Horse Health Prevention & Wellness: It Ain't Sexy But It Works
Sounds pretty cool, doesn't it -- a wholesome, all-natural vitamin/mineral supplement blended with exotic and essential herbs and oils to booster your horse's immune system, promote maximum health, protect bones and joints, produce a shiny haircoat, and strengthen hooves. Even better if the ad promises that it's the supplement of choice for hard-working cowboys of the Australian outback or elite FEI-level German dressage competitors. Exclusiveness and foreign panache and maybe being just a tad pricey make this a must-have product -- for some, anyways.
But equine disease prevention and wellness encompass far more than the ingredients in a single product. It involves commitment and thoroughness, a religious subscription to the bible of yore -- good old-fashioned, long-established horse husbandry techniques. It's about as sexy as dental floss, but it gets the job done.
Furthermore, prevention and wellness programs probably don't involve anything that you really don't already know. Says Erin Denney-Jones, DVM, president of Florida Equine Veterinary Services, Inc., founder of the Horse Owner seminars in central Florida, and AAEP Horse Owner Education Committee chairperson, "Prevention is all good animal husbandry. The clients that seem to have the fewer problems are the horsemen who understand basic horse behaviour and realize horses are roaming animals. We're just hearing more about prevention and wellness, these days: The techniques haven't changed at all." Dr. Denney-Jones attributes this rose of a different name to all the newcomers to the equine world. "Years ago, it was common for people to have a horse within their family unit, with the knowledge of horse care passed down from age to age. Now there are a lot of newbies who don't have any idea about husbandry techniques. I think that is where this interest in prevention is coming from."
Regardless of where the renewed interest originates, the tried-and-true elements that go into the prevention mix, spiced up with a few new ingredients, is worth reviewing. True then, true now: It's better for equine health to prevent disease than to cure it, and it's easier on the wallet, as well.
Hey Look Me Over
The best weapons in the prevention arsenal are regular physical, dental and farrier exams; regular vaccinations and dewormings; healthy environment; and good nutrition.
Physical exams. Every normal, adult horse should be seen once or twice a year by his veterinarian. "Routine examinations can detect problems that horse owners may not be aware of, such as development of cataracts, skin diseases, dental problems, heart irregularities and others," explains Roberta M. Dwyer, DVM, MS (epidemiology), Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Preventive Medicine, associate professor (equine infectious diseases) at the Gluck Equine Research Centre, University of Kentucky. "By being familiar with your horse, the veterinarian is much better prepared to deal with disease problems when they do crop up."
The physical exam need not be extensive to be effective. Thomas Lenz, DVM, MS (equine production), Diplomate American College of Theriogenologists, Director of Strategic Science and Technology, Bayer Animal Health, says, "Just a general check-up, a walk-by where the veterinarian runs their hands over the horses, looks at its condition, eyes, and feet, and talks about nutrition status, turnout, exercise, and weight. Just spending some time twice yearly with the horse and owner, going through the barn and string of horses, answering questions. This interaction between veterinarian and owner is critical."
Dental exams. Horses of every age can suffer from dental problems due to disease, trauma, congenital defects, sharp points, or uneven growth. A horse with problem teeth can appear to exhibit training problems or have trouble masticating his food, which, in turn, can lead to weight loss. Through regular dental exams, the veterinarian can diagnose and treat minor problems before they become major problems.
Frequency of exams varies due to problems associated with certain age groups:
-- Youngsters can have problems with mixed dentition (baby teeth that aren't completely shed and emerging permanent teeth) and should be looked at three or four times a year. This is especially important if they are in training or performance in order to avoid discomfort with the bit.
-- Adult horses should have yearly or twice-yearly exams and floating (opinions vary). Between 15 - 25 years, teeth grow out more slowly, so floating and correction can last a year. Under the age of 15, teeth growth grow much faster, therefore twice-yearly dental exams and floating may be warranted.
-- Senior horses can develop wave mouth and tooth loss, so a twice-yearly dental exam is advised.
In addition, high performance horses should be examined at least twice a year to keep the dental arcade in balance to preserve comfort with the bit.
Please see the "Special Needs" category later in this article for further details for seniors, broodmares, and youngsters.
