How can you tell if your horse is healthy, or if he could use some extra care? Jennifer Zoller, PhD, is an extension horse specialist at Texas Agrilife Extension and creator of the Texas Horse Health mobile app, a free resource to equine professionals and horse enthusiasts in Texas. She lists several markers that indicate your horse’s health status.
Body Condition Score
Zoller says the body condition score is the first thing to look for when assessing health. To check body condition, do a visual and tactile appraisal of the fat cover over six anatomical points on the horse: along the neck, behind the shoulder, over the ribs, over the withers, across the back and around the tailhead. After evaluating fat cover, Zoller says a numerical score is assigned, from 1 (emaciated) to 9 (obese).
“A good rule of thumb is that if the ribs can be seen or easily felt, then the horse is a body condition score of 4 or less; if the ribs cannot be seen or easily felt, then the horse is a BCS of 5 or greater,” Zoller says. “Ideally, horses should be at a body condition score of 5 to 6. This indicates the horse is receiving enough energy in the diet to maintain a healthy amount of fat, which is the horse’s reserve form of energy.”
Horses at a BCS of 4 or less are receiving inadequate nutrition and are subsequently more susceptible to fatigue and disease, says Zoller. Horses at a BCS of 8 or 9 could potentially develop metabolic disease, and are susceptible to debilitating lameness.
A shiny haircoat can be indicative of digestive health and a good nutritional program, says Zoller. She says horses with a rough haircoat could be suffering from internal parasites or their diets could be deficient in energy balance or protein quality.
“Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins, and the horse has specific requirements for some amino acids that cannot be synthesized in the body, such as lysine,” Zoller says. “Proteins are important for tissue growth, including muscle, hair and hooves. If the diet is poor in protein quality, i.e., deficient in lysine, then this could be reflected by a rough haircoat and poor hoof growth.”
If you suspect an internal parasite problem, Zoller recommends asking your veterinarian to perform a fecal egg count to determine what parasites need to be treated and which medication would be the most effective.
It’s good to check your horse’s temperature, pulse and respiration regularly. Zoller says a horse’s normal signs at rest are: temperature taken rectally is 99 to 101 degrees Fahrenheit; normal pulse is 28 to 44 beats per minute; and normal respiration is 10 to 24 breaths per minute. An elevated temperature, pulse or respiration could indicate that the horse is suffering from disease or discomfort.
Zoller also recommends checking for frequent gut sounds, which indicate that material is moving appropriately through the digestive tract.
“A lack of regular gut sounds is a serious problem, and should be addressed by a veterinarian immediately,” Zoller says.
Your horse’s manure can tell a story about his health. Zoller says manure should be moist, round balls. “If it is dry, that could indicate dehydration,” Zoller says. “Loose manure can indicate digestive upset caused by a change in feed source, or parasites or disease.”
“It would be great if horses could tell us when they’re not feeling up to snuff, and really, if we pay attention to their body language, they can communicate exactly that,” Zoller says.
A typical healthy horse will be energetic, responsive and alert, she says. If your horse is lethargic, hangs his head low and has “airplane ears” he could be feeling unwell. If he’s agitated, kicking at his belly, and constantly lying down and rising, these are signs he’s uncomfortable and could be suffering from colic.
“Ill behavior can also be indicative of pain elsewhere,” Zoller says. “For example, a horse that constantly throws his head and is ill-mannered while being ridden could be suffering from pain in his mouth. Or if he’s sensitive about having his ears touched, he could have a parasite in the ear, causing discomfort.
“The important thing is to know what your horse’s ‘normal’ is and act accord-ingly if he deviates from that.”
Following are some products curated to help you keep your horse healthy and happy, from feeds to bedding fresheners, shampoo to fly spray, and everything in between.