Story by: Jackie Bellamy-Zions
No one spends more time with your horse than you. Naturally, the role of primary caretaker and advocate for horse health falls on the person in closest contact with said equine. The well-rounded horse person is more than a good rider. They are educated in normal parameters of horse health and keen observers, on the look-out for anything that is abnormal, for that individual horse. In this article Dr. Laura Frost and Dr. Brianne Henderson will discuss the important role the horse owner plays in maintaining and optimizing their horse’s health.
Getting to know you
Waiting until you have a reason to take a horse’s vitals is a good example of shutting the barn door after the great escape. Frost points out vitals vary from horse to horse. “It is important to know if your horse sits at the low or high end of any given vitals range for you to have a good base line.” Take the horse’s vitals when you can gain the most accurate reading for a resting rate (I.e. not right before feeding, after being outside in the sun, while under tack or after exercise unless you are monitoring recovery rates).
Frost and Henderson both concur that grooming is more than knocking off the dirt in preparation for riding but a full body check that can alert owners to any swellings, soreness, changes in behaviour or ailments that may require close monitoring or immediate attention. No stranger to the sport of endurance riding, Henderson also points out one should be familiar with the numbers for their horse’s recovery rates determining how long it takes vitals to return to normal after a work-out.
Henderson is quick to recommend Equine Guelph’s Horse Health check poster as a great resource for horse owners to become familiar with vitals and other normal parameters, sighting its ease of use with the green/yellow/red indicators for each section of the 16-point check. Knowing how to quantify and classify ‘not normal’ is crucial when speaking to your veterinarian on the phone. Both Frost and Henderson attest this exact information allows them to gauge the urgency of a call and whether they should be treating it as an emergency or scheduling a visit in their upcoming week.
The power of observation
“Keeping a log really goes a long way,” states Frost. “A novel is not helpful but keeping accurate health records and knowing when a problem starts and if it is reoccurring can often tell you more about what is going on.”
“It is easy to get caught up with goals and the fast-pace of day-to-day life,” says Henderson, but it is important to take a moment to look at the full health picture on a daily basis. Henderson goes on to list some components of due diligence: looking at the amount and consistency of manure in the stall, water consumption, noticing if feed is left behind or picking up on an unusual stance in the horse. “One of the first things I look at when attending a colic call is the state of the stall,” says Henderson. “I look to see if the shavings are level or if the horse has churned them up box walking.” Henderson then goes on to look at the other points of due diligence and asks when the stall was last picked out.
For another example –a horse that consistently rests the same hind leg is cause for further investigation. If you push him onto the other hind- does he return to the favored leg? Henderson explains the observant horse owner will quickly notice this is a possible indication of soreness.
Springing into action
“Early intervention always offers the best prognosis and increases the probability of a good outcome,” explains Frost. Take for example a horse that develops swelling in the suspensory area and looks mildly lame for a day. The horse owner might employ cold therapy for a couple days and then put the horse back to work when everything seems to return to normal but later the horse comes up 3/5 lame. “Suspensory injuries can be sneaky,” says Frost, “and what starts off as a minor injury can turn into a major one if not diagnosed and treated correctly at the onset.”
Of course, sometimes springing into action is simply a matter of treating a minor cut or scrape the moment you spot it in order to prevent infection but when in doubt, do not hesitate to call your veterinarian. Frost goes on to explain the dangers of treating horses with the wrong medication sighting a common example of corneal ulcers on a horse’s eye. Often they are just mild to start but if left untreated or treated incorrectly they can progress to be quite serious. Treatment with the wrong ointment (perhaps loaned from a well-meaning co-boarder) could result in a melting ulcer. It is always best to call the veterinarian to check out any problem pertaining to eyes as soon as possible (eye issues can be very painful for the horse).
Another good example of early intervention could be catching a sarcoid in its initial stages and having the option to treat it topically versus excising a huge growth under general anesthetic if it has been allowed to develop.
Springing into action is a definite requirement at the first sign of an infectious disease. This action requires a call to the veterinarian without delay for treatment and immediate advice on biosecurity measures, which may include isolation, to help stop the spread to other horses in the barn and surrounding regions.
The all-important “ounce of prevention”
Henderson can attest in her experience with horses, this is not an old cliché. Prevention is the best medicine and thinking three steps ahead goes a long way in minimizing injuries. A simple example is avoiding an icy path by breaking it up or putting sand down. Prevention should never be considered time consuming when it is ultimately cost saving and an exercise in preserving health and welfare.
Henderson encourages her clients to perform body condition scoring every two to three weeks. It is a good practice all year long. Many horse owners are caught by surprise when they look under the blanket come springtime to find a horse 100 lbs. underweight.
More weather-related prevention methods including ensuring horses are drinking adequate amounts and blanketed accordingly on days when the temperatures fluctuate from +5 to -10 in a 24 hour period. Yo-yoing temperatures can be really hard on horses as can the occurrence of brutally long cold snaps. Henderson stresses the importance of providing adequate, good quality, forage and the ability to access shelter to escape from weather and drafts.
Increasing forage in a cold spell is an easy prevention measure to help the horse stay warm and avoid dropping weight. Henderson explains, allowing horses to trickle feed hay is also a great way to maintain digestive health, help prevent ulcers and promote good mental health. They were designed to graze while moving over terrain for over eighteen hours a day.
Frost stresses horse owners really need to cover all the basics in order to be productive in any riding discipline. This includes: a solid foundation in their training methods, an understanding of proper hoof care, booking routine farrier appointments (every 5 -6 weeks for the average horse) and following routine veterinary care (such as annual dental work and vaccinations). “You can do all the advanced imaging in the world on your horse but if you are not performing basics such as performing fecals and deworming, you will only be as good as your weakest link,” concludes Frost.