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Picture this: You arrive at your horse’s stbale, looking forward to a nice trail ride in good weather. Your horse, who is usually excited to see you, is standing forlornly in their stable, head hanging low. When you call, they only slowly raise their head. You might have come at a peculiar time that interrupts a nap , but usually, that’s not the case. Most of the time, it’s a clear indication that something is wrong. Even if you don’t know what the problem is, you should always take these kinds of signs seriously.

As flight animals, horses are programmed to hide weakness and illness as long and as well as possible. While a lameness or an external injury is clearly visible to us, internal problems – from colic to metabolic disorders – are very subtle in their symptoms. This is why you should always pay extra attention when you see the first signs that something could be wrong. Even if they look harmless, or something deemed too small to worry about, they can actually be a warning signal for major health problems.

1. Lack of appetite

Eating is the last survival instinct a horse loses before breathing. Therefore, when a horse stops eating, all alarm bells should go off. It is possible, of course, that your horse has overindulged themselves on a hay rack or on the field so much that they are simply having a well-earned digestive snooze.

However, if a coveted bucket of feed is placed down and promptly rejected, it means something is wrong Or, in another instance, if you provide hay in portions yet your horse only sucks listlessly on a few stalks, that is an indication for serious problems. Grass is often preferred over hay. If concentrated feed is rejected, then the roof may be on fire!

Lack of appetite can be a signal for many, very different problems: from colic to dental problems to stomach ulcers, everything and much more can be the cause here. Therefore, in case of lack of appetite, always call the vet first in order to rule out medical emergencies like colic.

2. Diarrhoea, faecal water

Many horse owners now consider it “to have normal” for their horse fecal water in winter, but it is an indication that something is crucially wrong in the large intestine. The large intestine is the linchpin for metabolic health in horses. Therefore, even the smallest amount of faecal water should be enough to start countermeasures, before any major metabolic issues occur. Diarrhoea must be treated immediately in foals, as their small bodies dehydrate very quickly.

But even in adult horses, diarrhoea should not be taken lightly, as it can indicate significant problems in the digestive tract. A wide variety of causes can be considered: from poor feed hygiene or haylage to dental problems and stomach ulcers to infections. Heart problems in senior horses or chronic pain can also contribute to such digestive problems.

Do not just stick with a ‘binding agent’ solution like bentonite, psyllium (husks) or Jerusalem artichokes. Instead, trying to find the cause(s) and stopping them therapeutically helps to stabilise the intestine, hopefully preventing any further metabolic and immunological problems.

© MZaitsev / Adobe Stock

3. Apathy, seclusion from the herd

If your horse is standing in the shade and snoozing whilst the best buddy is still munching his way through the hay rack, you don’t have to call the vet right away. But an otherwise sociable horse itself separating from the group can be a first clue. If you have to drag your horse along on a rope to get him from the turnout to the grooming area, it becomes even more obvious that something is wrong. If you normally have an motivated or lively horse under saddle and suddenly have to really push it to go forward, you’ll know something is up.

This can already be a harbinger of mild colic but it could also be a painful (undetected) stomach ulcer, an underlying laminitis, or an infection. We don’t want to go jogging with flu either. So, dismount (or don’t mount at all) and attempt to clarify what’s going on. Maybe it’s just the disturbed nap or the horses have been bouncing around like crazy all morning because a new horse has joined the group. But maybe it’s a serious problem, so it’s better to get it checked out.

4. Abnormal behaviour

For many riders, the routine of visiting the yard is to retrieve their horse from their stable, or from the turnout area, chat with fellow riders whilst their horse is being groomed and saddled, perhaps make a call on their phone whilst warming up, and then they are off. It’s the same after work: clean up the horse, leave the yard. Of course, that makes it hard to notice changes in behavior because the horse isn’t getting much attention.

But with a little attention, time, calmness and observation, you can notice changes in behavior early on, that someone who doesn’t know the horse might not notice at all. For example, if your otherwise social horse suddenly chases the others away from the rack or sleeping area, or constantly and violently swishes the tail , it’s a sign of pain or stress. Or maybe the horse yawns, shows the flehmen response or scratches itself conspicuously often.

