50 Health and Management Tips

Insights from veterinarians, farriers and stable managers on keeping your horse healthy and happy.

Over the last five decades, veterinary care and best practices for horse health and management have undergone extraordinary advancements, driven by improvements in technology and research methods. Since the first issue in January 1973, Practical Horseman has informed readers of the latest findings and developments so they can provide the best possible care for their horses. Nutrition guidelines, fly protection, corrective shoeing—you name it, PH has covered it.  

One common piece of advice remained the same throughout the years: Know your horse and what’s normal for him so you can detect problems before they become serious. This means making regular checks part of your routine. Take his pulse, respiration and temperature. Study him for bites, scrapes, loose shoes, and do a thorough check of all four legs. Many experts also stressed the importance of having working relationships with your veterinarian and farrier so that should trouble arise, your horse’s team will be best prepared to help. And in an emergency, the more information you can provide, the better your veterinarian will be able to advise you. 

Below are some of our favorite horse health tips from the last 50 years.

Grooming

1. “When you brush the legs, hold the brush lengthwise, or pointing down the leg; in this way you put all the bristles to work with each stroke.”Susan Harris, Grooming Your Horse, January 1980

2. “Bang his tail every two months to prevent split ends and tangles and to encourage faster growth.”—Teresa Skidmore, Drop-Dead Gorgeous Tail!, February 1998

3. “Where I find hair ruffled from sleeping, I dampen my short-bristled mane brush in water, shake off excess, and brush in the direction of hair, over and over, until it lies flat. The more mussed the hair, the wetter I want my brush. A brush works better here than a sponge, which would get the hair wet but wouldn’t affect the hair’s direction.”—Jo Long, A Spic ‘N’ Span Horse In Twenty Minutes Honest, May 2002 

4. “Many people conclude a grooming with a quick ‘going over’ with the rub rag. To me, this is neither firmly nor thoroughly enough. I spend more time with the rub rag—at least three to five minutes per side—than with any of my other grooming tools. And I don’t just save it for show time; I use it every time I groom. Apply quite a bit of pressure with each stroke of the rag, always following the direction of the hair growth. Your horse will love it!”—Laurie Pitts, Groom Like the Greats, April 2008 

5. “One of the main goals of bathing is to bring out the beautiful shine of a horse’s coat. Using an apple cider vinegar rinse after rinsing the shampoo off your horse is great for this. It cuts the soap residue and also helps to repel bugs.”—Laurie Pitts, Bathe Your Horse Beautiful, Summer 2020

Tip 2 | © Amy K. Dragoo

Lameness

6. “The knee and fetlock of a sound horse should flex until the shoe touches the elbow; if it can’t, movement is somehow being restricted.”—Dr. Michael Collier, Which Leg is Lame?, November 1983 

7. “The one thing I wish everyone whose horse has performance problems would do is slide the saddle back 3 inches and see what happens. Most horses—in every sport, with the possible exception of some dressage horses—wear their saddles too far forward.”—Joyce Harman, DVM, MRCVS, Seat of the Problem?, January 1994 

8. “Weight-bearing lameness—which causes pain when the horse puts his foot down—is about nine times more common than swinging-leg lameness, which causes pain when the leg advances. This is especially true for horses that jump. Weight-bearing lamenesses include foot bruises, navicular syndrome, hoof abscesses, suspensory tears and fractures. Swinging-leg conditions generally involve pulls or tears in the muscles that move the legs.”—Elizabeth Hammer, DVM, with Elaine Pascoe,
Which Leg is Lame?, April 1994

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Tip 9 | © Amy K. Dragoo

9. “Most lamenesses involve the front legs; of those lamenesses, most involve the foot.”—John Herning, DVM, Five Degrees of Lameness, May 1994

