Sixty Signs of a Healthy and Happy Horse

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1. Body condition should be not too fat, nor too thin. A horse should display a well rounded rump, the ribs should be well covered but still easily felt and the neck should be firm with no crest.

2. A healthy horse should pass well formed manure without straining. Soft cow pat manure may indicate hind gut acidosis or parasitism. Small, hard manure can be a sign of dehydration. Diarrhea from any cause is
abnormal – contact your veterinarian.

3. Body temperature normally stays within a narrow range of 37-38ºC. An increase above 38ºC maybe the first sign of ill health. Rest your horse and monitor the situation closely. If temperature persists, contact your veterinarian.

4. The eye is often seen as the ‘window’ to health and well being. It should be clear, bright and alert.

5. Normal respiration is quiet and relaxed, at a rate of 10-15 breaths per minute. Labored breathing can be a sign of ill health.

6. The lining of the nostrils should be clean and ‘salmon pink’ in colour; a slight watery discharge is normal.

7. The skin should be soft and elastic; the pinch test over the shoulder is a good way of assessing dehydration.


8. Horses have evolved to use escape behavior as a response to fearful stimuli, consequently their ‘fright-flight’ response is well developed and must be respected. Horses categorise every new experience as either something to fear and hence flee, or something not to fear and hence ignore.

9. Most abnormal behavior arises in situations where social contact with other horses is limited.

10. So called ‘vices’ such as wind-sucking, crib biting, weaving and fence walking are stress coping mechanisms.

11. Abnormal chewing behavior can be due to boredom, dietary mineral deficiencies, parasitism or stomach ulcers.


12. Roughage is essential for normal digestive function; a horse should consume between 2-2.5% of its bodyweight in feed each day, at least half of which should be grass or hay.

13. The weight of the average adult warm blood type horse is 550kg; a 13hh pony weighs around 300kg.

14. A horse should drink at least 5 litres of water per 100kg bodyweight per day. Fresh drinking water should always be available and within easy access during feeding.

15. Overfeeding is a common mistake, not only is it a waste of money, it is detrimental to health and performance.

16. Energy sources are classed as either ‘fast release’ (oats, barley, maize) or ‘slow release’ (rice bran, sugar beet); choice is dependent on requirements and temperament. Grain should be restricted to less than 2.5kg per feed.

17. Adding corn oil (fat) to the diet increases energy intake without increasing feed volume. Horses can utilise 85-90% of the energy in fat compared to around 60% from grain carbohydrate sources.

18. The dietary protein level should be 2-3% above requirements and include all the essential amino acids; lucerne chaff and soya meal are good dietary protein sources.

19. Electrolyte supplementation is necessary for horses in training and especially those competing over long distances or living in hot climates.

20. As a rule approximately 60 grams of electrolytes should be supplemented in the feed for every hour of exercise.

21. The development of a strong skeleton is critical; calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, copper, zinc, manganese, silicon and boron are all essential to ensure maximum bone density. There should always be more calcium than phosphorus in the diet, a Ca:P ratio of 2:1 is ideal.

Dental Care

22. Horses have an initial set of deciduous or baby teeth that are subsequently replaced by permanent teeth. Replacement starts at 21/2 years and continues through to 41/2 years of age.

23. Signs of dental problems include; bit avoidance, spillage of feed, poor body condition and sometimes head shaking.

24. Teeth should be examined twice a year between 2 and 5 years of age and once a year thereafter.

Foot Care

25. The maintenance of a balanced foot is fundamental. The foot is the dominant site of lameness in the performance horse.

26. The hoof is able to absorb 70-80% of the forces of impact and weight bearing.

27. The angle of the heel should be within 5º of the angle of the toe.

28. The coronary band should form an angle of 30º with the ground.

29. When viewed from the solar surface the front feet should be as wide as they are long. The sole should be concave; a flat sole will impede expansion of the hoof during weight bearing and is more prone to bruising.

30. The width of the frog should be 2/3rds of its length; any less and the foot is considered to be contracted. The heels should extend back in line with the widest point of the frog.

31. The bars should protrude above the level of the sole; they should be 1cm shorter than the wall to allow for hoof expansion during weight bearing.

32. Hoof quality is directly related to its moisture content which varies for different parts. The hoof wall is approximately 25% water, the sole 33% and the frog 50%. Extremely dry walls (<20% moisture) or extremely wet walls (>30%) are weaker and more susceptible to failure from loading forces.

