Common Horse Health Problems
You love your horse, so you no doubt want him to live a long and healthy life. To ensure this, you should become familiar with some of the common ailments that can affect horses. In addition, establish a relationship with a local equine vet as soon as you obtain your horse. Follow her advice on deworming and vaccinations—these will depend on your location because different diseases and parasites are more common in some areas than others. Lastly, observe your horse closely and learn what normal behavior is for him. Abnormal behavior may be your first clue that something is wrong. The sooner you detect a problem, the sooner you can take steps to fix it.
Colic is actually not one condition; it is a catchall name for several different serious digestive problems that commonly afflict horses. Make no mistake: You must deal with suspected colic immediately, as all forms can be fatal. The condition can be caused by a blockage of the intestines (caused by improper food, foreign objects, or other factors), excessive gas in the intestines (usually caused by a rapid change in diet), or the intestines becoming twisted (causes not well understood). Colic can also be caused by some gastrointestinal parasites.
The most serious type is colic that results from the intestines becoming twisted, which normally requires surgery to correct. Surgery for severe colic is expensive, and not all horses survive. This is why it is imperative to seek care at the first signs of colic.
If your horse exhibits the following signs, he may have colic: inappetence, constipation or infrequent bowel movements, signs of being in pain, repeated flehmen response, teeth clenching, salivation, stretching the legs out from the body (a position called “parking”), pacing, nipping at or looking at his sides, pawing the ground, getting up and down often, and frequent rolling. If your horse exhibits any of these signs, call your equine vet immediately
You can help prevent colic by feeding your horse a proper diet; ensuring that he always has clean water available; not allowing him to ingest dirt, sand, or other inappropriate materials; making any dietary changes gradually; and performing deworming regularly as recommended by your veterinarian.
“Heaves” is the commonly used word for the medical condition known as recurrent airway obstruction (RAO). This is a chronic respiratory inflammation frequently caused by an allergic reaction to airborne particles. It bears some resemblance to asthma in humans. RAO is most often seen in horses who are in their stable a lot and exposed to dust and molds from old hay and straw.
The signs of heaves include shortness of breath (especially after exertion), moist coughing (often but not always producing copious phlegm), and wheezing. In severe cases, afflicted horses will struggle to breathe—this is a veterinary emergency! Horses who have heaves for a long time will develop “heave lines”—a prominent bulge of muscle along the ribs.
The best treatment and prevention for heaves is to keep your horse outside as much as possible. Additionally, eliminate sources of mold and dust by throwing out and replacing old hay and bedding, soaking hay in water before feeding, cleaning out his stall frequently, and anything else you can do to reduce your horse’s exposure to airborne particles. Once a horse has heaves, he may need to be medicated for the rest of his life, and his ability to work or perform may be limited.
Laminitis is an inflammation of certain internal structures of the hoof. This painful and serious condition causes lameness; the horse may lie down to try to relieve the pain in his hooves. The affected foot may feel hot to the touch.
There are numerous causes, most relating to some type of whole-body stress (trauma, colic surgery, hormonal disorders, etc.). Another common cause is eating too much grain. Other less common causes are untreated infections, working a horse on very hard ground (e.g., asphalt), reactions to drugs, and reactions to agricultural chemicals—especially herbicides and fertilizers.
If laminitis goes untreated, it may result in the horse becoming lame for life. Seek veterinary attention if you suspect that your horse has laminitis. Treatment may involve cryotherapy (cold packs), anti-inflammatory drugs, and/or orthotic devices.
Other Hoof Problems
Horses spend much of their time on their hooves, so it should come as no surprise that these important and complicated structures can suffer from a host of injuries and other problems. Check your horse’s hooves for sprung or shifted shoes, cracks, strange smells, or any other abnormalities after each time you ride him or he comes in from the pasture. If you find anything that looks like it might be a problem, contact your veterinarian or farrier.
An abscess is an infectious pocket within a bodily cavity—in this case, within the hoof. Usually, this occurs after a foreign object, such as a nail or sharp stone, penetrates the hoof. If your horse has a hoof abscess, he will probably hold his leg up and be hesitant to put pressure on that foot due to the pain. Your veterinarian will open and drain the abscess; you will need to follow up with medication, poultices, soaking, or whatever else she prescribes.
Horses, like any other animals who spend a lot of time outdoors, are often exposed to parasites. A wide range of parasitic organisms can afflict your horse, including ticks, lice, pinworms, tapeworms, roundworms, and lungworms. It is virtually impossible to remove all parasites from your horse; rather, you should seek to reduce his parasite load as much as possible.
Internal parasites (“endoparasites” to veterinarians) include a variety of worms that usually reside in the guts, although some may live in the lungs, liver, or other organs. Most of these parasites can be controlled through regular deworming as recommended by your equine vet. Additionally, reduce your horse’s exposure to possible sources of these pests by removing manure from paddocks and stalls frequently and by rotating and resting your pasture regularly.
External parasites (“exoparasites”) are bugs, worms, and other organisms that attach to your horse’s skin and feed on his blood. Ticks, lice, and pinworms are the most common types. If your horse is constantly rubbing his skin on objects (like he’s scratching an itch) and possibly losing hair, he likely has one of these bloodsuckers. Examine his mane and tail carefully for ticks, comb them out, and give your horse a thorough bath. Make sure that your regular deworming routine provides protection against pinworms. If you suspect lice, consult your veterinarian for proper treatment.
“Tying up” is one of many names for exertional rhabdomyolysis (ER); azoturia and Monday morning disease are some other common names for this syndrome, which can result in severe muscle damage or degeneration. There does not seem to be one definite cause for this problem. A sudden increase in a horse’s workload is always part of the cause, but other factors must exist along with the increased exertion to cause ER. These other factors include overfeeding grains, hard work after a long rest, mineral imbalances, selenium deficiency, vitamin E deficiency, hypothyroidism, wet or cold weather, and genetic predisposition. The signs of tying up are a stiff or stilted gait, soreness in the back or hind limbs, cramping, and reluctance to move. If your horse exhibits these signs, he needs immediate rest, and you must contact your veterinarian as soon as possible for treatment.