10. [On checking tendons for injuries]: “Your hands are much more sensitive to temperature than you might think. They can accurately pick up variations of a tenth of a degree. The way to confirm your findings? If a tendon on the right leg feels warmer than usual to your right hand, check it again with your left hand. Compare the right tendon to the left. The opposite leg is always your ‘control’ unless something’s going on there as well.”—Mark Rick, DVM, with Kip Goldreyer, Keep Tabs on Tendons, June 2005

11. “By regularly and systematically observing your horse, you’ll learn what’s normal for him, and you’ll be able to quickly recognize when something isn’t right. Monitoring subtle changes, recognizing patterns of soreness and taking action at the appropriate time are the keys to keeping your horse sound.”—Tim Ober, DVM, with Elaine Pascoe, Hands-On Health Check, April 2008

12. “The dynamics of a horse’s motion occur on a diagonal, so tightness in the left poll can reflect a problem in the right hind and vice versa. And because your horse’s body works as a unit that strives for balance, tight poll muscles can also be a secondary issue.”—Jo-Ann Wilson with Sandra Cooke, The Problem Could Be His Poll, January 2013 

13. “Degenerative joint disease cannot be cured. However, you can manage the symptoms and potentially slow the progression of the disease … The primary goals when treating osteoarthritis are to reduce inflammation in order to slow the degradative process and subsequently provide the horse with some pain relief.”—Leslie Threlkeld with Dane Tatarniuk, DVM, MS, DACVS-LA, and Patrick Loftin, DVM, MS, Combating Joint Disease, September 2017 

Hoof Health

14. “White hooves are no softer or weaker than black hooves. There is no difference between the chemical makeup and white feet and black feet, other than the added pigment in the dark hooves’ outer layer that gives them their color. Black hooves are of the same quality and have just as many problems as white.”—Vance Glenn, Are White Feet Weaker?, September 2001

15. “An abscess won’t heal unless it drains. Some abscesses find their own way out at the frog, heel or coronary band, where you’ll see a linear crack surrounded by swelling. But don’t wait for this to happen; in most cases you’ll need to create drainage. And an abscess that’s left to fester can deepen and involve internal structures, such as the coffin bone.”—Elizabeth Kilgallon, DVM, with Elaine Pascoe, Just a Bruise … , March 1998

16. “As a rule, the hoof and pastern angle should mirror the shoulder angle, so you can use that as a guide to what’s right for your horse.”—Rodney King, CJF, AWCF, with Elaine Pascoe, Shoeing Essentials, August 2010

17. “A lot of times people talk about barefoot versus shod as if it’s a competition. It’s not one or the other. It’s what’s best for the horse.”—Esci Buff, PhD, APF-1, CF, with Leslie Threlkeld, To Shoe or Not to Shoe, August 2018

Feeding and Nutrition

18. “Feed wet hay if your horse coughs or is allergic to the dust in hay. Soak the hay; don’t just wet it down: Put the flakes in a clean muck bucket or wheelbarrow, fill with water, and let the hay stand for at least 20 minutes before taking it out and feeding it.”—Martha Bowen, 50 Feed Tips, June 1997 

19. “A horse who’s reluctant to drink on the trailer may change his mind if he’s given a chance to walk around, stretch his legs, and put his head down to graze. This can also help prevent shipping-related respiratory problems by giving him a chance to lower his head and clear his airways.”—Nancy Elliot, DVM, with Elaine Pascoe, Is He Thirsty?, October 1997

20. “If the horse is getting good forage and a commercially formulated feed that contains balanced vitamins and minerals, he is probably getting enough electrolytes to replenish what he loses even if he works an hour or an hour and a half in warm weather. The horses who need supplements are those who compete and train at high levels—eventing at Preliminary and above, combined driving, polo, endurance—and very hot or humid conditions.”—Duncan Peters, DVM, MS, with Elaine Pascoe, The Scoop on Sweat, June 2009

