Horse Health

Five Common Horse Health Concerns

A veterinarian uses hoof testers to check for an abscess in a hoof topping the list of horse health concerns.

Your horses’ health is a top priority, and keeping them safe can be simpler than you think. Ward off five of the biggest health threats to your horses through keen management practices.

Word of an equine disease outbreak can spread faster than the contagion itself, causing chaos and worry. And rightfully so, when an outbreak can affect our horses—animals that not only play a critical role in many people’s livelihoods and businesses, but that are also partners and confidants.

But while it’s easy to get wrapped up and overwhelmed in the hype of headlining health concerns and how to protect our horses, it’s comforting to know that most problems can be easily handled through diligent horsekeeping practices, such as keeping a well-stocked first aid kit. The best protection a horse has is its caretaker.

Attentive owners are likely to detect seemingly imperceptible clues about their horses’ health, says Maggie Peitzmeier, DVM, DACVS, an equine surgeon at Pioneer Equine Hospital in Oakdale, California. Peitzmeier spent many years working in veterinary clinics before getting her veterinary degree from Iowa State University and working at Peterson and Smith Equine Hospital in Ocala, Florida.

“As veterinarians, we take what the owner has to say really seriously because they see the horse every day,” Peitzmeier says. “When you have a horse long enough, you figure out the horse’s nuances, whether the horse is super tough or kind of a baby. Owners who are really in tune with their horse can catch a colic before it’s really even a colic.”

Britt Stubblefield, DVM, agrees and adds that how horses are managed can make or break their holistic health.

“Most problems we see as veterinarians are inadvertently caused by the owners,and that applies to my own horses,” says the Colorado veterinarian, who focuses on working ranch and Western performance horses in rural and agricultural areas. “How we use them, how they’re raised, how they’re penned—it’s all environmental and related.”

Part of good horsekeeping means having a knowledgeable team of experts on hand and regularly involved in maintaining your horse’s health.

“There are three things every horse owner needs,” says Ryan Meeks, DVM, a partner at Peterson and Smith Equine Hospital. “You need a good vet, somebody that knows you and your horse. As a veterinarian, I like to get calls from clients that I’ve met at least once, or are new to town and it’s a recommendation. It’s difficult to get calls at 1 in the morning from someone who’s called [several] vets in the area, and just randomly came across my name. It throws up red flags.

“You also need a good equine dentist, either your veterinarian or someone your veterinarian recommends. [And] you need a good farrier. If you do those three things with a little reading and research along the way, you’re going to learn a lot.”

Here, the three veterinarians line out the basics of five major horse health concerns they most often address in their practices. They all agree that owners often can prevent these problems by being diligent and using practical management techniques.

1. Colic

With every drastic change in the weather, horse owners hold their breaths and veterinarians wait for their phones to ring. A horse’s water consumption often takes a nosedive with colder temperatures because they can be inclined not to drink cold water. Then, in the dog days of summer, the concern is making sure horses drink enough water to stay hydrated and replenish electrolytes lost through work and sweat. Stubblefield says he sees most colic cases in the winter when water buckets and troughs freeze and horses can’t (or won’t) drink. These are often impaction colics, typically within the large colon, where a build-up of foodstuffs causes pain in the abdomen.

“Impaction colics can deteriorate just as quickly as they can improve,” says Stubblefield. “What makes it difficult, too, is some horses are so stoic that they aren’t going to show they’re in mild discomfort until they haven’t drunk a proper amount for two or three days.”

Peitzmeier and Meeks say their practices often see colics due to a commonly found culprit.

“Regionally, we see more sand colic,” says Peitzmeier. “And most of the time, through management, it’s preventable.” Sand colic usually happens when a horse eats off sandy soil, and small grains of sand and dirt cling to hay and grain, and then the sand accumulates in the colon. Those particles can cause painful irritation to the intestinal lining, and become heavy if not removed from the colon.

A horse eating grass in a field. Ensuring they get enough food and water is on the top of the list of horse health concerns.

RED FLAGS: Lethargy, excessive lying down, nipping at sides of barrel, tacky gums, failed pinch test (which checks for dehydration), sunken eye, decreased water intake and appetite, diarrhea.

WHEN TO CALL THE VET: Immediately. Provide your veterinarian with your horse’s temperature, and only administer Banamine (unixin meglumine oral paste or intravenous injection) with consent from your veterinarian.

TREATMENT: Treatment varies depending on the type of colic. Some cases can be resolved with a painkiller and hand-walking. However, if the horse doesn’t show signs of improvement—including a normal temperature, bowel movement and return of appetite—your veterinarian may opt to administer a combination of water and mineral oil to encourage gut motility and increase hydration, or laxatives to relieve impaction. Severe cases of impaction and sand colic may require surgery.