Farrier exams. Possibly the biggest causes of weak hooves are irregular and infrequent shoeings or trimmings. Generally, farrier work should be scheduled at six to eight week intervals, says Dr. Dwyer, although this may vary somewhat depending on hoof health and other factors. Beyond that interval, the toe lengths become too long, the shoes slide up underneath, and the heels no longer have proper support. This produces abnormal stresses on the walls, leading to cracks, breakage, and loss of the shoe.
During routine visits for shoeing or trimming, the farrier makes sure the size of the feet are proportionate to the size of the horse, balanced front to back and medially to laterally, and wearing correctly and evenly. Notes Dr. Denney-Jones, "Keeping proper balance in horse's hoof will help them from becoming lame. Also, keeping the toes and heels appropriately trimmed reduces the risk of abscess problems, bruising, white line, and other similar problems." Dr. Denney-Jones reminds owners that unshod horses should also see the farrier every six to eight weeks.
Help maintain hoof health by picking out your horses' feet each day. Look for new or developing problems such as thrush or sole bruising. Clean your horses' feet before and after riding, making sure to look for stones, hoof cracks, and shoe security. While you're at it, run your fingertip over the horse's leg to feel for any swelling or heat.
Maintaining a healthy environment and good nutrition also promotes hoof health.
Vaccinations. With new vaccines being produced almost yearly, review your vaccination program with your veterinarian during routine exams. "Vaccination programs need to be individualized for the horse or stable depending upon the types of horses housed on the premises," Dr. Dwyer says. "Does the farm have little or no traffic on or off? Is it a boarding facility with trailers coming and going every weekend to horse shows and trail rides? The more traffic, the more risk there is for infectious diseases making their way back home."
Says Dr. Lenz, "A horse that lives on a isolated farm or ranch, never goes anywhere, and never has horses coming through to visit doesn't require a lot of vaccinations against infectious diseases because the likelihood of that horse of contacting something is zero." For these horses, Dr. Lenz believes tetanus, rabies, and sleeping sickness [encephalomyelitis] vaccinations are sufficient (In Australia: Strangles, Tetanus, Hendra). "There would not be much indication for protection against strangles, flu, and rhino [rhinopneumonitis]." These recommendations will vary from veterinarian to veterinarian, from region to region.
Horses encountering outside horses -- leaving the farm for events (even a single annual event), other horses travelling on and off the premises, contacting neighbouring horses across the fence -- need more protection. Dr. Lenz recommends adding vaccinations against rhino, flu, and possibly strangles to the schedule (In Australia: Strangles, Tetanus, Hendra).
Geographic location is also a consideration: Owners and veterinarians need to consider not only where the horse is housed, but also where it will be going throughout the year when deciding upon a vaccination program, says Dr. Dwyer. "Vaccines for a horse in Montana would be different than for a horse in Florida, due to mosquito population and subsequent risk for West Nile Virus and EEE [eastern equine encephalomyelitis]. Where will the horse be transported during the year? Potomac horse fever, botulism, West Nile Virus, EEE and WEE [western equine encephalomyelitis] are only some examples of diseases that have a geographic distribution, which changes over time. Other recommendations need to be decided upon by the owner with their veterinarian because of all the new vaccines available."
Deworming. Controlling parasites through deworming and management programs is vital for protection against a myriad of diseases and disorders. Parasites can destroy arterial walls and blood vessels, impair circulation, and cause colic, anemia, anorexia, weight loss, diarrhea, fever, and unthriftiness. Parasite infection can lead to stomach irritations, ulcerations in the stomach and large intestine, perforations of the stomach wall, brain damage, inflammation of the intestines, dental disease, and irritation in the tail region. The cost of parasite prevention is miniscule compared to the cost of treatment.
Deworming products can be administered seasonally, strategically, daily, or every two, three, or six months. Because of the numerous products available, varying exposure levels, and preferences regarding cost and convenience, work with your veterinarian to develop the most appropriate deworming program for your situation. For example, many find it easier to keep all the horses on the same deworming program and to remember to deworm every set number of months instead of trying to deworm every month through the summer and then once during the winter.