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Tip 20 | © Amy K. Dragoo

21. “Looking, touching and smelling will give you clues to hay quality, but it won’t tell you much about the nutritional value. The only way to know if the hay will meet your horse’s needs is to have a sample analyzed, and that’s easy to do. Every state has a cooperative extension service or land-grant university that can analyze hay for basic nutrient content … It makes sense to test if you buy hay by the ton. If you buy by the bale, ask your suppliers if they test and if you can see the results.”—Rhonda M. Hoffman, PhD, with Elaine Pascoe, All About Hay, November 2010

22. “Many horses seem to prefer room-temperature water—neither warm nor very cold—and may drink less when their water is frigid. Add a little warm water to buckets during cold spells and use heaters in outdoor troughs.”—Elaine Pascoe with Liara Gonzalez, DVM, PhD, DACVS, 6 Steps to Protect Gut Health, Winter 2019

23. “The American Association of Equine Practitioners recommends using the acronym ACCLAIM to help you evaluate supplement labels. Here’s what to look for: A company name you recognize; clinical research that shows product safety and efficacy in horses; contents clearly listed; label claims supported by scientific data, administration recommendations, identification of lot and expiration date; manufacture information, including name, address, phone number and website.—Mary Kay Kinnish with Kenneth Marcella, DVM, What’s Your Supplement Strategy?, Summer 2021 

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Tip 23 | © Sandra Oliynyk

Colic

24. “If your horse is prone to colic, begin a daily log to help you pinpoint common factors in any colic episodes that recur. Include details about his feed and water intake, turnout, exercise, medication, and travel. … you may find a pattern that relates to the state of your horse’s health.”—Richard Urban, VMD, Colic. A Minute-by-Minute Game Plan, March 1994 

25. “If your horse goes from an active life to stall rest, monitor him for increased colic danger. Make sure he has plenty of hay and water. Reduce or eliminate his concentrates, and split the amount into as many as six meals a day.”—Elaine Pascoe with Babetta Breuhaus, DVM, PhD, Noah Cohen, DVM, and Robin Dabareiner, DVM, Beat Colic 12 Ways, January 1998

26. “It’s a good idea to invest in an inexpensive stethoscope and be familiar with your horse’s normal gut sounds before he shows signs of colic. Listen on each side by placing the stethoscope (or, in a pinch, your ear) at his flank, in front of and below the point of his hip. Normally, you’ll hear several gurgles a minute with a louder rumble every minute or two. Silence is not good; neither is excessive noise.”—Elaine Pascoe with Janet Johnston, DVM, Colic Update, November 2012 

Stable Management Best Practices

27. “Most [fly spray] concentrates are cheaper than pre-mixed products. Be sure to dilute any concentrate according to the label directions, though. Too weak, the product may not work; too strong, it may irritate your horse’s skin.”—Elaine Pascoe, Armed for Battle, June 1997

28. “For your horse’s sake and yours, protect your hands with one-time-use disposable latex or other rubber gloves when treating skin conditions. Not only do you want to make sure that the fingers touching the sores are clean, but some skin ailments can be spread by physical contact—including to you in the case of ringworm and rain rot—and some of the chemicals used in treatment are abrasive to hands.”—Jill Beech, VDM, Dipl. ACVIM, with Sue M. Copeland, The Skin Game, November 2002

29. “Toxic plants vary from one region to the next, so it’s essential to be familiar with the ones that grow where you live. Your county cooperative extension service and state land-grant university are good sources for this information and can help you identify plants you’re not sure about.”—Elaine Pascoe, Growing Danger: Poisonous Plants to Avoid, July 2014 

30. “Fans that direct a downward and outward airflow will help to keep flies from entering barns.”—Practical Horseman Editors with Lee Townsend, Boost Fly-Control Strategies, June 2015

31. “Although some people blanket according to exact temperatures, it’s best to let your horse tell you his needs: Feel his ears to determine if he’s cold (they’ll be noticeably colder if his temperature drops); slide a hand under the front of his blanket to check that he’s not hot and sweating. Do this frequently, especially when you first start blanketing him, and familiarize yourself with his internal thermostat. In cold weather, a sweaty horse can catch a chill easily, so it’s safer to underblanket than overblanket.”—Max Corcoran, Tips for a Trace-Clipped Horse, October 2015

