10 common health mistakes horse caretakers make

Are you making any of these common mistakes when it comes to your horse’s health?

As a practicing equine ambulatory veterinarian, I typically see my patients on their “home turf”.  Therefore, I have the advantage of observing the barn, turnout, hay, grain, other pets, etc. that may or may not have anything to do with the primary reason I am there. It is my job to make recommendations based not only on physical exam findings, but on my other observations. Sometimes our horse husbandry is based on “how we always did it”, or the advice of well-meaning friends, trainers, or even Dr. Google. So if any of these ten mistakes sounds familiar, please don’t be offended – rather, accept this free advice from a veterinarian!

1. Blanketing

Clients often put blankets on their horses as soon as it gets cold or starts snowing, and they never remove or look under them until the daffodils are blooming in the spring. Hopefully, your equine partner has wintered well and under that blanket is a sleek, shiny horse in good body condition. But I typically get frantic calls from caretakers whose horses didn’t fare so well. They are thin, hairy, and overall do not appear to be in good health. Many times I hear: “He lost weight within the last week!” — though often this happens over the course of the season. So my tip is to remove the blanket, or at least look under it frequently over the winter, to avoid a shock in the spring.

2. Not maintaining a healthy BCS

Dr. Henneke devised a scale of 1 to 9 to describe the body condition of a horse, so that even without seeing the horse yourself you will have an idea of his condition. On this scale, 1/9 is a very emaciated horse with little to no body fat on which you can easily see bones. The polar opposite of that is a 9/9, which is a very obese horse where bony protrusions are hard to find. Obviously, neither of these conditions are healthy for the horse. The proper body condition to strive for is a 5/9, although a range of 4/9 to 6/9 is acceptable and within the healthy range.

I see a lot of horses that are more pets than performance animals and they tend to be on the heavier side. The clients are “killing them with kindness” so to speak. They get grain, supplements, hay, pasture, and tons of treats — but these horses are often not engaged in a regular exercise program. This can lead to disorders such as laminitis and metabolic syndrome, to name a few. I also see horses on the thinner side, but not emaciated. Although there can be several medical reasons for this, it usually comes down to a lack of proper feed. Talk to your vet to determine what you can do to keep your horse’s BCS at a healthy level all year round.

3. Not assessing pastures

Just because it’s green doesn’t mean it’s nutritious or even edible. Many times I stand at the fence while a client discusses all the lush pasture they have while wondering why their horses are thin. You need to walk out into the field and see what is actually there. Many times it’s mostly weeds, or else the pasture has not been maintained with mowing, etc. and what’s there is of minimal nutritional value. Assess grazing spaces regularly and hire a professional to come in and make recommendations if you aren’t sure how to improve the state of your pastures.

4. Feeding low quality hay (or the wrong amount)

While we are discussing nutrition, my next point is hay – and not just quality but quantity. Horses are hindgut fermenters and grazers. They were not designed to have two or three large grain meals per day and two flakes of hay morning and night. The average backyard horse that is not in heavy work should consume 1% to 2% of his body weight per day. That includes hay, pasture and grain. So the average 1,000-pound horse should consume 10 to 20 pounds in feed material daily. This will go up for horses in heavy work and down for those considered easy keepers.

Hay quality can make a big difference in your horse’s condition. All too often I see horses that don’t receive the proper nutrients because they’re given poor quality round bales and no supplementation. I also see over-conditioned horses being fed legume hay (alfalfa, clover). Again, talk to your veterinarian or an equine nutritionist to determine what your horse needs (and in what amounts) in order to thrive.

5. Giving grain when it’s not necessary

Contrary to popular belief, not all horses need grain. Many will do just fine on good quality hay and a vitamin/mineral supplement. If you do feed grain, you should be weighing it. Some feeds are denser than others and “one scoop twice daily” really doesn’t mean much unless you know the weight of that scoop.

6. Giving supplements when they’re not necessary

Supplements are beneficial if your horse actually needs them. But if you are buying a commercially available complete feed you shouldn’t need to use supplements unless a specific deficiency has been identified. Not only could you be wasting money; you could also be causing an imbalance of vitamins and minerals in your horse. If you are buying a complete feed, a nutritionist has already done all the calculating and balancing for you, so don’t offer supplements unless they’ve been recommended by your vet.

7. Not building a relationship with a veterinarian

I often hear from new clients that they do not have a regular veterinarian, as they do all the preventative medicine on their own and haven’t had any need until now – at 3AM. A veterinarian will be more willing to get out of bed and drive to your house if he or she already has a relationship with you. I recommend establishing a relationship with a veterinarian prior to needing them on emergency. I have established a relationship with clients who call me out once a year to do a physical exam on their horses, even if they don’t need me between annual exams, I know them and their horses, and I know where they live.

8. Administering the wrong amount of dewormer

There is a lot of discussion on how or when to deworm horses – whether fecal egg count-based, rotational, seasonal, etc. No matter what route you pick, if you are purchasing the dewormer and giving it yourself, be mindful of your horse’s approximate weight and how much weight one tube of dewormer treats. For some brands, one tube will treat the average 1,000-pound horse. Many of the larger Quarter Horses, Warmbloods, and draft crosses can be in the 1,200-pound plus category and may need more than just one tube of dewormer.

9. Self-vaccinating

Many horse caretakers want to give their own vaccinations to save time and money. However, there are many advantages to having a veterinarian give your horse the vaccinations. First, it helps establish the veterinarian-client-patient relationship. Secondly, there will be a medical record stating what vaccinations your horse was given and when. I have clients who self-vaccinate and occasionally need proof of vaccination. I can’t write you a letter if I haven’t given the vaccines myself.

Additionally, if your horse was to have a reaction to a vaccine that the veterinarian has given, the makers of that vaccine will often cover part or your entire veterinary bill associated with treatment due to the reaction. It’s also important that vaccines remain refrigerated until ready to use. Some vaccines can be inactivated or become less efficacious if they are heated or frozen. The veterinarian can assure that quality control. He or she can also help you decide what vaccinations your horse actually needs.

10. Not asking questions

The number one mistake I see horse caretakers make is not asking for help or asking questions. You should be able to talk with your veterinarian about issues that concern you. If your veterinarian won’t answer your questions or discuss your concerns, you need a different veterinarian!

Remember the old saying that the only stupid question is the one not asked? This holds true here – I would rather talk with you before a condition gets out of control or becomes a true emergency. In veterinary medicine, we are constantly learning, not only with continuing education but through our experiences and the those of our colleagues. I’d like to think this is true of most horse caretakers as well, and part of my job is to help you in your learning process. We are a team looking out for the best interests and health of your horses!