PROGNOSIS: Most horses survive bouts with colic. However, a horse that colics is more prone to colic again in the future than other horses, so it’s wise to keep a close eye on its water intake and behavior as the season or environment changes.

PRACTICAL PREVENTION: Always provide clean, fresh water. In the winter, go a step further and provide lukewarm water to encourage drinking. Add electrolytes in the summer and winter months and while traveling to new places to stimulate thirst and increase water consumption. In sandy areas, like California and Florida, either put feeders on large mats or feed directly on mats, and give them a daily sweeping. Peitzmeier and Meeks suggest feeding a psyllium fiber supplement on a monthly basis.

“It’s something you don’t want to use all the time, because it loses its effectiveness,”says Peitzmeier. “Give it as a monthly ‘purge,’ seven consecutive days of each month.”

2. Respiratory Problems

After months of gloomy weather, spring brings a welcome breath of fresh air. But veterinarians agree that owners need to be aware of where exactly where their horses are sticking their noses.

“I see it every year,” says Stubblefield. “In the springtime before show season, people are itching for a new horse and they go to these horse sales. Then they bring one home and stick it in a pen right next to their own horses. The owners will say, ‘It was healthy at the horse sale.’ But he had contact with hundreds of other horses at that sale that you didn’t know. Then you bring it home to your horses.

“It’s like a bunch of kids when they start kindergarten—they’re all going to get sick. The same thing happens at horse shows.”

Rhinopneumonitis, or “rhino,” is usually the human equivalent of the common cold, but if not taken seriously can lead to more serious issues like neurologic problems and abortion in mares, says Peitzmeier.

“Rhino and flu can be scary, but if we manage our horses with the right vaccines and care, we decrease the risk, severity and likelihood [of an outbreak],” she says.

Horses that travel typically require a combination inuenza/rhinopneumonitis shot every six months.

Another common respiratory issue Meeks encounters in springtime in Florida is chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or “heaves.”

“It crops up in spring when things are in bloom and heating up,” he says. “It’s about the same time people start having allergies. It can develop at any age, and usually starts very mildly when the horse is young. It’s an allergy cascade. Meeks says the condition worsens the more the horse is exposed to the allergen.

“Without treatment or management, the lining of the bronchioles [lung airways] and the lungs get thicker over time, so air passage and oxygen intake become difficult,” he says.

RED FLAGS: In general, mild respiratoryissues include cough, fever, runny nose and lethargy. A horse with COPD, however, will “breathe hard … to pull that air in and be pushing equally hard to get that air out,” says Meeks. “They will also get a ‘heave line,’ which runs along the bottom of their belly and up the back of their rib cage, because that abdominal muscle is overworked.”

WHEN TO CALL THE VET: If a horse’s symptoms last longer than a few days, and its temperature rises above the normal 101 degrees Fahrenheit, call your veterinarian. Also, pay attention to the color of nasal discharge. If it is clear and watery it is usually nothing to fret over, but let your veterinarian know if it becomes thick and yellow, white or green.

TREATMENT: Once a horse is afflicted with a respiratory issue, like “the common cold,” it usually just takes time to recover. Supportive care to lower a fever can help, and sometimes antibiotics are prescribed if a secondary infection develops. Horses with COPD can be treated with a combination of bronchodilators and corticosteroid drugs.

PROGNOSIS: Most horses come down with a cold at least once in their lives and make a full recovery in a couple of weeks.

Meeks says horses with heaves may eventually have to retire from work or competition.

PRACTICAL PREVENTION: Stubblefield says most respiratory infections will “rear their heads within 14 days,” so it’s best to isolate a new horse for at least that long.

“It’s a simple management solution,” he says. “People wind up spending thousands of dollars when it’s something that would’ve taken two minutes of their time, like tying up their horses on their trailer instead of on a hitch next to horses they don’t know.

“If you’re out on a trail ride in a national park and you pass someone, move off to the side where they can go behind your horse and don’t touch nose to nose.”

He says to keep your horse up to date on its core shots (Eastern/Western Equine encephalomyelitis, rabies, tetanus and West Nile virus), plus flu/rhino if they’re exposed to new or traveling horses.

Meeks says keeping the air clean is important for any horse, not just those affected by COPD. Dust for cobwebs, keep barn aisles clean, and water arenas to avoid dusty footing.

“You need to minimize exposure to the irritant,” says Meeks of horses with heaves. “A lot of these horses are better o outside in an open area versus being in a stall.”