Adult horses that share limited turn-out space where they continually come in contact with fecal material or those that travel, live where horses come and go from the property, or are under the stress of showing or working usually are best served by some sort of regular deworming program.
A couple of adult horses that otherwise live alone and share vast pastures or adult horses that are never turned-out where they could pick up parasites off of pasture could be adequately protected through strategic or as-need deworming. First, do a fecal egg count to determine parasite load. If parasites are present, treat, then repeat the fecal exam a week later to see make sure parasites have been eliminated. Continue repeating fecal egg counts every two or three months during periods of maximal transmission.
Note: All horses less than two years old should be dewormed against ascarids (roundworms), beginning at eight weeks of age. The larval stages to which the foal is exposed will be minimized if the mare has been dewormed prior to foaling. As the horse matures, it usually develops immunity against ascarids.
Good management practices go a long ways in reducing the risk of parasite exposure:
-- Quarantine all new horses and perform fecal examinations and deworming treatments prior to introducing new horses to other stock.
-- If possible, deworm all horses housed together at the same time.
-- Remove fecal material from stalls, pastures, and dry lots on a frequent basis to reduce exposure to infested fecal matter.
-- Prevent fecal material from contaminating waterers and feeders.
-- Avoid spreading fresh manure on pastures that are in use.
-- Don't overgraze or overstock pastures. Keep pastures rotated.
-- Harrow uninhabited pastures during the driest and/or coldest season of the year to help eliminate the infectious stages of strongyles.
You Are What You Eat
A well-balanced diet is the foundation of good health, from head to toe, inside and out. A properly nourished horse has all the components his body needs to achieve optimum health and energy. A horse whose diet is unbalanced or insufficient can suffer from thinness, obesity, laminitis, colic, rough haircoat, hair loss, depressed immune function, reproduction problems, bone abnormalities, anemia, hoof cracks, vitamin toxicities, and so forth.
The components of a good diet are water, energy, protein, vitamins, and minerals, says Ginger Rich PhD, an independent equine nutritionist, Rich Equine Nutritional Consulting. "Most horses can obtain all these elements from free choice water, a good hay/pasture source, and 3 -5 pounds daily of either fortified grain with plain salt or unfortified grain with trace-mineralized salt," she says. "A hay to grain ratio of 80:20 is more than sufficient for most horses with the exception of growing horses, hard working horses or lactating mares."
For most healthy, adult horses, additional nutrients are not needed. "I see more over-supplementation -- a lot of excess calories, vitamins, minerals, herbs and mystery powders -- than a true deficiency," Dr. Rich says. "Nutraceuticals and supplements need to play a true role in the diet; owners should not add them simply because someone else is using them." That's because excess supplementation could lead to toxicities and imbalances. "Excesses of certain nutrients will interfere with another, not allowing that second nutrient to be absorbed, transported, or laid down in the cells, organs, or tissues that it's designed for," warns Dr. Rich.
Phil Brown, DVM, Ester-C brand manager for Inter-Cal Nutraceuticals, agrees. "Trying to build the bone structure of the horse through high levels of calcium and not balancing that with phosphorus can lead to kidney dysfunction," he says. "The reverse -- feeding too much phosphorus and not enough calcium -- can cause hyperparathyroidism, a condition where calcium is pulled out of the bones, resulting in weakening of the bone structure."
Nutritional excesses can also occur even in absence of adding supplements. Explains Dr. Brown, "A prime example is pasture where the soil is rich in limestone (calcium carbonate) after a soil analysis which reveals too much calcium, the farmer fertilizes the field with high levels of phosphorus, the grass is lush, but the horse gets too much phosphorus in his diet." Even certain hays can be problematic: Too much protein- and calcium-rich alfalfa hays can cause epiphysitis (disorder of the growing end of long bones), especially in foals, Dr. Brown notes.
