If you're like most busy trail riders, you rise early, ride, do the chores, then race off to work or other commitments. Or, you race home at the end of a grueling day and ride as long as you can before darkness sets in. Weekends are better, but you're still anxious to get in as much on-trail time as possible, so hurriedly tack him up. Distractions and haste can cause you to miss some early signs of problems. Just as an airline pilot would never consider flying without running through a checklist of all the working system of a complicated machine, so too should you scrutinize your horse both before and after each ride. By performing a simple pre-ride and post-ride checklist, your horse's body language can tell you if there's a problem. At first, this routine will seem time-consuming and require a lot of thought. But after a few days, it'll enter into your subconscious and become second nature. (Note: If you find a problem, call your veterinarian for an appointment. Report to him or her exactly what you observed, as well as what's normal for your horse.)
In the Pasture
A lot of opportunities for scrutiny exist between pasture and mounting up; here's what to look for.
Good to go: Your horse appears eager and ready. His posture is erect, and he's standing comfortably in a position familiar to you.
Potential problem: Your horse appears flat and deflated. He's cocking a leg, pointing a foot, or shifting his weight from side to side. He's standing in a position that's not normal for him.
What you should do: If your horse seems despondent or lethargic, take his temperature to make sure he doesn't have a fever. Normal would be below 101 degrees Fahrenheit. Look for any nasal discharge or a cough. Check his manure for quantity and consistency. Offer him food to check his appetite. If he seems sore in his limbs, check for a rock or nail in his foot, and feel for any swelling. Call your vet if anything continues to appear off.
Good to go: Your horse swings his tail as his pelvis moves. His pelvis swings freely. He carries his head and neck in a comfortable, balanced position that's familiar to you.
Potential problem: Your horse's tail movement appears out of sync with the rest of his body, or hangs lifelessly. His pelvis movement appears stiff. He carries his head and neck lower or higher than usual.
What you should do: Palpate along your horse's neck, back, and topline, looking for a pain response. Usually when a horse's pelvis is braced, there's pain in his hind end (hocks or stifles) or back. If your horse exhibits pain, call your vet for an evaluation.
Good to go: Your horse allows you to catch and halter him, or puts up his usual resistance. He walks nimbly out of the pasture, and backs freely on the lead rope without bracing his body.
Potential problem: Your horse resists more than usual to being caught and haltered. He drags his feet, stumbles, or leans back on the rope as you lead him from the pasture. He braces his back when you back him.
What you should do: These are signs of pain or discomfort; contact your vet as soon as possible. Reluctance to move at all may signal an acute injury, a fracture, a foot abscess, or laminitis. Call your vet immediately.