He also recommends soaking hay with water or steaming it before feeding.

3. Abscesses

Meeks knows when he gets a call about a horse that is “broken-leg lame,” it’s one of three things: the leg is actually broken, the horse has cellulitis (soft tissue inflammation), or it’s an abscess.

“Abscesses commonly show up in wet conditions,” he says, adding that they also result from a rock bruise, trauma to the hoof, or a hot nail—a horseshoe nail driven into soft, sensitive tissues within the hoof. “Somehow bacteria gets up and under the sole a little and gets sealed off. It’s basically a puss pocket.”

A veterinarian uses hoof testers to check for an abscess in a hoof.

Abscesses typically erupt in the sole of the hoof, but on rare occasion they can break near the coronet band.

“We say the horse ‘popped a gravel,’ ”says Meeks. “It’s not a big deal, but there is more soft tissue [at the coronet] so the horse may need antibiotics because it can get cellulitis—inflammation of the soft tissues around that pastern in the foot.

“Depending on how bad it is, the coronet band is where the hoof grows down, so if you get a big hole there it can deform the hoof wall.” Stubblefield says problems like abscesses can be minimized with routine hoof care.

“A lot of people don’t have good relationships with their farriers and don’t stay on a regular schedule,” he says. “at’s important to the overall soundness of the horse. [Problems can arise from] lack of hoof care. You need a dedicated farrier that comes on a schedule.”

RED FLAGS: Extreme lameness, doesn’t bear weight on affected hoof, standing parked out.

WHEN TO CALL THE VET: If your horse is extremely lame, it’s always best to contact your veterinarian. She or he can pinpoint an abscess using hoof testers, or discover if the problem lies elsewhere.

TREATMENT: Abscesses can be drawn out using a poultice, or with a warm soak in a mixture of water and Epsom salt. A veterinarian may choose to pare the abscess out for quick relief if it’s not too deep within the hoof. However, if the abscess hasn’t erupted by itself in three to five days, call your vet again.

PROGNOSIS: An abscess is not typically life-threatening, as painful as it may seem to the horse.

PRACTICAL PREVENTION: Reduce the chance of abscesses and other hoof problems with routine hoof care every six to eight weeks to maintain the shape and condition of your horse’s hooves. Peitzmeier stresses to not underestimate the power of picking out your horse’s hooves every day. is gives owners a chance to dig out a painful, bruise-worthy rock, spot loose shoes and check the overall health of the hoof.

4. Lacerations and Punctures

When she was growing up in Nebraska, Peitzmeier says it was common to and downed fences and bent wire from deer attempting to jump or run through.

She says her family made a habit of riding the fenceline to check for holes and other hazards that could hurt turned-out horses. Still, Peitzmeier says even in a “rubber, padded stall horses will still and a way to hurt themselves.” For that reason, punctures and lacerations are at the top of the farm call list for Peitzmeier, Stubblefield and Meeks. These types of injuries are a major reason why owners need a stocked and available first-aid kit with sterile bandages and wraps, says Stubblefield. Owners can apply a quick bandage to slow bleeding and decrease contamination until the veterinarian arrives.

A veterinarian wraps a leg from an injurty

RED FLAGS: Other than the obvious cut or puncture hole, see if the injury is near a joint; if it is, the wound can be serious.

WHEN TO CALL THE VET: A scrape on the surface of the skin can usually be treated at home without veterinary intervention. However, don’t hesitate to snap a cell phone photo and send it to your veterinary clinic for a second opinion. Deep injuries and those near joints need to be seen by a veterinarian sooner than later.

TREATMENT: Stubblefield says when treating a cut or puncture, less is more.

“If it’s a puncture wound, consult with your veterinarian before removing the foreign object, because each case is different,” he says. “If it’s a laceration, clean it with warm water or saline [solution]. If it’s actively bleeding, put on a clean bandage and wrap it with Vetrap. But really I don’t care if it’s paper towels and duct tape. Wrap it so it has pressure on it and the bleeding will stop, and call your vet. Don’t look at it again, unless it’s still oozing blood, and then continue to put more pressure on it. People will hold a bandage on it for 30 seconds, pull the bandage off to see if the bleeding is stopped, but when they do that they pull the clot off it. So don’t look at it.”

Resist the urge to apply ointments or creams, he adds, until your veterinarian can assess the wound.

“Ointments kill bad bacteria, but they can also kill the good bacteria that help a wound heal,” he says.

Prognosis: The severity of a wound and how well it heals is dependent on location and other factors, says Peitzmeier.

