A Checklist for Horse Health

Using these lists, you can build a consistent routine for your horse’s health.

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Horse ownership is daunting. The amount of information, opinions and different ways of doing things mean there are thousands of variations on how horse health is managed. Luckily, there are several core principles and routines throughout the year that you can follow to make sure your equine partner is in good health for years to come.

A gray filly in a spring meadow
Photo by VICUSCHKA/Adobe Stock

Here, two equine veterinarians have compiled some easy-to-understand instructions for checking your horse’s vital signs and keeping up with the best horse health practices through the year.

Kathryn Slaughter-Mehfoud, DVM, is an equine surgeon based in Kentucky. Julie Christopher-White, DVM, is a general equine practitioner based in Oklahoma whose skills include acupuncture and chiropractic work.

Daily Horse Health Checks

According to Christopher-White, being familiar with horses’ normal vital signs and appearance means you will pick up on something “off” with his health more quickly. Running through this checklist every time your horse is brought in from the pasture or getting tacked up for a ride means every scratch, mild fever, or rock wedged in the hoof will be noticed immediately.

“If you can have a good [health] history on your horse, it can help the diagnostic side of the healthcare a lot,” says Christopher-White.

General Check

Start the daily health routine with a one-minute check of every inch of your horse, including his belly, between his legs and down his legs, looking for abrasions and swelling.

Hoof Care

Pick out and dry hooves thoroughly if muddy or wet. Slaughter-Mehfoud says slippery ice balls in the feet in the winter and muddy feet in the summer can contribute to the formation of thrush, which is a smelly infection that can eat through the hoof. Thrush often forms around the frog and has a black crumbly or gooey appearance.

Respiratory Rate

Watch the ribcage rise and fall for 30 seconds and multiply by two for breaths per minute. Look for breaths to fall between 8 and 15 per minute.

Hydration Status

Just like with people, staying hydrated is important for a horse’s health. Dehydration can cause colic, which is a life-threatening problem.

The simplest way to check for hydration is to look at a horses’ manure. It shouldn’t be too hard and dry.

Another way to check for hydration is capillary refill time. To assess this, hold your finger against the horses’ gums for a few seconds before releasing and watching them to turn pink again.

“After releasing, count the number of seconds it takes for the gums to return to that pink color. If it takes more than two seconds, the horse is dehydrated,” says Slaughter-Mehfoud.

Checking a horse's gums to determine his hydration status, which is crucial to horse health
One way to check hydration status is to press your horse’s gums for a few seconds. If they take more than two seconds to return to pink, your horse is dehydrated. Photo by Gina Cioli

Temperature

A horse’s temperature should be taken rectally with a designated thermometer. The normal range is 99-101.5 degrees Fahrenheit. If a temperature is higher than 101.5 degrees, it could be a sign that a horse is becoming sick. (Be sure to wait at least 90 minutes after exercise before taking temperature.)

Heart Rate

An elevated heart rate can indicate pain or sickness, so having knowledge of your horses’ resting heart rate is important for future reference. A stethoscope is helpful for this, and the heart rate can be faintly heard by firmly pressing the stethoscope behind the left elbow.

Another method of finding the pulse is pressing two fingers under the jaw. In both instances, set a timer for 30 seconds, count the beats and multiply by two. Twenty-four to 48 beats per minute is considered normal.

Checking a horse's pulse under the jaw as a health check
One way to take the pulse is by pressing two fingers under the jaw. Photo by Gina Cioli

Body Condition Score (BCS)

Horses are scored from 1 to 9 on the Henneke BCS system, with 1 being emaciated and 9 being extremely obese. A score of 5, considered “moderate,” is ideal for most horses, although age and past health history should be taken into account.

“We want you to be able to feel your horses’ ribs by applying mild pressure,” says Slaughter-Mehfoud.

Spring Horse Health Checks

Wellness Exam

Christopher-White recommends a springtime veterinary examination of horses so their general health can be assessed by a professional and any concerns addressed.

An equine veterinarian talking to a customer
The spring wellness exam is a great time to talk to your vet about any concerns and check in on your horse’s overall health picture. Photo by Gina Cioli

Vaccination

The American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) recommends the Eastern and Western equine encephalomyelitis, rabies, tetanus, and West Nile virus vaccines.

Coggins

A Coggins is a test for equine infectious anemia (EIA), which is a contagious and incurable disease. A negative Coggins test is often required when attending horse shows or for crossing state lines.

An equine veterinarian performing an exam
A Coggins test and other bloodwork, such as a metabolic panel, should be performed annually during the wellness exam. Photo by H_Ko/Adobe Stock

Fecal Egg Count

At the veterinary appointment, ask your veterinarian to do a fecal egg count.

“Submitting a manure sample for a fecal egg count means your veterinarian can advise a correct deworming schedule tailored to your horse,” says Slaughter-Mehfoud.

Veterinary Bloodwork

“Doing annual bloodwork on your horse gives you a baseline on what is normal for him,” says Christopher-White. “A good thing to look at is metabolic panels—insulin, glucose and ACTH—to make sure you’re not getting into metabolic disorders.”

Digital Pulse

Lush springtime grass can cause painful inflammation in the hooves, called founder or laminitis. Slowly acclimate your horse to springtime pastures and feel his digital pulse on the back of each fetlock. According to Slaughter-Mehfoud, a normal leg should have small, steady beats, while a horse experiencing laminitis will have strong, bounding pulses.

Fall Horse Health Checks

Veterinary Exam

Having a horse—even a healthy one—seen by the vet twice a year increases the chances that any health issues will be detected early.

Dental Care

Every horse should have his teeth examined once a year in case they need to have sharp points and other problems addressed. Slaughter-Mehfoud likes to perform dental exams in the fall before the cold weather, when getting the most nutrients out of feed is especially important for keeping weight on.

“Inadequate dental care can lead to choking and impaction colic,” says Slaughter-Mehfoud.

An equine dentist working on a horse. Dental exams are important for horse health.
An annual dental exam from your vet will help detect any problems, such as sharp points that need to be corrected, before winter arrives. Photo by Chelle129/Adobe Stock

Fecal Egg Count

A spring fecal egg count is good, but twice a year is best. In areas with harsher winters, Slaughter-Mehfoud likes horses to be as prepared as possible to maintain a reasonable body condition score.

Bonus Vaccines

The AAEP recommends vaccines such as equine influenza and equine herpesvirus 1 and 4 for horses that are traveling.

Body Condition Before Winter

Take into consideration your horse’s age and how easily he maintains weight when looking at body condition score heading into winter.

A chestnut in a field with fall foliage
Think about your horse’s weight before winter arrives. If he is in good body condition, he’s less likely to get too thin from the challenges of a cold winter if you have one. Photo by Brelsbil/Adobe stock

“If your horse is on the leaner side and you’re in Florida, you’re [wouldn’t be] as worried,” says Christopher-White. “But if you’re in Wyoming, [a lean horse before winter] is a bigger concern.”

Incorporating daily and seasonal health-based routines into your horse’s life means every bump can be taken care of, and more serious conditions like a respiratory illness, colic and poor teeth can be addressed in a timely manner.

This article about horse health appeared in the March 2023 issue of Horse Illustrated magazine. Click here to subscribe!

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