Every equestrian should learn how to check a horse’s physical condition for tell-tale signs of illness, injury or fatigue. The health check is a critical factor with all competitions, and it is useful in day to day management as well.
In most cases routine checks are second nature and often you will perform them subconsciously every time you ride, groom, feed, bring in or turn out your horse.
When you are doing it more formally, don’t rush into it. Stand back and just watch the animal carefully for a few minutes. The horse should be alert and his ears should be pricking to and fro. Is the coat sleek and lying flat? Are the eyes open and bright, with the membranes under the lids and the lining of the nostrils salmon pink in colour? A horse at rest should not be sweating.
There are a few aspects of horse health you need to monitor on a daily basis:
Q The amount of feed being consumed, with the horse eating well and chewing normally. If a normally greedy eater suddenly slows down you’ll know something could be wrong. Check for excess salivation or dropping food when eating. This can mean there is a problem with the teeth or tongue or throat.
Q The amount of water being consumed. The average horse drinks between 15 and 30 litres a day, depending on the air temperature, activity level and whether the horse’s main diet is grass or hay. The urine should be fairly thick, light brown or almost colourless and should be passed several times a day. All is not well if the horse strains to urinate, or if the urine is coffee or blood coloured.
Q The amount of manure being produced. This is more difficult to monitor if your horse is out on pasture, but you can count on cleaning out about eight piles of well formed, firm manure (depending on the size of the horse) a day from a horse kept stabled. The faeces should appear as a mass of firmish round balls, which should separate into individual balls as they hit the ground. The smell should not be offensive. Runny manure can be a sign of nerves, but can also mean illness or an unsuitable diet. Constipation or straining to produce manure is also not healthy.
Q Do a visual check daily for lumps, bruises, scrapes or punctures, runny noses or eyes. Check for symmetry on both sides of the animal, looking out for unusual swellings that could indicate the site of injury or disease.
Q The horse should stand evenly on all four feet, although sometimes they rest a hind foot. Check hooves frequently for cracks, signs of infection (unusually bad smell or secretions), and loose shoes (easily identifiable by walking the horse over concrete or brick. If the shoe clanks it’s loose.
Q When the horse is walking it should be take strides of equal length, with the weight evenly distributed.
Q The breathing rate can be measured by watching the sideways expansion of the chest. When at rest the rate should be 8 – 14 inhalations per minute. The rate can often be raised when the horse is stressed or sick.
Q The pulse can be taken by placing two fingers on the facial artery where it runs over the edge of the jaw bone. Count the number of beats in 15 seconds and multiply by 4 to give the heart rate for one minute. Normal ranges between 35 and 42 beats per minute.
Q If you have a rectal thermometer, the temperature should be 37,3 – 38oC.
Q Pinch or ‘tent’ the loose skin on the neck or shoulder between your fingers and thumb for a few seconds. In healthy animals the skin should then immediately return to normal, whereas if the horse is dehydrated there will be a delay before it flattens out again. The skin should move easily over the bones.
Pain is hard to define and measure in animals. Because there is no other way of communicating with them, we have to rely on their behaviour to tell us where the pain is and how bad it is.
Some of the signs of pain are common to most species of animal:
Q reluctance to eat;
Q dullness (or increased agitation and restlessness);
Q standing apart from its mates;
Q groaning, especially if the injured part is moved or pressed;
Q horses may kick at the affected part or kick out at the handler;
Q unusual immobility or reluctance to move;
Q change in personality (usually for the worse!);
Q increased muscle tone (tight-feeling, harder) around the affected area;
Q limping or uneven gait;
Q head pressing (eg, against a post or building);
Q increased heart rate, increased respiration rate;
With horses, also take note of:
Q kicking at belly;
Q looking round at flank;
Q teeth grinding;
Q rigid posture;
Q head held low.
In horses with colic, the normal gurgly abdominal (gut) sounds are absent.