by Dr. Douglas Stewart
1. Start with a healthy horse
Our number one tip is to make sure when getting a new horse that it is healthy to begin with. There are a lot of horses which are cheap, or even free, because they have health issues; avoid them as you are likely to spend more in veterinary costs and tears than you will save on the purchase price. Also, beware of sellers passing off a sick horse as a healthy one. Before buying a horse, put it through a thorough health check (see our website for guidance).
2. Food type and quality
Try to feed the horse as natural a diet as possible. This should be grass whenever possible, otherwise hay. There are cases when a horse may need other types of horse feed (e.g. an old horse with dental issues, a weak horse that needs extra energy), but for a healthy horse a natural diet is best for its physical health and mental wellbeing.
Aside from the type of food, one needs to ensure that it is of good quality. In particular, a horse should NEVER be given food that has mold or fungus (visible by sight or smell). If food becomes damp or wet, it should be used immediately or disposed of, since food that has gone off can cause a variety of illnesses such as colic or laminitis (founder).
It is advisable that the horse has a mineral stone and salt lick, to compensate for any elements which may be missing from its food.
3. Natural environment (pasture & herd)
Just as a horse should have natural food, it should spend as much time as possible in a natural environment. The two most important parts of this is that it should be on pasture as much as possible and that it should be part of a herd (i.e. with other horses or horse equivalents). Time on pasture gives the horse a natural diet (grass), a natural feeding regime (many small feeds throughout the day rather than a couple large and short feeds), exercise and mental stimulation. Being with other horses gives a sense of safety (horses have a very strong herd instinct) and the social interactions gives it mental stimulation.
A horse which spends much of its day in this type of environment is not only happier, but is far less likely to develop bad habits (e.g. cribbing) due to stress or boredom. Horses which are kept in a natural environment also tend to be physically healthier.
4. Healthy stall
Especially if a horse spends a lot of time in its stall, the stall environment should be healthy.
- It should have enough ventilation that there is not a build up of ammonia (the harsh burning smell which is produced when bacteria break down horse urine on the stall floor).
- It should be big enough that the horse has a bit of room to move, say 4 yards by 4.
- It should have clean and suitable bedding. In particular, bedding which has gone off (mold or fungus) should never be used.
5. Safe pasture
The pasture should be free of any items which could injure the horse.
One of the most common causes of serious horse injuries is inappropriate fencing wire. One should never use barbed wire, as it can puncture the horse, resulting not only in injuries (which can be fatal if it happens to hit a main artery) but also abscesses and other serious infections. One should not use high-tension wire, since if it breaks and tangles around a horse's leg, it can cut through flesh and tendon down to the bone. If one uses wire, it should be a type which breaks before causing serious injury and should probably be under electrical current to discourage horses from pushing against it.
If one is using a field which has not been previously cleaned, every bit of it should be closely examined for items which could injure a horse and such items removed. I've seen enough horses seriously injured from being put on an old farming field which had bits of fencing wire or pieces of machinery lying about. Likewise, holes (e.g. from burrowing animals) can result in a broken leg so should be filled in promptly. Similarly, broken branches or other objects lying around can result in injuries (especially if the horses are spooked at night, when they may not see the objects and consequently run into them).
There are a number of poisonous plants, which can make a horse ill or even kill it. Learn what types of plants are on your horse's pasture and check if any of them are poisonous to horses. Most horses will avoid the majority of poisonous plants (unless there is nothing else to eat) so if you see a type of plant which the horses are not eating, one should in particular check that it is safe.
6. Preventative routine medical
An ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure. One should worm a horse regularly, give it the required inoculations, and have a regular (e.g. once a year) dental check. Worming requirements depend partly on where you live (parasite types and severity vary by region). Likewise the inoculations which should be given depend not only on the local areas (what diseases are present) but also on how you use the horse (e.g. if it is transported off your property and comes into contact with strange horses). Consequently, one should discuss requirements with a local veterinarian.
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7. Watch and regularly inspect the horse
Horses, like people, will naturally become ill occasionally and may suffer accidents from time to time. In most cases, one starts with a minor problem which is easily (and inexpensively) treated if spotted early, but may become a major issue if left untreated.
One should watch a horse each day, and preferably twice a day, even if it is just for a few minutes. Learn what is normal behavior for that particular horse (e.g. running about or quietly grazing) and if there is a change to its normal behavior one needs to inspect the horse more closely. In particular, any signs of the horse appearing unwell (e.g. head hanging, inactive, stopped eating) or unhappy should be checked and monitored until the cause is found and corrected, with veterinary assistance if the situation becomes worse or is already serious.
Certain illness (e.g. impaction colic, laminitis) can often be treated successfully if done so promptly, whereas waiting less than a day after the first visible symptoms can result in a maimed or dead horse. Regular observation and prompt treatment are the key to so many illnesses.
One should clean and examine the sole of the hooves each day. In part this is to remove stones, ice chunks or other items which can damage a hoof. However, an equally important part of this daily routine is that it enables one to spot hoof issues early. Likewise, regular grooming is important not only because a clean horse looks better but also because it provides an opportunity to closely examine all parts of the horse for injuries or other abnormalities.
Horses should have shelter from excessive cold, rain or wind. A simple shelter, open on one side facing away from the prevailing wind, can greatly increases the horse's comfort. Alternatively, when the weather is very bad, it may be necessary to remove the horses from pasture and paddock and put them into their stalls.
The amount of shelter a horse requires depends on the local environment (how extreme the temperature gets locally) but also on the horse. A strong and healthy horse, which is neither very old or very young, will be much more resistant to weather extremes. Likewise, certain breeds (especially if they have a long coat, which has not been trimmed or had the coat oils removed by frequent washing) are more resistant than others. One needs to provide a level of shelter which is appropriate to the individual horse and the current weather. One should also consider a horse rug for horses which are very old, very young, sick, weak or prone to illness. One may also consider a fly sheet which not only increases the horses comfort but also reduces the risk of sweet itch, eye infections (if a fly mask is used) and other illnesses which can be transmitted by biting or blood sucking insects.
9. Consider breed and individual requirements
Each breed has its own special requirements. For examples, many breeds are prone to laminitis and consequently should have only limited access to spring grass. Other breeds may have specific issues and require special treatment (e.g. many Appaloosa are night blind and consequently are more likely to run into fencing if left out at night). Learning about your breed's strengths and weaknesses from a medical perspective will allow you to respond accordingly.
Likewise, each horse is an individual. Some are more weather resistant than others. Some are more prone to colic or other illnesses. As you watch and live with your horse, learn about its special needs and treat it accordingly. For example, if it is allergic to dust, one may need to soak its hay in water or buy low-dust feed. If it looks unhappy and uncomfortable in cold weather, one should consider taking it under shelter or providing it with a rug, as you may be looking at an early warning for a potential illness (e.g. cold-induced colic or a cold-induced lung infection). Taking account of your horse's medical history and behavior as part of your horse management program will help keep it healthy and happy.
10. Continue to learn
Nobody knows everything about horses and everyone started out knowing nothing. However, if you educate yourself and continue to learn, you will be able to take better care of your horse, avoiding problems when possible and otherwise treating them promptly and correctly.