Telling Horse Health by Sight: From Head to Hoof

Do you know how to tell whether or not the horse you ride is healthy? Here are some quick tips on things to look our for when looking over a horse.

Part of owning a horse is making sure that they are happy, healthy, and up to any challenge you’ll throw their way. It doesn’t matter if you’re in the market for a horse or you already own one, knowing that they are healthy is an important part of responsible ownership – just like any other pet.

Fortunately, there are telltale signs that you have a healthy horse on your hands. Use this breakdown of horse anatomy to level up your equine health knowledge. Remember, if you believe that a horse you own or a horse you know is suffering from an illness, you should call a vet immediately.

The Head

First, you should start at the head. This is the most useful part of the body for identifying illnesses or changes of temperament that could indicate illness, as is the case for most mammals. It’s important to remember that horses can have emotional lows that can negatively impact their performance.

There are entire subsections of horse racing fans who place bets on what they think is the healthiest horse. To do this, they watch recent footage and take a look at the horse from a distance. When they do, they’re looking at the face. Some say it’s in the eyes. Wagering on the sport has become more common in recent years, due to horse racing betting offers that are handed out by sportsbooks. If you own a horse, you’re in a much better position to inspect its health than those horse racing fans, of course, so take full advantage by inspecting them whenever you see them.

You should start with the eyes, nostrils, and mouth. Look for any liquid discharge from this area, especially yellow or greenish pus. Naturally, any blood is a sign to get the horse to a qualified medical professional. Also check for Horner’s syndrome, which is known by its characteristic sunken eyes.

Next check any difficulty breathing, or coughing, and give their gums a poke to test capillary reflexes. That’s a fancy phrase for how fast their guns go pink after turning white from the poke. It should happen within two seconds. If possible, inspect them as they eat to see if their appetite has changed or disappeared entirely. Just like people, horses will prefer one side of their mouth to chew if they feel pain on the other side.

Lastly, check their ears. If they are pinned back, this could be a sign of physical pain or anxiety. If it is a mental or emotional problem, there’ll be many other signs such as shaking, rolling eyes, and a refusal to walk straight which we call weave-walking.

The Body

As we mentioned, the first thing you should check here is if the coat quality has changed. A sick horse often loses its shiny fur coat for a dry and flaky one instead. You’ll need to get up close to inspect the skin beneath its fur, too. Even amateurs can point out when a horse’s coat is shiny or not, so this is a surefire sign that something is wrong assuming the horse’s coat is maintained. Of course, an excessively greasy coat can be something to worry about too since the horse is sweating too much. This can be a fever, pain, or fear.

Along with the coat, you should check the mane and the neck. Proper hair washing should keep a horse’s mane in good condition, as should snag-proofing their stalls and pastures and using fly  spray to avoid itching. The same goes for a horse’s tail and forelock. It also pays to be patient, working out mane tangles with your fingers rather than a brush. Hair loss could be down to poor maintenance but it could also be a pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction (otherwise known as PPID or Cushings), a common endocrine disorder in horses that is chronic but treatable thanks to FDA-approved medications.

While you’re up close, gently grab a handful of the horse’s skin at the shoulder and watch it return to its place. Just like humans, drooping, non-elastic skin is a sign of dehydration. The moistness of the mouth can also help diagnose this.

You can also examine the horse’s bowel movements. Diarrhea and constipation are two extremes that can indicate a problem, as can blood in the stool — and all three require veterinary attention. Manure should be well digested, colored similarly throughout, and lacking sheets of mucus. The urine should be dark but not unusually so, which is a matter of knowing what the usual output looks like and comparing it from there.

Hearing typical gut sounds can be a good sign, as colic can often strike silently in the gut. If your horse’s gut is a little too quiet, don’t get complacent and consider that colic may be the issue if other symptoms are present.

The Legs

How does the horse stand? If you know the answer, you’ll definitely notice when they stand differently. It can vary they do this when removing pressure from a pain point somewhere in the body, which can be in any leg. If their front feet hurt, they’ll stand parked out — with their back legs rocked out. If they are stretched out instead, this can be an issue with the hind feet or signs of gut pain.

Any stiffness or gait changes should be more visible on a moving horse. Again, this is something that needs to be observed over time so you know what the usual gait is like, plus changes happen naturally throughout the day with exercise. Similarly, feel your horse’s legs regularly. Horses can accumulate their own splint profiles throughout life, bony lumps and growths on the most weight-bearing part of the musculoskeletal structure from past stresses that have healed and are often painless. Assuming they aren’t an issue (excessive splints can be) then you should watch out for any changes in this profile.

The Hooves

You may have heard the quote no hoof, no horse. The hooves are very important to a horse, no matter if it’s a personal ride or a professional racer. Avoid lameness by inspecting them often, looking for any signs of stones or other debris that could have become stuck in them.

Abscesses and injuries to the foot bed can be seen as patches on the foot, or even sometimes smelled if a foul odorous discharge is coming from them. You guessed it, a trip to the vet and/or a call to the farrier is in order if you find one of those.

Then there’s obvious damage you can check for, like splits and other signs of brittleness. If the horseshoe is loose or ill-fitted, it may be that an issue with the horse’s hoof has changed how it sits. Hoof hydration is important when keeping your horse’s feet healthy. Keeping its hydration consistent is the key to a stable set of hooves.

These are some of the common areas on a horse’s body that should be checked. While we have suggested some causes that could be responsible for ill health, it’s important to get a better-informed opinion once you’ve identified the symptoms. A vet will be able to treat your horse faster and better than any owner can, so make sure you’re including them in your maintenance and health plan.