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15 Pointers for a Healthier Horse

Keep your equine friend healthy (and happy) with this horse-management makeover.

Photo by Renee Lynn
Keep your horse healthy and happy with these management tips.
Photo by Renee Lynn

Your horse charges across a pasture, his coat glowing, his gait exuberant. He's the picture of health and happiness, and it's how you love to see him. Getting--and keeping--him there, however, is the challenge. Might some do-it-better resolutions on behalf of his health be in order?

We think so. To boost your brainstorming efforts along this line, we contacted four horse-health experts for their resolutions-worthy advice. Their tips cover a range of categories, from targeting your horse's basic needs to honoring his equine nature. We also share some evergreen horsekeeping reminders (see "Ten Commandments of Horse Management" below).

So, sit back and visualize your horse at his glorious best, then read what our experts say about getting him there.

1. Allow for Movement
Exercise, whether at liberty, with a handler, or under saddle, is key to a horse's physical and mental well-being on many levels.

"For animals made to move, standing in a stall 24/7 doesn't cut it," says veterinarian and applied animal behaviorist Bonnie Beaver of Texas A&M University. Physically, different types of movement--meandering around the pasture, bursts of speed during play, trail riding and schooling sessions--all play a part in a healthy gut, well-lubricated joints, strong feet and bones, and musculoskeletal health.

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If your horse doesn't have access to pasture, your part in his fitness is especially critical. "Riding, longeing, and hand grazing can all contribute to a horse's mental and physical health," Beaver says. "Change it up and don't do the same thing all the time. If your time is limited, consider sharing exercise time with a friend. On days you can make it to the barn and she can't, offer to turn out, hand graze, or longe her horse while yours is cooling out; and ask if she'll do the same for your horse."

2. Let Him Be Social.
As a herd animal, horses crave companionship, and they gain social skills that help them learn appropriate behavior. A young horse turned out with a wise old gelding will gain an education unmatched by human schooling.

If you don't have other horses or there isn't a place to turn them out together, consider getting your horse a companion, Beaver says. Stall a goat or donkey with him. Or, if you have access to an indoor arena, consider checking to see if you and other owners can turn a few well-acquainted and compatible horses out in the arena when it's not being used, she suggests. Your horse will have time to hang out with his friends, and he'll be gaining some time to move, as well.

3. Give Him Time to Graze.
Hand-in-hand with exercise and socialization is grazing time. If you've ever watched a horse graze, you'll have noticed that he nibbles a few bites, takes a few steps, then nibbles and steps some more. This process not only helps lubricate his joints and keep his feet healthy, it also keeps his digestive system active and more closely resembles life in the wild.

If you don't have access to pasture, feed hay on the ground (in feeders or on mats) but divide it into several portions spread around his stall or paddock so that he has to amble from one pile to the next, much as he would while grazing.

4. Provide Mental Stimulation.
A bored horse is not only unhappy, he's also more prone to stall vices and the illnesses that result from them."Animals get hardwired to those vices, so your best bet is to prevent them," Beaver says. Movement, socialization, and grazing can help. If your horse is stalled, or in a small paddock or dry lot, try to make it possible for him to see other horses and barn activity (try stall guards in place of stall doors).

And consider offering him toys to keep his mind busy. Search online for stall toys like Likits and Jolly Balls, or make your own. Hang a gallon milk jug in your horse's stall with some feed pellets rattling around inside. He'll keep busy trying to tip the jug enough to spill a few treats. (For more on stall vices, see "Not So Vice," November '06.)

5. Respect Your Horse's instincts.
As a prey animal, your horse sees and understands things from a unique perspective. "Think about how amazing it is that horses let predators get on their backs," says E. W. "Buff " Hildreth, a Houston-area equine veterinarian. "The difference between people who own horses and horsemen is that horsemen are people who appreciate the sacrifice a horse has made to have a relationship with a predator--a human being."

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