follow all label instructions regarding use and storage.
Vaccination is a key component of preventive medicine in horses. Vaccinations are given to stimulate the immune system against infection before exposure to disease. Several vaccines are routinely given to horses as the core defense against serious infectious illness. Several others are important in certain regions and situations. Your veterinarian can advise which vaccines are necessary in your local area and circumstances ( see Table: Vaccines Required or Recommended for Horses Vaccines Required or Recommended for Horses ).
Foals born to a vaccinated mare are usually protected against most infectious diseases for up to 6 months, so long as the foal consumed the antibody-rich mother’s milk known as colostrum within 6 hours of birth. In this case, vaccinations should be delayed until maternal immunity has waned. Otherwise, the vaccination will be ineffective.
Vaccinations should be administered by your veterinarian or other properly trained individual. If you administer vaccines yourself, learn how to do it properly. Use only vaccines from a reliable source who can verify that they have been kept clean and refrigerated. Poor-quality vaccines increase the risk of adverse reactions, which can range from inflammation at the site of the injection, fever, and malaise, to serious allergic reactions that affect the entire body (for example, anaphylaxis).
Animals that graze on grasses, including horses, ingest parasite eggs that are found throughout the environment. The actual parasite burden for any individual horse depends on its age, the number of horses on the same pasture, and the pasture’s size and quality. Internal parasites of horses can cause many intestinal problems, including gastrointestinal upset, diarrhea, and potentially colic.
The primary intestinal parasites of horses include roundworms (both large and small strongyles), tapeworms, pinworms, and stomach bots ( see Table: Signs Caused by Common Parasites of Horses* Signs Caused by Common Parasites of Horses* ). These worms can cause damage to the digestive tract and blood loss, and interfere with absorption of essential nutrients. Young horses typically are infested with more parasites and have more signs than older horses.
Most intestinal parasites are ingested while horses are grazing, from eggs and larvae deposited on the grass and upper layers of the soil. The tapeworm lifecycle involves small mites that feed on tapeworm eggs and thus contain tapeworm larvae. These mites live on grasses and are ingested while grazing. Stomach bots are larvae of flies. The adult fly deposits eggs on the muzzle, legs, and chest of horses during the spring. When the horse grooms itself or other horses, the eggs are ingested and hatch. The larvae attach to the wall of the stomach and remain for a period of time (usually until the following spring). The bots then pass into the feces, where they develop into adult flies.
Current deworming practices have shifted to an overall "less is more" approach, rather than the historical practice of deworming at regular intervals. Since dewormers were widely applied in the past, resistance to these drugs is becoming more common. As a result, our management practices must change. Horses should be dewormed selectively based on the results of a fecal egg count and on the advice of your veterinarian. Your vet will consider the climate and current weather conditions where you live, as well as the housing environment of your horse (stall vs pasture) and size of the herd when making recommendations for deworming. If an adult horse is in good general health and has zero or low egg counts on the fecal exam, deworming more often than once or twice a year is probably not necessary. Worm larvae are most likely to survive in pasture during the spring and fall, so deworming is generally more appropriate during these seasons. However, young horses should still be dewormed at regular intervals according to your vet's recommendations, as they are more susceptible to intestinal worms.
Management of the environment is a key strategy in reducing exposure to internal parasites: eliminate manure from barns and pastures regularly, and never spread manure across a pasture. Since different animal species have different intestinal worms (ie, cows are not affected by horse worms and vice versa), rotating other livestock (cows, sheep) through your pastures for grazing can also help to reduce the worm eggs that affect horses.
As outdoor animals, horses are also bothered by flies and ticks. These can cause sores and subsequent infection on the head, neck, ears, face, abdomen, and legs. Irritation from external parasites can also cause general upset, failure to grow and thrive, and decreased appetite (for example, fly “worry”). Horses should be checked regularly for ticks or signs of fly damage. Fly control includes proper manure management and stall cleanliness. Many different insecticidal salves, lotions, sprays, and rubs are available that can be used to remove ticks and decrease insect irritation and annoyance. Consult your veterinarian or extension service about an appropriate control program for your area and circumstances.
Equine teeth grow and wear down continuously throughout life. Unfortunately, they often wear unevenly, leading to sharp points, edges, and even hooks that need to be filed down, or “floated.”
Horses require a dental checkup with their veterinarian at least once per year (older horses need more frequent checkups). Your veterinarian will check the mouth for loose or missing teeth, retained "caps" ("baby teeth"), teeth with sharp points or edges, and any gaps where feed is getting trapped between teeth. The teeth will be floated to restore balance across the chewing surfaces of the teeth, and any other identified problems can be addressed as well.
Grooming is an important part of daily maintenance for horses. Daily brushing and currying helps remove dirt and debris that can allow bacteria a place to multiply. During grooming, you can also check the overall condition of your horse’s skin and find sores, infections, bumps, or welts when they first arise. Vigorous currying is required to remove dirt, and horses generally enjoy it. Hair that is bound up (tail bags and mane braids) should be taken down every 10 to 14 days for brushing and cleaning. Horses can be bathed with equine shampoo, but baths should be kept to a minimum to avoid drying out the skin and coat. Horses should not be bathed when winter temperatures are below freezing, because horses need to be dry to resist the cold.
Hoof care is an important part of the daily grooming routine. The hooves should be “picked” daily to remove manure, dirt, and stones, and checked for signs of bruising, odor, discoloration, or discharge. The shoes should also be checked for wear and tightness of the nails ( see Shoes Shoes In addition to properly feeding and exercising your horse, other aspects of general care are needed to keep your horse healthy throughout his or her life. These include routine veterinary care... read more ). Hoof dressings may be needed, but care should be taken to apply them appropriately. For example, water-repellent dressings can be important to keep hooves dry and healthy during wet weather. However, excessive use of emollient dressings can soften the hooves and lead to problems. Antifungal solutions should be applied every 1 to 2 weeks during winter and wet weather to prevent thrush. Your veterinarian and farrier can provide information on when and how frequently to treat your horse’s feet.
Horses’ hooves grow constantly and require trimming about every 6 weeks. Horses need to be trained to stand properly so that their hooves can be trimmed correctly and damage to the foot can be avoided. Foot trimming is best left to your farrier or veterinarian if you do not have experience with this procedure.
Horse shoes provide traction on some surfaces and help prevent wear and tear of the hooves. The need for horse shoes depends on several factors, including foot conformation and health as well as the types of surfaces the horse will travel on. Horses with tender or bruised feet require shoes for protection, as do horses working on hard or rough surfaces. Various kinds of corrective shoes are available for particular hoof or lameness problems. For example, horses with cracked hooves or splayed feet may need a barred shoe for support, while horses with other specific lameness problems may need a shoe that slows down or stabilizes the gait. Veterinarians, farriers, and trainers can provide more information on the shoes needed for any particular problem.