A behavior that is “normal” for one horse, such as particularly sensitive behavior against flies, can be an alarm signal for another horse that otherwise completely ignores flies and now suddenly shakes its head as soon as one lands. It helps to observe your horse more often in the peace and quiet: out in the field, in the dry lot, within the herd and of course also when you interact with your horse, such as grooming, saddling, etc. If your – otherwise relaxed and cooperative – horse suddenly snaps whilest being tacked up, it could be an indication of a stomach ulcer, which should be taken seriously. It helps to know the “normal” behavior in order to figure out changes.

5. Fever

A usual indication of infection is a high temperature, but we don’t always notice with horses because they always feel warm. But especially if your horse is a bit weak and doesn’t really want to participate, it could be a sign of a fever, as can sweat patches, nasal discharge, coughing or diarrhoea.

Therefore, to be on the safe side, you should always take the temperature. This can be done with a standard fever thermometer, like those available at any pharmacy. The body temperature of a horse should always be between 37.5° and 38.2° Celcius. It is helpful to take your horse’s temperature a few times when healthy, as some are more in the lower range where 38.3° can already be “light temperature”, while other horses are naturally more in the upper range. Knowing the normal values will help you notice elevated temperature early on and react accordingly.

A horse with a fever should be separated, either with an isolation stable or a separate area within the open stable with horses in sight. A sick horse does not belong in the group (where it could infect others) nor should it be chased around by others. Everything else is then diagnosed and decided by the veterinarian or therapist.

Taking the temperature should best be practiced on a healthy horse.
Knowing the normal temperature helps to assess changes.
© pholidito / Adobe Stock

6. Altered heart rate or breathing

When you arrive at the stable to find your horse breathing heavily with flared nostrils, it is obvious to most that something is wrong. But there are changes that indicate heart and health problems that show much earlier. You can feel a horse’s pulse with a little practice, either under the lower jaw or on the leg (which takes a little practise), or listen to it with a normal stethoscope. Again, it helps to have practiced this a few times in a healthy state. Once the horse is sick, we are nervous and it’s even more difficult to accurately find, feel and count the pulse.

The pulse should be around 28-40 beats per minute in a healthy horse. A pulse that deviates significantly up or down can be an alarm signal. If the pulse is too low, for example, it may indicate circulatory problems; if it is too high, it may also indicate colic, even if the horse shows little sign of it otherwise.

Breathing is best observed on the flank: either look closely or place your hand on the “belly”, at the widest point just before the stifle. If the horse is breathing very shallowly, listen to the nostrils – you will get a warm blast with each exhale. Count the breaths: normally the horse should take 8-16 breaths per minute. Fast breathing can be just as alarming as slow breathing.

Especially with measuring the pulse and respiration, it’s very important to know the normal values of your horse in a healthy condition. That’s also due to the fact that sport horses for example have a low heart rate and respiration rate by nature, while both values tend to be higher in a leisure shetland pony. Simply take your horse’s pulse and respiration at different times of the day for a few days and write them down. It’ll give you a feel for the normal values and you’ll be able to detect deviations more quickly.

7. Weight loss

As long as horses are still eating, weight loss is often more of a gradual process. If you see your horse every day, you often don’t notice it that much. It is easier for a therapist or farrier to see when visiting, as they can notice how much has been lost since their last visit. It definitely helps if someone with a “neutral” eye sees the horse at longer intervals, as they can more easily see weight gain and loss.

If you don’t have this possibility, the phone camera is once again the equestrian’s best friend: take pictures of your horse’s back line regularly, e.g. once a week, always from the same angle and with roughly the same lighting. Flicking through the pictures, you can notice any musculature changes for better or worse.

If you have a horse that has a strong tendency to fluctuate weight in one direction or the other, a curved ruler from the stationery store can help: place it on the highest point of the withers and press it along the horse. Carefully lift it up at the highest point, place it on an A3 sheet of paper and trace. Doing this once a week can provide you with visual changes. If you want another comparision value, you can also do it at the lowest point of the back, when you horse is relaxed.