32. “Because a horse’s lifestyle plays such a big role in triggering ulcers, management is vital in dealing with the problem. Simple changes in your horse’s diet and routine can improve healing.”—Elaine Pascoe with Frank Andrews, DVM, MS, DAVIM, LVMA, Understanding Ulcers, November 2016

33. “Biosecurity is extremely important. If you have a horse who has a fever and respiratory signs, he needs to be isolated from other horses so there is no nose-to-nose contact or cross-contamination of things like water troughs and buckets or where he can sneeze or cough on another horse. Once the horse is isolated, the next biggest component is that the people working with the horses are appropriately using biosecurity techniques.”—Erin S. Groover, DVM, DACVIM-LA, with Leslie Threlkeld, Deep Breath: Equine Respiratory Disease, August 2017

34. “Make a game plan for a referral to a hospital. Know where you’ll go and how you’ll ship your horse there. Time counts—if it takes four hours to arrange transportation to a clinic, your horse could arrive sicker and stand less chance of recovery.”Margaret Mudge, VMD, with Elaine Pascoe, 911 Action Plan, November 2017

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Tip 34 | © Sandra Oliynyk

35. [On parasite prevention programs]: “It is a good idea to monitor how well your chosen treatment is working by regularly performing a fecal egg count reduction test: Test a manure sample before administering the dewormer, then test again two weeks later to see if the egg count was significantly reduced. Keep in mind that excessive deworming will contribute to the drug-resistance problem, so treat your horse with no more than the number of doses prescribed for his egg-count status.”—Martin Nielsen, DVM, PhD, Diplomate ACVM & EVPC, Here’s How, March 2018

36. “Even uninjured horses can benefit from cold therapy. After heavy exercise sessions, such as gallops or strenuous jump schools, ice treatments reduce low-grade inflammation, alleviate discomfort and prevent limb edema.”—Andy Kaneps, DVM, DACVS, ACVSMR, Here’s How, June 2018

37. “An equine first-aid kit must be portable, well organized and ideally divided into various compartments to store and separate all the medical supplies and equipment needed for quick retrieval in an emergency. A compact toolbox, large fishing-tackle box or a tight-sealing plastic container is a good option. Whatever you choose, make sure it’s clean, airtight and waterproof to ensure the contents stay sterile and ready to use.”—Leslie Threlkeld, with Samantha Burton Henley and Sarah Feathers, DVM, Equine First-Aid Essentials, August 2018 

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Tip 37 | © Emily Daily

38. “Heat water in a (supervised) Crock-Pot® or instant hot kettle to create hot towels for stain removal and warm up your horse’s bit during cooler weather. Always check the bit against your skin to be sure it’s not too hot before bridling him.”—Liv Gude, 10 Barn Hacks, Winter 2020

39. “Even with your horse fully vaccinated, consult your veterinarian and check the Equine Disease Communication Center website (equinediseasecc.org) frequently for news of disease outbreaks in your area or the area you’ll be traveling for competitions.”—Sandra Oliynyk, Biosecurity Strategies to Keep Your Horse Healthy, Spring 2023

General Health Concerns

40. [For a horse who is cast]: “If your horse is wearing a blanket, use it as a skid. Unbuckle it at the chest (watching out for those feet); then you and your helpers can grab the free edge and pull hard to slide him away from the wall.”—Joe Dotoli with Elaine Pascoe, He’s Cast!, May 1999

41. “After an episode of choke, there is danger of recurrence within the next 72 hours. This is because the muscular layer of the esophagus has been stretched and can’t function normally until the inflammation subsides—so food passes slowly through the area and may pile up to form a
new obstruction.”—Bob Brusie, DVM, What Causes Choke?, September 2000

