Horse Health

No matter how conscientious you are as an owner, there will most likely be a time when your horse requires medical attention.

The best approach to managing your horse’s health is to have a good understanding of what is considered “normal.”

A healthy horse will have alert eyes and ears, a shiny coat and an active tail, steady gaits, regular eating habits and an interest in the activity around him.

When the eyelid is pulled down, the membranes should be moist and pink. His urine and feces should be passed without effort and be free from any blood or pus. Fecal consistency will change with the diet, but it should be neither too loose nor too dry. Any deviation from normal should be more closely examined.

Normal resting temperature for a horse is 99 to 100.8 F, pulse rate 32-44 beats per minute and respiration 8-16 breaths per minute. Being able to measure these and identify when there is a deviation from normal is the first step in good horse health, and a five-minute check when you enter your horse’s stall will quickly tell you if there is a problem.

Any lameness or health issue that is causing the horse pain should be referred to a veterinarian as quickly as possible. A delay in treatment could mean the difference between a complete and speedy recovery and a more serious, long-term problem. Using common sense when handling and caring for a horse will help prevent most problems.

Every barn should have a first aid kit to deal with any minor cuts and injuries. A basic kit would include antiseptic spray, such as Antisep 2 percent or iodine spray, wound dressing or gauze, elastic or self adhesive bandages to wrap legs or hold dressings in place, an ice pack, scissors and a thermometer. This simple kit will help you deal with any problem until a veterinarian can be reached.

Common Diseases and Ailments

Condition Cause Symptoms Treatment/Prevention

Tying Up, which can be classified as different conditions with similar symptoms, two of which are:

Equine Polysaccharide Storage Myopathy EPSM

Recurrent Exertional Rhabomyolosis RER





Excess amount and abnormal form of glycogen causes muscle to stop functioning properly.

Irregular regulation of intercellular minerals. Exacerbated by stress and anxiety. Mainly fit horses.

Large hind quarter muscles become stiff, sweating. Stiff gait, horse shows signs of pain. May have dark urine.





Reduce carbohydrates that are fed for energy and replace with fats. Keep in pasture or pen for light exercise. Contact your veterinarian immediately.

Colic A metabolic condition usually related to intestinal disorders, primarily impaction, due to improper feeding, watering or working. Pain due to the overproduction and accumulation of gas. Sweating, straining, groaning, distended abdomen, rolling, biting and kicking at abdomen and flank, constipation. Contact your veterinarian immediately. Walk horse slowly to prevent it from lying down, rolling, eating or injuring himself. Tranquilizers, painkillers, antiferments, mineral oil, and/or a stomach tube may be used by vet in treatment of colic.

Laminitis (Founder)

A metabolic disorder associated with over consumption of grain, drinking cold water while hot from exercise, toxemia as a result from metritis or other unknown inciting agents. Extreme pain, stiffness in front and hind feet, sweating, lower legs and hooves warm to the touch. May be associated with fever and/or colic. It is essential that medical treatment be sought immediately. The longer the condition of extreme heat persists, the more permanent the damage will be. Stand the horse in a cold water bath or spray with cold water hose while waiting for the veterinarian.
Heaves A condition of poor management often associated with feeding moldy, dusty hay or grains, use of dusty straw or shavings as bedding, or stabling in poorly ventilated or overly drafty stalls. Symptoms include difficulty breathing and an audible wheeze, coughing and dilation of nostriles. Horse tires early during exercise. If heaves is allowed to develop extensively, treatment often produces poor results. Antihistamine injections may give temporary relief. Reduce exposure to dust by feeding a completely pelleted ration, sprinkle or soak hay with water.

Distemper (Strangles)

An extremely contagious bacteria disease usually initiated by stress conditions such as exposure to wet, cold weather, shipping, fatigue and respiratory viral infections. Depression, loss of appetite, a temperature of 104° F to 106° F, cough, discharge from nose, enlarged glands under the jaw. These enlarged glands will eventually break open and discharge a pink pus. Complete rest and isolation from other horses. Provide clean, fresh water, appetizing feeds and draft-free shelter. Antibiotics and sulfas may be provided by veterinarian. Aid in prevention by vaccinating.
Equine Influenza A highly contagious, viral disease. Severe despression, high temperature, complete loss of appetite. Watery discharge from eyes and nose, inflammation toward the legs. Consult your veterinarian for antibacterial therapy to prevent pneumonia. Dispose of infected bedding, sanitize feeding and watering equipment, disinfect trailers used to transport animals, control insects, isolate sick or newly arrived animals. Vaccinate annually.
Tetanus A disease caused by the toxins released by anaerobic bacteria that grow in deep puncture or lacerated wounds. Stiffness in the head and neck. Animal has difficulty chewing and swallowing. Violent spasms or muscle contractions brought on by the slightest movement or noise. Death usually results in 80% of all cases due to exhaustion or paralysis of vital organs. Contact your veterinarian. The best prevention is with tetanus toxoid vaccine.
Equine Encephalomyelitis (Sleeping Sickness) A viral infection transmitted by mosquitoes with the highest incidence from June to November. Aimless walking. Horse stands with head lowered and grinds teeth, inability to swallow and paralysis of lips. Death usually results in 50% of the cases. Vaccination prior to mosquito season is highly recommended.


Parasite Control

One of the most crucial aspects of your horse's health is the control of internal parasites. Parasites are one of the most costly and harmful afflictions. Infestations can lead to colic, anemia, diarrhea, poor growth or weight loss, reduced stamina and decreased performance.