Nevertheless, some horses do need additional nutrition, primarily late-pregnancy and lactating mares, growing horses, hard-working or high-performance horses, senior horses, and ill or stressed horses. Dr. Brown likes to supplement pregnant mares and foals with
Ester-C, "an efficiently absorbed form of vitamin C", because of the additional stress these conditions put on a horse's biological systems. "Stress from whatever cause results in the production of additional free radicals, singlet oxygen molecules which can raise havoc with cells, tissues and genes," Dr. Brown states. "The primary water soluble antioxidant that neutralizes free radicals is vitamin C. Even though horses (unlike humans) can produce their own vitamin C, the levels may not be sufficient to negate the effects of the these wild and crazy radicals. Vitamin C is also essential for proper bone mineralization and collagen formation. Also, in humans vitamin C supplementation has been shown to benefit fetal membrane integrity, although I do not know if the same holds true for the horse."
Dr. Denney-Jones also encourages vitamin C supplementation to seniors to help boost the immune system is a "fan of biotin supplements for hoof growth. Here in Florida we get a lot of hooves that get zapped from standing in the sand. Biotin helps," she says. She also supports a salt and mineral supplement to replace electrolyte loss for horses in intense work situations (racing, endurance, 3-day eventing).
Before turning to a supplement, Dr. Brown suggests first evaluating your horse's diet, soil conditions, and activity levels, and then discussing your horse's nutritional program with your veterinarian or nutritionist and why you think your horse needs supplementation. Adds Dr. Rich, "If you're already adding two or more supplements to your horse's grain, evaluate the diet and consider a new feed that better addresses the horse's requirements."
Because consistency of diet is important, make any food changes slowly. Says Dr. Denney-Jones, "A study done by Texas A&M University found that abrupt changes in hay or feed can cause colic as changes in the bacterial flora present a problem to the GI tract. If one has to feed new hay or grain, gradually introduce the new food over a four-week period by a ratio of 1/4 new to 3/4 old feed for one week, then half-and half for week two, then 3/4 new and 1/4 old feed for week three, then all of the new feed beginning week four." If you have to feed hay from a new source without the luxury of a gradual introduction, start out with reduced hay rations the first day or two to allow the horse to adjust. But available pasture lessen the impact of going from one hay to another."
Where the horse lives and works influences his wellness: An unhealthy or unsafe environment increases the risk of disease or injury.
Keep barns and stall areas clean and in good repair. Says Dr. Dwyer, "I've seen horses housed in stables with holes in the wood walls, protruding nails, and knee-deep manure. This is obviously not conducive to the horse's health, whether from trauma, parasite load, nutritional status, or infectious disease. Strive for cleanliness, tidy aisle-ways, adequate ventilation, up-to-standard wiring to prevent electrical fires, absence of birds' nests in rafters, and rodent control. Keep boards in good repair and protruding nails pounded in. Disinfection practices are important if an outbreak of contagious disease occurs on the farm. Have a telephone in the barn with emergency numbers readily available."
Because horses are inquisitive and hungry creatures, Dr. Denney-Jones advocates having at least two locked barriers to protect feed -- a lock on the door to the feed room and a lock on the food bin inside. "All you need is a clip lock or some kind of latch-type lock on the actual bin inside the feed room," she says. "Horses do manage to get out of their stalls, and if for some reason the lock on the feed room is not secure, the second lock will deter the horse."
Pastures and paddocks should be kept free of hazards -- fences and boards in good repair, protruding nails hammered in, fallen tree branches and trash removed; gopher holes or other dangerous spots in the pastures filled. "Box in guy-wires," warns Dr. Denney-Jones. "I've seen numerous guy wire lacerations around the neck when horses were running and didn't see the guy wire from the electric point in the pasture."
Choose fencing that is safe for the amount of space you have and stocking density: There is usually more contact with the fence in smaller areas or with higher stocking density. "I have seen horses injured in what appears to be very safe environs but certainly barbed wire is more problematic in my experience as compared to wood or plastic or pipe fence," says Josie Traub-Dargatz, DVM, MS (clinical science), and Professor of Equine Medicine at Colorado State University. "Foals seem prone to getting into trouble with wire fence as they get to running and get forced into the fence by the mare or do not see the fence as they are not paying attention and then run into the fence." Dr. Traub-Dargatz suggests that horses new to a pasture should be able to see the fencing -- walk them around the perimeter if fencing is not highly visible. Also, to prevent a lower-ranked horse from getting pinned into a corner, place a board across the top rails in the corner to round them off.
