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Horse Health Issues

A horse who refuses to eat needs immediate veterinary attention. Even if he stops eating, he may still drink or at least play with his water. Refusal of both feed and water is a very serious sign.

Horse health issues may be common, and therefore, you need to know how to "read" your horse, what types of horse health situations are true, get-the-vet emergencies and what you should or shouldn't do.

If the horse has a gaping wound or is flat out on the ground, it's obvious you need the vet. But there are other situations that call for quick veterinary attention, or at least are things that you should investigate rather than just ignoring them.

The following is a list of nonspecific symptoms that should always get your attention.

  • Horse not eating. Horses love to eat, and if given the opportunity will spend more time chowing down than doing anything else. When appetite is gone, or even just noticeably decreased, it's a clear sign that something is wrong.
  • Horse not drinking. Whenever possible, pay attention to how much the horse is drinking. A sharp drop in water intake should never be ignored. Check first to make sure the water supply is clean and fit to drink (e.g., not too cold). Low water intake will rapidly lead to problems like dehydration and impaction on top of whatever else is making the horse not drink.
  • Change in personality or activity level. These are easily missed if you are not observant and don't interact with your horse daily, but should never be ignored. Horses respond differently to pain or illness - some becoming depressed, others irritable. It's the simple fact that the horse is not acting like his normal self that's important.
  • Change in amount or consistency of manure. Horse looks bloated (rounder through the flanks than normal). Liquid manure stains on the tail or hocks. Passing unusual amount of gas. Standing with the tail slightly elevated (unless it's a mare in season). These are all signs that there is probably an intestinal problem.
  • Change in how rapidly the horse breathes, or in breathing pattern (e.g., very rapid and shallow). This may indicate pain, overheating or a problem in the lungs. The breathing of a horse that has just been exercised should return to normal within about 10 minutes.
  • Horse lying down or standing more than is normal for him (e.g., not lying down to sleep when that used to be normal). A horse that is in pain, feeling weak or is sick may lie down more, while one with foot or leg pain or balance problems may avoid being down because it is more difficult, or painful, to get up again.
  • Frequently standing in a stretched out position, as if to urinate. Penis may be dangling in males. This indicates a possible problem in either the intestines or the urinary tract.
  • Leg swelling. If only one leg is swollen, that likely indicates injury or infection. If two or all four legs are swollen, it could just be stocking up or could be a sign of a viral or bacterial infection.

    If you observe one of these symptoms, do the following:

  • Observe the horse for a few minutes to see if you can notice anything else (e.g., one or more other nonspecific symptoms, or something more specific from below). If you can't see anything else obvious:
  • Get the horse's attention and go to his head. Put on a halter and lead shank. Ask the horse to walk and observe if he is walking normally.
  • Check for interest in grass, hay or water. (Never feed grain to a horse that may be ill or injured until/unless the vet approves.)
  • If the horse still seems abnormal to you, call a horse-experienced friend to come help you take the horse's vital signs, with one of you holding the shank and one taking the vital signs (see sidebar above).
  • Call the vet, describe what you see and give the vital signs.

Some symptoms are far more obvious, requiring an emergency call to the vet as your first step. Your second call in those cases should be for help from your experienced friend who can stay at the horse's head while you do any first aid or check vital signs. Because injured/ill horses may be unpredictable, for safety reasons you should not attend to them when you are alone.

The following are definite emergencies, along with some do's and don'ts until the vet gets there.


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