Whether you have one horse or one hundred, you should have an effective parasite control program in place. The goal of this program should be to decrease the transmission of parasites between horses and the environment.

The program should be aimed at controlling:

  • Large and small strongyles in all horses
  • Ascarids in yearlings and younger horses
  • Bots in all horses after the first hard freeze
  • Other parasites that may be a problem in a particular area or with individual animals

A good control program has four aspects:

  1. The choice of dewormer
  2. The administration schedule
  3. Non-dewormer management practices, i.e., pasture rotation
  4. The monitoring of results so that the program can be monitored

Choice of Dewormer

There are five major chemical classes of wormers: (1) avermectins, (2) organophosphate, (3) tetrahydropyrimidines, (4) benzimidazole and (5) piperazine. These drugs all have similar efficiencies and resistance, and it is often recommended that a wormer from a different class be used on a rotating basis.

Recent studies have shown that there is little difference between a rotational program and one that uses the same dewormer for an extended period of time.

Eqvalan and Quest contain ivermectin and moxdectin respectively, and are considered to be avermectins. The Mira all in one, Mira paste wormer and Safeguard are from the benzimidazole class. The Mira all in one also falls into the organophosphate class because it contains Trichlorfon. Piperazine can be purchased as a soluble powder and mixed into the feed or water.

As long as the product remains effective you should develop a program, with the help of your vet, that best suits your farm.

Administration Schedule

There are three different types of administration schedules used in controlling parasites. Most commonly used is an interval-deworming program that involves treating every two months.

In some cases, where there is a particularly great problem, a non-avermectin dewormer can be used once a month with an avermectin every two months. It should not be necessary in most cases to treat every month.

A seasonal deworming program, which involves treating at critical times of the year, can be used for mature horses but is not recommended for horses less than one year of age.

Seasonal programs involve treatment in the spring before grazing begins in the pasture, in the middle of the summer and in the fall following a hard freeze. This type of program is not effective for young horses because ascarid, strongyle and bot control are necessary in young horses at all times.

It is also important not to use a method on young animals that would cause a sudden parasite kill. Slow-kill dewormers are less likely to cause complications such as impaction colic and stress on the animal.

Continual deworming programs involve the continual feeding of low amounts of deworming  medications. This method may prove to be of questionable value, however, as many small strongyles develop a resistance to dewormers used in this manner.

Consult your veterinarian to be sure you are following the proper program for your farm.

Environmental Control

Administering a dewormer is just part of a good parasite control program. Management practices should also be implemented with the goal of minimizing the amount of fecally contaminated feed and water the horses ingest.

There are a number of ways this can be accomplished:

  • Minimize the consumption of feed from the ground.
  • Remove manure from stables, paddocks and small pastures frequently.
  • Let manure compost for a year before spreading it on horse pasture. This ensures that the heat of fermentation has killed all parasite eggs and larvae.
  • Do not allow pastures to become overgrazed. If horses are forced to graze forage close to the ground and around fecally contaminated areas, ingestion of eggs and larvae is more likely.
  • Harrow pasture to break up fecal matter and expose larvae to heat from the sun. Do not harrow in damp weather as this only disperses the infective larvae over a greater area and will not kill them.
  • Keeping horses off pasture for 4-12 months ensures that parasite larvae are dead. Cooler, damper climates may require a longer time period as parasite eggs may survive even very cold winters.
  • Keep new horses or horses returning to the farm isolated for 7-14 days, treat them with a non-benzimidazole wormer, and vaccinate them if necessary. Most infectious diseases are contagious 7-14 days before clinical signs are observed. Isolating new animals will help to ensure the good health status of your herd.

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Infectious Diseases & Vaccinations

A good vaccination program is another important component of maintaining your horse's health.

The vaccinations given will vary from region to region based on a number of factors including: the prevalence of a disease in a region or on a particular farm, the number of horses on a farm and their use, the degree of confinement and the amount of contact with other horses.

Like feeding and deworming programs, the vaccination program will need to be adapted and updated to maximize the herd immunity. At the very least, horses should be vaccinated for tetanus toxoid and encephalomyelitis every spring.

Mares and stallions used for breeding and animals used for competition will require vaccination for influenza, rhinopnuemonitis, strangles and perhaps Potomac Horse Fever (check with your local show secretary for specific requirements).

Recommended Vaccination Schedule

Disease Primary Vaccine Broodmares Pleasure Performance
Tetanus 2 doses 3-4 weeks apart Annual 2-4 weeks prior to foaling Annually Annually
Equine Encephalomyelitis 2 doses 3-4 weeks apart Annual 2-4 weeks prior to foaling Annual in spring in temperate regions; every 2-6 months in endemic areas during mosquito season Annual in spring in temperate regions; every 2-6 months in endemic areas during mosquito season
Equine Influenza 2 doses 3-4 weeks apart Annual 2-4 weeks prior to foaling Biannually and prior to any period of risk of increased exposure Every 2-3 months
Rhinopneumonitis 2 doses 3-4 weeks apart EHV-1 killed: 3, 5, 7, 9 months of pregnancy;
EHV-4: annual 2-4 weeks prior to foaling
Biannually and prior to any periods of increased exposure; optional dependent on exposure, especially in older horses Every 2-3 months
Strangles 2-3 doses 3-4 weeks apart Annual 2-4 weeks prior to foaling; only killed products licensed Every 6 months on endemic farms for killed vaccine; annual boosters recommended for virulent live vaccine Every 3-6 months on endemic farms for killed vaccine; annual boosters recommended for virulent live vaccine