Maintain healthy forage and water:
-- Keep fields mowed to cut down on weeds, rotate pastures, and don't over-graze, Dr. Dwyer advises.
-- Choose grass types suitable for your area and stocking density. "This can be done with aid of pasture management person at your local extension or county agent," Dr. Traub-Dargatz says.
-- Be aware of what the toxic plants look like that thrive in your area and regularly check the pasture for their appearance. Be sure to look along the fence line where it's more difficult to mow (but not so difficult to munch).
-- "Remove feces from pasture to limit parasite eggs," says Dr. Traub-Dargatz, "especially if horses are being kept on a small acreage. After deworming new additions to a property, keep those horses off pasture until the dewormer can have an effect."
-- Make sure horses have clean, safe water sources. "Some horse operations rely on surface water," Dr. Traub-Dargatz notes. "Know the quality of that surface water regarding enteric organisms and how likely it is to have chemical contamination, that is, fertilizer or other chemicals."
If possible, provide turn-out for the horse for both its physical and mental health. Says Dr. Lenz, "Horses are herd animals and by nature need to run free and exercise a lot. Horses that aren't exercised a lot or are stalled so they can't see each other can develop vices such as stall weaving, chewing their tongue, and cribbing."
Special Needs Horses
Particular groups of horses benefit from other preventive measures beyond those for normal, healthy adult horses.
Broodmares. Broodmares. To increase chances of a healthy pregnancy and foal, prevention begins before the mare is bred and continues throughout the mare's pregnancy. There is no sense in wasting time, money, and perhaps a horse's life with an ill-advised breeding.
"One of the first exams should be a breeding soundness evaluation to make sure she is a satisfactory breeder," explains Robert Causey, DVM, PhD (veterinary microbiology), Diplomate ACT, assistant professor (animal reproduction and science), University of Maine. "Assess her genital health to make sure she's not susceptible to infection and that her uterus can support a pregnancy."
If sound, begin teasing the mare in the spring detect signs of estrus. "Cycling is characterized by periods of sexual receptivity lasting up to 7 days separated by periods of about 15 days during which the mare is out of heat," Dr. Causey states. "Prolonged, irregular or frequent periods of heat indicate that the mare is in spring transition and not yet cycling. A veterinary examination may also be helpful to determine if your mare is cycling."
Breeding her when you know she is cycling is necessary for a successful pregnancy and avoids risks associated with wasted multiple matings when she is in spring transition. "The day after she's been bred, examine her to make sure she has ovulated," says Dr. Causey. "See if the mare has accumulated fluid, which could prevent her from becoming pregnant. Accumulation of fluid is a readily treatable condition, but if you don't look for it, you can't treat it."
Fourteen days after ovulation, exam the mare to confirm pregnancy and to check for twins. "One of the most common causes of lost pregnancy is the mare aborting twin fetuses," Dr. Causey reports. "You have a period of 14 to 16 days after ovulation where you have the greatest chance of successfully eliminating a twin." Mares also have the ability to get rid of twins after that point, and most mares will usually abort one of the twins by day 35. "If by day 35 the mare still has twins, it may be necessary to terminate the pregnancy and bring the mare back around for a new breeding,"
To monitor the status of the pregnancy and fetal well-being, Dr. Causey recommends a weekly pregnancy exam between day 14 and day 60 of ovulation. "Most embryonic loss occurs within the first 60 days of pregnancy," he says. "If the mares loses the pregnancy, you need to know so she can be re-bred. After day 60 you can start to relax a little bit, maybe checking the mare about every month."
As the predicted foaling date draws near, Dr. Causey recommends checking the milk calcium levels to help determine when the foal is ready to be born. "When calcium is below a particular level, we can feel very reassured that the mare is not about to foal in 24 hours. When it is above a particular level the foal is ready to be born and could be expected within 24-48 or at the most 72 hours" he says.
After the mare has given birth, she should be examined to make sure she hasn't retained her placenta, the placenta was passed intact, she doesn't need corrective surgery, and she's producing milk and colostrum, says Dr. Lenz.
Throughout the pregnancy, regular deworming, dental exams, and farrier exams should continue. "Vaccinations should be maintained, with a key addition in mares to include a vaccination for equine herpes virus (EHV1, 4), which causes fetal infections and abortions," Dr. Causey states. "Vaccinate for that at five, seven and nine months."
