Horse Care

by Rebecca on January 14, 2008

in Animal Health

These general guidelines for horse owners are not intended to replace
regular visits with a veterinarian. If you have a question about your
animal’s health, please consult your vet.

Nutritional Needs
A horse’s digestive system is made to process large quantities of grass,
which is high in fiber and water. The basic diet for most horses should be
grass and good quality hay, free of dust and mold. In most cases, plenty of
fresh, clean, unfrozen water should be available at all times, even if the
horse only drinks once or twice a day.
How much is enough?
Most of the time, horses should be able to graze or eat hay when they want
to. An empty stomach lends itself to a higher risk of ulcers, which are
quite common in race and sport horses. How much to feed depends on various
factors such as condition and activity level, but most horses should eat
between 2% and 4% of their body weight in pounds of hay or other feeds. You
have to watch your horse and make sure he is maintaining an appropriate
weight. Your veterinarian can help you decide how to feed to keep your horse
fit and healthy.

A word on grains
Most horses, even fairly active ones, don’t need the extra calories found in
grains, which are high in carbohydrates. Foals fed “high energy” diets can
develop bone and joint problems. Some adult horses develop certain muscle
disorders related to excess carbohydrates. It is also incorrect to feed a
horse extra grain in the winter to keep him warm. Hay, in fact, produces
more heat when digested.

Any changes in the diet should be made gradually to avoid colic (abdominal
pain usually associated with intestinal disease) or laminitis (painful
inflammation in the hoof associated with separation of the hoof bone from
the hoof wall), either of which can be catastrophic. A horse or pony
breaking into the grain bin or being allowed to gorge on green pasture for
the first time since the fall is headed for disaster. If you travel with
your horse, bring his food along. For some horses, you may also have to
bring a supply of the water he is used to.

Vaccinations and Deworming
All horses need vaccinations and most need regular deworming. The specifics
should be discussed with an equine veterinarian. Every horse should be
protected against tetanus. Other vaccines given routinely include eastern
and western equine encephalomyelitis, equine influenza, rhinopneumonitis
(equine herpes), and rabies. Vaccines for West Nile Virus are also
available. Ask your veterinarian if other vaccines are appropriate for your

Worms can cause weight loss, poor coat, and colic, which can be deadly. It
is best to have your veterinarian test and deworm your horse, or advise you
on what to use and when. More important than treating worms is minimizing
the horse’s exposure to parasites. Proper management entails not putting too
many horses on too little land, rotating pastures if possible, and removing
feces regularly.

Housing, Rest and Exercise
Contrary to what you may have heard, straight stalls are not necessarily
worse than box stalls if the horses are together, and spend most of their
day outside. Horses isolated in box stalls can develop behavioral problems
from lack of companionship, exercise, and mental stimulation. Whenever
possible, horses should be outside with other horses every day.

Horses can go into a light sleep with their legs “locked” so that it takes
very little effort to remain standing. In order to achieve deep (REM or
“dreaming”) sleep, a horse must lie flat. It is not known how much or how
often a horse needs to do this, but do take note of any changes in your
horse’s sleeping patterns.

Horses were born to move. In the wild they may walk many miles in a day,
sometimes trot, but rarely gallop unless they have to. Daily opportunity to
exercise is a must, but if you are building up your horse’s strength and
conditioning, follow a sensible plan and do it gradually.

Extreme Weather Precautions
Unless it is very wet and windy, horses tolerate cold much better than heat
and humidity. If they can’t sweat, they can’t get rid of heat buildup in
their bodies. If the sum of the temperature in degrees Fahrenheit and the
relative humidity in percentage is over 130, you should be cautious about
exercising your horse. If it is over 150, you should probably rest in the
shade, and if it is over 180, most horses should not work at all.

Hoof Care
Hooves should be trimmed every six to eight weeks for horses whose feet do
not get adequate natural wear. Despite tradition, most horses don’t need
shoes if their hooves are given the opportunity to strengthen naturally. In
fact, some hoof problems are directly related to shoeing. However, changes
should not be made suddenly or without expert guidance. Finding a
veterinarian or farrier willing to discuss all the options may be hard, but
worthwhile. In any case, neglecting the feet can be disastrous for the

Horses’ teeth grow continuously. Uneven wear can lead to sharp points and
edges that cause pain and difficulty chewing. A horse’s teeth should be
checked once or twice a year and “floated” (to make them smoother) by a
veterinarian or well-trained equine dentist as needed. Dental problems, from
painful points to rotting teeth, may cause difficulty chewing or “quidding,”
which occurs when food falls out of the mouth. Other signs of dental disease
may include foul breath, undigested hay in the stools, or discomfort from
the bit or noseband. Dental disease can lead to choke, colic, and weight

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