33. Water is nature’s hoof conditioner; it is the only preparation that is able to maintain hoof moisture balance. As water is constantly lost from the hoof, it is important to replace it on a daily basis. Daily immersion in water for 10-15 minutes is generally sufficient. Oil and fat dressings will not improve moisture content.


34. Roundworm infections are common in foals; a strong immunity develops in the first year consequently the parasite becomes less significant with age.

35. Pinworm infections are common; the physical signs are tail rubbing resulting in a ‘rat tailed’ appearance.

36. Tapeworms rely on a small mite as their intermediate host consequently they can be a problem in warmer regions.

37. There are several species of large strongyle worms that migrate from the bowel, through the blood vessels, liver and lungs. They have the potential to cause serious tissue damage.

38. Over 50 species of small strongyles affect horses. The larval stages invade the wall of the large intestine causing damage. Signs of infection include diarrhea, loss of appetite and raised temperature.

39. A worm control programme involves regular treatment with a broad spectrum anthelmintic, along with pasture decontamination.

Digestive System

40. The maintenance of a healthy gastro-intestinal system depends largely on adequate dietary roughage and a good worming programme.

41. Colic should be thought of as a symptom rather than a condition; there are many possible causes, some of which are life threatening. Many cases of colic are worm related.

42. Heart rate gives an indication of the seriousness of the colic. Normal resting rate is 30-40beats/min. Horses with spasmodic colic will show a slight elevation while horses with a twisted or displaced bowel will have a heart rate above 90 beats/min.

43. All cases of colic should receive immediate veterinary attention.

44. Stomach ulcers are common in performance horses, especially those that are stabled and have restricted access to grazing.

45. Signs of stomach ulcers include poor body condition, teeth grinding, recurrent colic and reluctance to eat grain.

46. Acute projectile diarrhea in horses can be life threatening; contact your veterinarian immediately.

47. Chronic diarrhea can be defined as increased fluidity of manure that has been present for more than 3 weeks; parasites are a common cause.


48. Lameness is an indication of a structural or functional problem in one or more limbs. It is most noticeable at the walk or trot, seldom at the canter. It is important to differentiate between gait abnormalities and lameness.

49. Lameness can be classified as either weight bearing or extension; generally lower leg problems will cause weight bearing lameness, shoulder or hip problems will cause extension lameness.

50. Lameness is often insidious in onset. Early signs maybe subtle – shortened stride, change in temperament or back soreness.

51. It was always considered that serious bone injuries were caused through apparently normal bone reacting to abnormal impact and loading. Research has shown it is in fact the other way round; abnormal bone reacting to normal impact and loading. Apparently normal bone is often less dense and more prone to stress fractures.

52. Horses in training will develop denser bone than horses out spelling due to the stimulation of bone remodeling through continual loading on the limbs.

53. Back soreness is probably the most poorly diagnosed condition in horses. Most cases of back soreness are secondary to another problem, usually in the lower limb. The first sign of hock soreness is often a sore back.

54. Badly fitting saddles and poor rider position are also a frequent cause of back soreness.

55. Degenerative joint disease is a common problem in performance horses; early signs include shortening of stride, painful flexion and joint effusion (windgalls).

56. Maintaining an effective cartilage cushion is essential in preventing degenerative joint disease. Cartilage is 80% water; as water is lost, so is its cushioning ability. The body uses glucosamine and chondroitin sulphate to maintain cartilage water concentration.

57. Tendon injuries are often caused through lack of conditioning; unfit tendons are more prone to injury.

58. Tye-up is the most common muscular condition seen in performance horses. It is usually a management problem, caused by excessive intake of high energy feeds such as oats, maize or spring grass.

Coughs and Colds

59. Herpes 1 & 4 viral respiratory infections are endemic in the New Zealand horse population; they are a common cause of coughs and colds.

60. To help prevent coughs and colds, avoid stabling in poorly ventilated barns (ammonia from urine soaked bedding is a respiratory irritant); avoid feeding dusty or mouldy hay (hay is best soaked for 15 minutes before feeding); feed low to the ground to allow natural drainage of the airways by muco-cilliary clearance. Care should be taken during long float trips as this often when horses are most susceptible to viral respiratory infections; contributing factors are close confinement with other horses, fluctuating temperatures, poor ventilation and having the head raised for long periods.

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