Healthy Horse

To be able to recognize when a horse is ill or off-color the owner must be familiar with the signs of good health. A knowledge of what is normal will help to identify that which is abnormal. The horse’s general attitude should be bright and alert without being nervous. He will normally welcome a visitor to his box or at least recognize the visitor’s presence.

He should stand with equal weight on each of his four legs, but will often rest a hind leg. When a foreleg is rested it usually means that it hurts, and needs to have the weight taken off it. However, this is not always the case – some horses rest a sound foreleg, which emphasizes the need to know the normal ways of an individual so that the abnormal can be quickly recognized. The attitude of the horse’s head and the look on his face are good indications of his overall well-being. The eye should be bright, clear, and alert without weeping or discharge. The mucus membrane (the pink surround under the eyelids) should be salmon-pink color, not red and inflamed or white and anemic.

The cars should be mobile and attentive; ears that are permanently laid back are a sign of some disorder or distress. When the horse pricks his ears he is focusing both eyes on a single object, usually the sign of a bright alert horse. The nostrils should be open and without discharge, the mucus membrane again being salmon-pink. The lips should be closed and the inside of the lips and gums should be of a similar color to the membranes of the eyes and nostrils.

The carriage of the head is an indication of his state of health. The head hung low or raised unnaturally is often an indication that all is not well. The body should be warm to the touch. A good way of checking whether or not the horse is cold is to feel his cars – if they are cold to the touch the horse is usually cold. The coat should be soft and shining, and the skin soft and supple, moving freely over the underlying tissues. The skin should also be free from spots, lumps, or sores. Bald patches or an unhealthy appearance of the mane and tail are indications that the horse is, in some way, unhealthy.

The legs should be without abnormal lumps and humps. They should be cool to the touch, the hack tendons being cold and hard. There should be no soreness or weeping at the back of the pastern or the heels. Hooves should be hard and cold, the sole dry and hard, and the frog well formed and springy. There must be no trace of a foul smell. At walk, trot, and canter the horse should move freely and should show no signs of officering one or more legs.

The healthy horse will pass droppings and stale without pain, effort, or distress. On average the horse passes droppings about eight to ten times a day, and stales about five to six times a day. The consistency of the droppings should be that they are passed easily and break on hitting the ground. Urine should be almost, odorless and passed without strain. Dark or rust-colored urine is a sign of ill health as a rule. The horse should eat with enthusiasm and drink from 36 to 45 liters (8 to lO gal) of water a day. However some horses are slow eaters, and they may leave some food and return to it later.


The horse’s temperature is taken in the rectum. To do this, grease the bulb end of the thermometer with a little vaseline and, lifting the horse’s tail with one hand, insert the thermometer withal rotary action into the rectum. Do not let go of the thermometer and keep it inserted for about two minutes.

After this time withdraw it and read the temperature from the graduated scale. The thermometer should then be washed and returned to its case. As the horse’s normal temperature is between 37.2°and 38.3°C(99° and 101°F) a rise of a degree should be considered abnormal and a rise of two or three degrees should be considered serious and requiring veterinary attention.

Pulse rate

The normal pulse rate at rest is 36 to 40 beats per minute.  

Areas in which the horse’s pulse can be most easily felt: I the facial artery, under the jaw; 2 the carotid artery, on the neck near the jugular vein; 3 the median artery, behind the elbow

where the facial artery can be felt against the jaw bone. The pulse can also be felt at the carotid artery near the jugular vein in the neck or the median artery behind the elbow.

Rate of respiration

The normal rate of respiration for the horse at rest is between 8 and 16 breaths per minute. The rate of breathing can best be seen by looking at the rib cage from the rear. As the horse exhales the rib cage should make one complete movement. If there is a double beat of the rib cage as he exhales, this may be a sign that the horse has ‘broken wind’ which is an irreversible condition. This may not be obvious when the horse is at rest, so this examination should be made after the horse has been given ash or gallop.

Veterinary Care

The stabled horse is kept in an unnatural environment, feels a comparatively unnatural diet, and has considerable unnatural physical strain put upon him when he is ridden. Consequently, heirs are subjected to numerous health risks. He is prone to digestive disorders, various infections, respiratory disorders, and the effects of concussion on his limbs.

The horse owner must be able to tell when a horse is off-color, unwell, or very ill, and must know how to treat minor ailments, when to call the veterinary surgeon (and what information to give on the telephone), and how to ‘sick nurse’ the horse.

The veterinary surgeon will want to know: the broad nature of the trouble; details of any injury; temperature, pulse, and respiration rate; when dung and urine were last passed; when the horse last ate or drank. He should be called in when:

  • 1. The horse is clearly in distress, lying down and kicking, rolling excessively, sweating profusely, etc.
  • 2. When the temperature rises more than one degree above normal.
  • 3. When the pulse reaches 50 beats per minute or more.
  • 4. When blood from a wound cannot be stemmed or is spurting in unison with the heartbeat.
  • 5. When the owner is in doubt about the seriousness of any injury or ailment.

The sick horse should be kept quiet and warm and put on a laxative diet. The concentrating element in the diet must be reduced when the horse is off work. Failure to do this will result in further undesirable and dangerous complications.

See more: Grass for Horse Grazing

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