Domestic horses, like many domestic animals, are completely reliant on human beings to ensure optimal condition. The health and well-being of any horse is the sole responsibility of their owner. While the list of equine diseases and ailments can be indefinitely lengthy, this section will focus on five preventive healthcare practices.

The first thing a horse owner or farm manager should do when acquiring a new horse is obtain complete identification and written contact information (Kellon, 1991). The horse’s dated height and weight should be recorded, accompanied by a photo of at least one full side-view of the horse. Any injuries and scars should also be carefully recorded and photographed. In the case of a boarding or training facility, complete business and home address information of the owner should be recorded. An authorization form should also be completed by the horse owner so emergency medical treatment can be performed in the owner’s absence. It is also a good idea to note any pertinent medical history as well as the most current feed schedule to which the horse is accustomed.

Adherence to a properly planned vaccination schedule is the second preventative healthcare practice (Marconi, 2002). Vaccines for certain diseases, such as Potomac horse fever and Lyme disease are given in some areas of the country while not given in others. It is wise to discuss the administration of these vaccines with the local veterinarian. While some horse owners or farm managers feel comfortable administering vaccines themselves, complications such as “anaphylactic shock” can occur within seconds. A horse can die from anaphylactic shock before a vet can even be contacted. Although more expensive, it is worth the expense to allow a qualified veterinarian to supply and administer yearly vaccinations.

Table 4.5 -Vaccination schedule for Adult Horses

Disease/Vaccine Performance Horse (travel often, in contact with other horses) Pleasure Horse (kept on farm, limited travel) Foaling Mares
Tetanus Toxoid

(Anti-toxin given with injuries)

Annual Annual Annual, 6 weeks before foaling
Encephalitis, East, West and West Nile Annual, spring Annual, spring Annual, 6 weeks before foaling
Influenza Every 3 months Every 6 months Every 6 months, booster 6 weeks before foaling
Rhinopneumonitis Every 3 months Every 6 months 5th, 7th, 9th month of gestation
Rabies Annual Annual Annual
Strangles Every 6 months Every 6 months Every 6 months, booster 6 weeks before foaling
Botulism 4-6 weeks before foaling
Rotavirus 8th, 9th, 10th month of gestation

Source: adapted from Wilson, 1999

Control of parasites is a vital part of every health care program. External parasites, such as flies and ticks, can be easily controlled with commercial “fly sprays” containing permectin or citronella. Reducing the number of mosquitoes is accomplished by removing the breeding grounds of mosquitoes, standing water. Regularly cleaning stalls and keeping manure piles at least one-hundred feet from the barn can also significantly reduce external parasites. Internal parasites, such as ascarids, strongyles, roundworms and botflies require the use of “deworming” pastes. Horses should be “dewormed” every two to three months, depending on the area of the country. Like vaccination scheduling, a veterinarian should be consulted to develop an appropriate deworming regimen. Although a veterinarian should be consulted, any horse owner or farm manager is capable of administering a deworming paste. Fecal egg counts, done by a veterinarian lab, should be performed regularly to measure the effectiveness of a deworming program. There are several types of dewormers on the market, such as benzimidazoles, pyrimidines and avermectins. Each of these dewormers is effective at interrupting the life cycle of different parasites, but no product can remove all worms. Therefore a parasite control program that incorporates different types of dewormers is the most effective (Marconi, 2002).

The fourth preventative healthcare practice is care of the teeth. “Dental disease in horses is more common than realized” (Scrutchfield and Schumacher, 1999). Teeth are not only important for eating, but also for proper performance and determination of age. The surfaces of the teeth inside a horse’s mouth are designed to precisely match. This allows the surfaces of the high-crowned teeth to grind and wear-away uniformly. However, teeth are not always perfectly inline. In these cases, some surfaces are worn prematurely while others are not worn at all, causing “hooks” and “points” (Figure 4.19) that need to be made smooth again (Figure 4.20) by a veterinarian in a process called “floating” (Marconi, 2002). Very few horses object to having their teeth floated, if done properly. This process needs to be done yearly, more often if the horse has a known misalignment. A second problem that occurs frequently is interference with the bit caused by “wolf teeth”. There is a gap between the incisors and molars which accommodates the bit nicely. However, in some horses, small rudimentary premolars erupt in the gap. These wolf teeth need to be extracted by a qualified veterinarian before the bit can be reintroduced in the mouth.

Figure 4.19 -Points on Horse Teeth


Figure 4.20 -Horse Teeth after Floating


The last component of preventative healthcare involves the hooves. There is a common saying, “no hoof, no horse” that couldn’t be more truthful. It is estimated that eighty to ninety percent of all lameness is related to hoof problems (Kellon, 1991). The hooves support the weight of the horse, absorb shock, provide traction and aid in pumping blood through the legs. Wild horses have relatively few hoof problems compared to their domestic cousins, who are confined in stalls and pastures and given “shoes” to give the appearance of healthy hooves. Most domestic horses, if fed a nutritious diet and given plenty off pasture area, may never need to have shoes attached to their hooves, although they still require regular “trims”. Growing foals sometimes require synthetic shoes to correct a bone development disorder. Hoof problems are common among Thoroughbreds, who are bred for speed, not health. They often have weak hoof walls and would be lame within days if not provided metal shoes. Shoes can be made of a variety of materials; steel shoes are most common. Racing horses are usually fitted with lightweight aluminum shoes. Glue-on silicon shoes are also available for horses whose hooves are so weak they cannot hold steel shoes. Shoes must be taken off every six to eight weeks by a qualified “farrier”, who then trims and balances the hoof and replaces the shoes. Daily cleaning of the hoof, using a “hoof pick” removes bacteria and foreign objects from the hoof which could otherwise embed in the hoof, causing lameness. Bacteria buildup in the hoof causes a fungal infection called “thrush” that is easily treated if caught in the early stages.

Figure 4.21 -Normal Hoof Structure


However, the most dramatic and life-threatening hoof disorder is called “laminitis” (Marconi, 2002). The sensitive tissue the attaches the hoof to the foot is called laminae (Figure 4.21). Endotoxins invade the bloodstream of horses causing the laminae to become inflamed. If left untreated, the inflamed laminae will begin to detach from the hoof wall, causing the bones of the hoof to sink through the bottom of the horse, most often resulting in death (Figure 4.22). Endotoxins invade the bloodstream for a variety of reasons. Eating excess amounts of fructin rich spring grass, overfeeding grain or a retained placenta in a mare can cause endotoxins to be released. Laminitis often occurs secondary to other diseases, attacking the horse when its health is already compromised. A horse who manages to recover from laminitis is said to have “foundered” (Marconi, 2002). A foundered horse will require therapeutic shoes and careful health monitoring to prevent a second bout of laminitis.

Figure 4.22 -Laminitis


The primary way to ensure a preventative healthcare program succeeds is to diligently keep written records for each of the five guidelines for every horse in the barn. Separate forms for each of the five components should be kept, although wading through books of documents can become cumbersome during an emergency. Therefore, a master chart of routine health and management concerns should be kept for each horse. This master chart should always be readily available, perhaps kept in a protective folder attached to the horse’s stall. Refer to Appendix B for an example of a master chart.