Horse health is an area where owners often feel underprepared and overwhelmed, especially when you see a wound or notice that your horse doesn’t seem quite right, but don’t know how to check. Like anything horse related, you’ll gain knowledge and ‘feel’ as you go, but there are some basic horse health signs that all horse owners should know off the top of their heads. The same as with humans, this can help you decide when to get medical help, and when you can afford to wait and see.
If your horse is looking a little flat or under the weather, temperature is a good starting point. For horses, a normal temperature is in the 99-101°F range. Take your horse’s temperature a few times when he isn’t sick to get an idea of what his standard is. A slightly elevated temperature can often be monitored at home for a day or so as the horse fights off any minor problems, but anything more than a couple of degrees over the usual or which persists for longer than a day is a fever which should be checked by a vet. Very high temperatures always require a vet.
If you see people checking their horse’s gums, they’re probably looking at the color. It’s a good indicator for general health and normally, you’d expect to see the gums just a little bit paler than human gums, so a healthy pink. Here is what different gum color can indicate:
- Yellow: Yellow gums in horses often indicate liver problems
- Purple/blue: This indicates a lack of oxygen and is usually only seen in severe illness
- Brick red/dark red: Dark red gums are often a sign of toxicity or dehydration
- Very pale: This is often linked to fever or blood loss
Remember to regularly inspect the gums both before and after work so you learn what normal color is for your horse. They will often be slightly darker after work.
If they are yellow, blue, or dark red then you need to get medical assistance ASAP.
An abnormally fast or slow resting heart rate is cause for alarm in your horse. When they’re at rest, the average heart rate for a horse is 36-44 beats per minute. There is some variance in this though, as with humans, depending on the fitness level of the horse. When exercising or anxious, their maximum heart rates can be over 200 beats per minute.
In everyday circumstances though, a heart rate reaching 60 bpm or higher should be considered a sign of a horse in pain, and would warrant a call to your vet.
If you want to measure your horse’s heart rate, the easiest place to find the pulse is under his jaw.
Colic – defined as any abdominal pain (but more commonly used to talk about gastrointestinal problems)- is one of the most common medical problems in horses and almost all owners will face it within the first few years of horse ownership. Even though it’s so common, it’s important not to get complacent when it comes to colic as it can become serious very quickly. Typical signs of colic include your horse lying down or trying to roll, pawing at the ground or kicking and biting at his stomach, not wanting to eat, and general signs of distress and discomfort like sweating, stretching, or an elevated heart rate.
Without fail, call the vet for colic symptoms. Although mild ones can be treated very easily, they have the potential to deteriorate and become an emergency.
Oh no, your horse seems to have hurt something and isn’t his usual, sound self! When is lameness or soreness cause for a vet visit? If your horse is very lame or struggling to bear weight, it’s quite obvious that you need urgent medical assistance. The same goes for lameness that gets worse over time, or any sudden and severe soreness after a fall or accident.
However, if your horse is just looking slightly unlevel, a tiny bit short, or is taking an occasional “off” step but seems happy to move around in his field and isn’t in any obvious distress, you can often let him rest for a couple of days to see if it improves before getting an expert opinion. Like humans, horses can sometimes have muscle stiffness or soreness from their day to day lives or could even have had a bit of a stumble in the paddock. In these instances, a few days off and some light stretching work for a day or two is often all the medicine they need.
Bad Wounds vs Superficial Wounds
It’s inevitable that at some point during horse ownership, your horse is going to turn up with a gash or cut. Many of these can be successfully treated at home without any veterinary intervention, but some need more attention. How can you tell? If the wound is very deep or the horse seems to be lame or struggling with pain, a vet should see to it. Similarly, if the cut is very close to a joint and/or seems like a puncture wound, it’s also advisable to have a vet out as these can quickly become infected.
If the cut is not too deep and doesn’t seem to be causing pain or problems, you can normally clean, treat, and dress it yourself while keeping an eye on it to ensure things don’t get worse. Most day-to-day scrapes and cuts fall into this category.
With these basic horse health indicators and some simple knowledge of what is normal for your own horse, you should be equipped to deal with everyday situations and know when to call in the vet for help.
Of course, no owner can ever have too much horse health knowledge, and you will continue learning for the rest of your life! It goes without saying, however, that if you aren’t sure what you’re dealing with or don’t know the best course of action, it’s safest to have an expert come and take a look.
Comment below with any cool horse health tips you’ve learned about recently.
Featured image by Photo by Esther Driehaus.