Weight loss can indicate poor quality or quantity of feed, but it can also be a signal of dental problems, stress, chronic pain or digestive problems (even if your horse’s faeces look normal).

8. Changed coat quality

Coat quality is usually mentioned in connection with Cushing’s disease, which immediately comes to mind when horses develop a thick winter coat or take a little longer to shed in the spring. However, not every horse with a thick coat has Cushing’s, and not every horse with a thin coat is healthy. It tends to be easier to judge the summer coat than the winter coat, as the former should be smooth and shiny without aids like coat gloss or baby oil.

Hairs that stick up, a dull coat, or a change of colour (for example, a black horse turns brown or a chestnut gets single white hairs) are indications of something wrong. It’s harder to see the shine in winter coats, as the naturally dull overcoat changes the visual image. But you should still be able to see a slight shine. The winter coat should consist of the undercoat (soft, dull, sometimes slightly duller in colour) and the topcoat (longer, shiny, the colour of the horse).

In some horses, long ‘awn hairs’ can be seen protruding from the winter coat. Awn hairs are also, traditionally, called ‘cat hairs’, and indicate significant metabolic problems. Of course, all non-seasonal hair and skin changes – from sudden coat loss to thinning long hair (mane and tail becoming less and less) to itching (sweet itch, mud fever, mallenders/sallenders) or urticaria (hives that cover the horse) – are alarm signals that something is going very wrong. Whether it is hormone problems, a lack or imbalance of minerals or perhaps a disturbed detoxification, should be clarified therapeutically.

Zwei Islandpferde mit Winterfell; Cushing
© Magnus / Adobe Stock

9. Changes in the digestion

Anyone who regularly mucks out themselves has a good feeling for the amount of manure the horse produces in 24 hours. The rule of thumb is about half a wheelbarrow per horse (in an open yard and without much bedding, in a straw-bedded stable this quickly becomes a whole wheelbarrow per horse). Of course, this value varies, as for example the droppings of a Shetland Pony are naturally smaller than those of a draft – the total amount per day varies accordingly.

But if you muck out your horse’s stable and find significantly less manure, then this should catch your attention. Maybe the horse has been out longer than usual, and has done their business elsewhere, or maybe their digestion is disturbed. The same applies when you work with your horse: every rider has a feeling for how often their horse defecates per hour, which is usually at least once. If the horse stops and does its business as usual, everything is fine. However, if the horse only excretes small amounts in a short period of time, each thinner than the last, then the horse is under considerable stress.

The cause, whether it is the unfamiliar terrain, pain, or other, should be clarified. The same applies if the horse does not poo at all. Too little manure can be an indication that the horse hasn’t eaten in too long (if nothing goes in, nothing can come out) or that a constipation colic is developing. Frequent farting at the start of training indicates bloating and therefore a disturbed large intestine environment. All of this is not “normal” and should be reason to get a therapist to find out what is happening before an intestinal disorder shifts into a metabolic disorder.

10. Gut feeling that something is wrong

Most of us know that sometimes you can simply look at your horse and think: “something is wrong”. You turn to your yard friend, who looks sceptical. “I don’t see anything, they’re the same as usual”. You call the vet, but they don’t find anything either. All too soon you are labelled as the overly-fussing, overprotective owner or ‘helicopter parent’, the one who always sees issues that aren’t there.

But no one knows a horse better than the person who spends the best part of the day, every day, with them. It is precisely because horses hide their problems so thoroughly and for so long that it is all the more important to always listen to this gut feeling. Many a horse has been saved from dying of colic because the owner had a feeling and called the vet just to be on the safe side – even though everyone was still laughing about it.

Of course, this does not open the gate for being a hypochondriac and getting panicked over a crooked ear. But when a persistent, nagging feeling is worming around your gut, telling you something is wrong, act on it. A competent therapist should take the feeling seriously and examine the horse. It is always better to have a false alarm than overlook the onset of laminitis, a stomach ulcer, or a broken tooth.