Continue to exercise the mare. "Delivering the baby is a very strenuous work-out for the mare," says Dr. Causey. "She'll be in better shape to do that if she's been exercised -- not heavily -- but kept in a degree of shape throughout her pregnancy."
Because the fetus grows slowly during the pregnancy, the mare's nutritional requirements do not change very much, reports Dr. Causey. "But that situation really changes when the mare starts to lactate and an active, growing foal depends on the mother for all its nutrition. Commercial feeds specifically formulated for the broodmare are available to provide the additional energy, protein, vitamins and minerals not met by pasture or hay (roughage). Depending on the quality and availability of roughage, it may not be necessary to supplement the mare at all during the first eight months of pregnancy. However, every mare is an individual and should be fed according to her body condition. During the last three months, a 1000-pound mare may require 5 - 7.5 lbs of supplemental grain (12% protein) a day. When she starts lactating however, this requirement more than doubles to about 10 to 15 lbs of grain supplement (14 - 16% protein). Additional supplementation is generally not necessary, and may even be harmful to the developing joints of the foal. Obviously changes in the amount of grain fed to a mare must be done gradually, such as taking about two weeks after foaling to steadily increase the grain offered. Plenty of fresh water is obviously essential for the lactating mare to make milk."
Foals. Foals. Newborn foals should be examined the day the foal is born, says Dr. Lenz. The veterinarian gives a general examination, which includes checking for birth defects and trauma, normal heart and lung function, normal bowel movements and urination, and drying of the umbilical cord. Frequent physical exams throughout the foal's first year will detect early signs of abnormal development, including correctable orthopedic and dental problems and "Start foals on a vaccination program at about 3 - 4 months of age," says Dr. Lenz, "and begin deworming programs when the foal is about six to eight weeks old."
Seniors. Seniors. As horses age, they usually develop problems. Twice-yearly physical and dental exams can help identify disorders earlier, thus increasing chances of successful management. "Horses in their mid- and upper 20s can develop sharp points on their teeth or lose teeth," says Dr. Lenz, "and then have problems chewing their feed." Many seniors also have a reduced ability to digest or metabolize nutrients. In both cases, specially formulated senior diets, which are highly digestible, easier to chew, and contain higher amounts of nutrients, can help sustain weight and accessible nutrients.
Some veterinarians also recommend supplementing seniors with antioxidants to protect against cell damage.
Working/performance horses. Hard working horses may benefit from the addition of electrolytes, a multiple vitamin/mineral formula, and/or a joint formula. "The judicious use of joint supplements such as glucosamine, chondroitan, Ester-C and/or MOM can help cut down on effects of wear and tear," says Dr. Brown. "The prophylactic use of joint supplements may slow down or delay the onset and progression of degenerative joint problems. I really prefer the use of natural supplements, which are pretty much free of side effects as opposed to steroids, and NSAIDs, which may result in serious problems long term. Again, always check with your veterinarian before starting any supplemental nutritional program."
Perhaps the best prevention is being a knowledgeable owner. Learn how to take your horse's temperature, pulse and respiration. Know what hay should look small like -- both the good stuff as well as the mouldy.
Read up on areas where you are deficient: The internet is loaded with excellent materials on horse and farm management; check out articles posted at the websites of various universities (especially those with equine, veterinary, or age-science programs) and at www.TheHorse.com (more than 3000 articles and counting). The AAEP also has a great website at MyHorseMatters.com.
For help specific to your situation, talk to experts. Consult with your extension agent to optimize fertilization, liming, seeding and other field treatments; with an equine nutritionist to develop a wholesome diet; with your veterinarian to address health issues and farm management; with a referral veterinary specialist to deal with difficult or unusual health problems.
Prevention and wellness is neither sexy nor fun. In fact, it can sometimes be downright boring. But a little hum-drum same-ol' same-ol' sure beats the excitement of an emergency call or extended nursing. Pass the dental floss, please.
By Marcia King
Marcia King is an award-winning author and former Horse Illustrated columnist who writes extensively for equine, pet, and veterinary publications.