42. “Do NOT diagnose and ‘self-medicate’ any eye problem. If your horse has a corneal ulcer and you treat it with corticosteroid ointment your vet gave you for an inflammation associated with uveitis, not only will you delay healing, you could make the ulcer worse.”—David W. Jensen, DVM with Kip Goldreyer, Here’s Med in His Eye!, October 2003

43. “Because Cushing’s disease weakens your horse’s immune system, regular deworming and vaccinations are extra important. Groom him daily to prevent skin diseases and check for cuts or minor problems that could blossom into serious infections. Treat health problems promptly, at the first signs. Some horses with Cushing’s are so prone to infections that they may need long-term treatment with antibiotics.”—Harold C. Schott, DVM, PhD with Elaine Pascoe, Is It Cushing’s?, March 2005
EDITOR’S NOTE: Cushing’s disease is now described as pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction (PPID).

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Tip 44 | © Sandra Oliynyk

44. “As a general rule, a wound that is an inch or more long and extends all the way through the skin is a candidate for suturing. But stitches must be put in promptly, generally within the first six hours. After that, loose flaps of skin that might have been stitched are likely to die and infection may have already taken hold. The presence of infection rules out sutures.”—Elaine Pascoe with Steven J. Berkowitz, VMD, He’s Bleeding!, August 2005

45. “Although we don’t yet have a sure-proof way to prevent proud flesh, one the best defenses against it is to be proactive during the early phase of the wound-healing process. Minimize contamination by immediately hosing the wound with plenty of clean, lukewarm water. As you run water over the wound, gently rub it with clean fingers to remove dirt and debris.”—Elizabeth Prax with Christine Theoret, DVM, PhD, DACVS, Proud Flesh Problems, March 2016

46. “A small imbalance on the cheek teeth can turn into a significant issue within just a few months, especially in a younger horse. This is one of the main reasons that a yearly or biannually dental examination with attention to the causes of these imbalances is so vital.”—Scott Wilson, DVM, Banish Imbalances in the Mouth, January 2017 

47. “The most common indication of a neurologic problem in horses is some degree of clumsiness or incoordination. That’s because neurologic disorders often affect the spinal cord, which delivers messages to all of the horse’s limbs. So you might notice your horse standing in unusual positions—say, with his legs crossed or placed more widely than usual. Or your horse might trip, stumble, move more slowly than normal or have trouble performing his regular work.”—Amy L. Johnson, DVM, DACVIM with Sushil Dulai Wenholz, Diagnosing Neurologic Disorders, December 2017  

48. “If a [senior] horse is sound enough and healthy enough to continue some form of exercise—and most are, even if it’s just at a walk—frequent, low-intensity exercise is the best thing an owner or rider can do for an older horse.”—Lisa Kivett, DVM, MS, DACVIM with Sushil Dulai Wenholz, Head to Hoof: Senior Horse Health Concerns, February 2018

49. “To keep your horse’s eyes in good health, reduce the chance of irritation from dust, insects and UV light. A fly mask may help as well as providing shade during peak sunlight hours. Also work to decrease the risk of trauma by paying attention to stabling and pasture. Low tree branches, thorny plants, hooks and other sharp objects can be hazardous.”—Sushil Dulai Wenholz with Eric Ledbetter, DVM, DACVO and Brian Gilger, DVM, MS, DACVO, DABT, Evolutions in Eye Care, September 2018 

50. “PPID [pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction] is seen in middle-aged horses as well as the aged horse. Now we recognize horses with EMS [equine metabolic syndrome] often develop PPID. So it’s a question of finding out if there is one endocrine disorder or two endocrine disorders in the same horse. Detecting PPID is important because we can treat that and take that factor back out of the picture.”—Nicholas Frank, DVM, PhD, DACVIM with Leslie Threlkeld, Understanding Equine Metabolic Syndrome, October 2018  

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2023 issue of Practical Horseman.

This article is sponsored by WeatherBeeta.

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