We can all spot a horse that is really ill, but what about a horse that looks or feels just ‘not quite right’?
While you or I might ditch our plans and head to the sofa armed with painkillers, as a prey animal, if a horse is feeling under the weather, his natural instinct is to suffer in silence rather than make his ailments clear and thus attract unwanted attention. Being familiar with what is normal — and therefore being able to quickly spot when something is amiss — is very important.
Limbs and feet: feel your horse’s legs every day, so that you become familiar with his lumps, bumps and imperfections. If you know what’s right, it makes it easier to spot the first signs of any heat, swelling or tenderness.
Examine his coat: a horse’s coat and body shape reveals a lot. A truly fit horse will have a glossy, shiny coat and his muscles will ripple. A dull, stary coat can indicate that something’s wrong.
Note his outlook: a healthy horse should look bright, alert and interested in his surroundings; any change in your horse’s behaviour could be a tell-tale sign that something is amiss.
Know his vital statistics: a horse’s respiration rate is between 8-16 breaths per minute — you can watch his chest move in and out. His temperature should not exceed 38.5 degrees Celsius and his pulse should be between 30 and 36 beats per minute (bpm). The latter can be measured on the horse’s jaw or on either side of the fetlock.
Keep an eye on droppings: they should be firm and not loose or contain undigested grains.
To give our horse the best possible chance to stay fighting fit we need to ensure that his daily routine and exercise programme is conducive to good health. Here’s how:
Keep him moving: horses are designed to move around, so leaving him cooped up in a stable for a long period of time goes against the grain.
Stick to a routine: horses thrive on familiarity, so even if you can’t ride at the same time each day, try to keep everything else consistent.
Spend time warming up…: this isn’t just about preparing for the ring; it gives the horse’s body chance to work so that it stays injury-free.
…and cooling down: this is fundamental to a horse’s wellbeing. By letting a horse stretch his neck and relax his body, lactic acid can be released from his muscles, which reduces the risk of post-exercise injury. When it comes to washing off, studies show that cool running water is more effective than ice. After hard work — such as galloping, jumping or a very hot day — cold hose your horse’s legs for at least five minutes.
Provide good quality feed: a healthy horse should have a good appetite; reluctance to eat is often one of the first indicators of illness. Always give good-quality feed to provide your horse with fuel and energy to do the job. There are myriad supplements on the market, many of which can be extremely beneficial, but don’t feed them for the sake of it. If in doubt, consult a qualified nutritionist.
Recognise the signs of dehydration: over a typical 24-hour period, a horse will drink between 20-30 litres of water. In hot weather, this can increase to 50-60 litres. Depriving him of water can lead to under-performance and illness. It is a good idea to add electrolytes to your horse’s feed in hot weather to replace lost fluids.