Practical Prevention: “If you’re going to a new place, try to walk the horse around and make sure they know the boundaries,” says Peitzmeier. “Walk around the stall and pasture and look for anything sharp, or maybe a fence is down.

Sometimes walking the pasture may not be practical if it’s too large, so in that case try to turn them out when it’s daytime and they can see everything.”

Meeks advises owners to use common sense. “It’s an animal that is used to being out on the open plains with miles and miles to run,” he says. “We’ve put them in stalls and smaller pastures. if something is going to happen, it’s going to happen.

“To my paranoid owners i say do everything you can to prevent unnecessary things from happening, but don’t worry yourself to death. it’s a horse, and if there’s something they want to do, they’re going to do it.”

On the other hand, he adds, avoid situations that invite accidents.

“Sometimes you see horses turned out in the same field as the manure spreader with blades sticking up and the horses are running around it—that is a ticking time bomb,” he says. “if you have kids running around, you don’t leave butcher knives on the floor.”

5. Arthritis

“Pain rears its head in many different forms,” says Stubblefield. “For a team roping horse it may be rearing out of the box, or for a barrel racer it could be the difference in 5/100ths of a second. For a halter horse, it may be not standing still. A lot of those [behavioral] problems we find are pain-related—they’re bony changes we find on radiographs or flexion tests.”

veterinarian doing a flexion test for arthritis a top choice on our list of horse health concerns

Too many times owners or trainers don’t realize that a horse acting out can be responding to pain.

“If you sense a resistance in training or an abrupt change in behavior, talk with your veterinarian,” he says. “it could be pain-related, and lead to a discussion on arthritis.”

Arthritis is a general term for abnormal bone growth and change in the joints. It can occur in any age horse, and shows up as a result of injury or hard use.

Red Flags: Lameness, head bobbing, change in behavior, resistance to training.

When to Call the Vet: Arthritis isn’t an emergency, but it’s best to involve your veterinarian sooner rather than later if you suspect your horse is in pain.

Treatment: Symptoms of arthritis can be treated a variety of ways.

“There are a lot of things we can do these days to help alleviate or reduce that pain,” says Stubblefield. “Some bony changes can be addressed with the help of a farrier and shoeing. We can address symptoms with joint injections and systemic treatments.

“Our practice is a huge believer in using non-traditional treatment methods, like chiropractic, acupuncture, laser [therapy], in conjunction with traditional joint therapies, like injections. The non-traditional therapies don’t fix arthritis, but instead reduces inflammation associated with the primary cause of lameness. In other words, we address the primary source of pain (the joint) and treat the consequential pain with non-traditional treatments.”

Meeks says sports medicine makes up a large portion of his practice. Treatment of musculoskeletal issues, such as inflamed joints, tendons, ligaments and muscle strains are tailored to each horse using a combination of IRAP (interleukin-1 receptor antagonist protein) and PRP (platelet rich plasma) therapy, Pro-Stride (combination of PRP and IRAP) and joint injections to lessen joint pain.

“I also incorporate shockwave and laser therapy into the mix and monitor the horse’s recovery with thermal imagery using a digatherm camera.”

Feed-through supplements with ingredients like glucosamine, MSM (methylsulfonylmethane), hyaluronic acid and chondroitin sulfate are also on the market, and can be administered with consultation from your veterinarian.

Prognosis: The good news is arthritis doesn’t have to be career-ending.

Practical Prevention: Minimizing excessive use of young horses can reduce the chances of a horse developing arthritis. High stress to young joints can trigger bony changes, whether from overwork or traumatic injury.

“How many young yearlings have we seen [get hung up on] a panel?” Stubblefield asks. “Then, three years down the road when the horse is being ridden, we see arthritis in that fetlock, where they had a cut from getting hung up in the panel and traumatized the periosteum of the bone or the cartilage.”

Veterinarians can spot early stages of arthritis by performing flexion tests, which is another reason why routine check-ups and pre-purchase exams are good practice.

Owning horses is a huge responsibility not to be taken lightly. But taking care of them is easier when tackled with common sense and a team of veterinarians, farriers and a handy medical book or two.

“Our role as veterinarians is not to be your ambulance,” says Stubblefield. “I should see you as many times a year as I need to for vaccines, joint injections and routine care.”

Meeks says that it’s important for owners to develop a relationship with their horses. Take time to observe their personalities and get to know their quirks and habits.

“Every horse is different, and they can’t talk,” he says. “It helps me if a client knows their horse well. And if I’ve learned anything, it’s that I haven’t seen everything and anything can happen.”


This article originally appeared in the April 2019 issue of Western Horseman.

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