Knowing your horse’s normal vital signs – heart and respiratory rate, etc. -- is critical to catching health problems in their earliest stages. Knowing the less tangible signs of discomfort are equally important.
We grooms have an edge here because it’s our job to take the best possible care of our horses. We likely spend more time than anyone else with our eyes on the horses. Carefully observing the subtle clues in their behaviour and their moods becomes a horsemanship habit that anyone can work on developing.
I’m happy to share some of the most valuable observations I’ve made over many years caring for international competition horses.
Here’s are some common red flags I’ve seen, and what they might mean. These are not a substitute for having your horse in regular veterinary care and consulting them whenever you are concerned.
When you do need to call the vet, the more careful and detailed your observations, the more you can help the vet help your horse.
Ins and outs
Some of the easiest things to notice occur when you’re handling the horse or in their stable. Keeping track of daily “ins and outs” -- such as hay and water consumption and manure production -- can give you a good baseline for what’s normal.
My horse has suddenly stopped drinking or is drinking less.
Changes in Eating
If your horse acutely goes off of their feed, check for other signs of colic. This is my first initial reaction - check heart and respiratory rates, listen for gut sounds, and immediately check for manure production. Learn how to check vital signs here.
If everything on that checklist is within normal limits, check your horse’s mouth for any foreign objects. For example, foxtails in hay are a common problem -- the seeds will embed themselves in the horse’s gums, causing very painful sores.
Dental problems could also be the cause.
Check the quality of the feed. If the feed has gone bad or is moldy, immediately remove it from the stall. Many people steam their horse’s hay as a preventative measure to ensure forage is consistently free of mould and low in dust and bacteria. Haygain steaming, by the way, can add up to 3X the moisture of dry hay, so it helps with hydration, too.
My horse is eating slower than normal. This can be a sign of developing ulcers or dental issues. When food becomes difficult to chew, horses will slow down their eating or leave grain behind depending on how uncomfortable they are.
My horse is not finishing their hay. This can happen with new loads of hay, hay that is from a different cutting, or even hay from a different field or farm. If the hay is dustier, or drier, than normal it can turn horses off wanting to finish it. This can also happen when traveling and buying hay from an outside source.
Some horses are just picky eaters. They may drag their hay around the stall and then decide that they don’t wish to continue eating it.
There are a couple of different ways to stimulate appetite. In grain, you can add something sweet like applesauce to entice your horse - this adds sweetness without having to put them on a grain high in molasses.
With hay, you can use a hay net or the Forager Slow Feeder. Either of these options will also allow you to soak or steam to minimize the dust. Haygain Hay Steaming is proven to retain hay’s nutrients and the Forager sits on the ground, encouraging horses to stretch their neck down in a natural grazing position. Whereas a hay net needs to be hung high enough on the wall so a horse cannot get their leg caught in it.
My horse is standing in a weird way and appears uncomfortable. These shifts in weight can be an early sign of injury. Always take pictures and consult your vet if you notice any of the following behaviours.
• Front legs parked out in front of him. It looks like they are trying to stretch, but for a continuous amount of time. Front legs will be stretched out in front of them, shoulders lower than when resting, and the croup is high. This can be a sign of trying to relieve pressure off of the front feet or ankles.
• One front leg pointed out. If this behaviour comes on suddenly you may want to have someone jog your horse while you watch him move. This is a sign of relieving pressure or weight off a front leg. This could be as simple as an abscess brewing or could be the first signs of something more serious.
• Resting one hind leg. Most horses will sleep standing up and will rest a hind leg to relax. I don’t usually worry about that. If you have your horse in the cross ties and they continue to rest the same leg even after being asked to stand square, it’s something to make note of. If this behaviour persists, mention it to your vet.
My horse seems to be lying down a lot more than usual. Have you started bedding your stall with more shavings? Is your horse now on a cushioned matted stall instead of something more abrasive or hard-packed dirt? Is your horse in a larger stall than they were before? Has your horse been traveling a lot and may be recovering? Has the temperature changed drastically? These can all factor into a horse wanting to sleep more.
If they appear to be uncomfortable or are getting up and down frequently, I’d call a veterinarian immediately.
Swelling, heat and obvious discomfort are all causes to call the vet.
I hope these tips from my years of grooming high-performance equine athletes help you gain that most excellent horsemanship habit of keen, everyday observation. Your horses will thank you for it!
About the Author
Courtney Carson is a lifelong horse person who has competed at the upper levels of three-day eventing and moved into grooming for U.S. Olympic eventer Doug Payne in 2016. Throughout her career she tended to top event horses and show jumpers, travelled the world for competitions, and was a part of the Tokyo Olympic team as groom for Vandiver.
Courtney prides herself on always advocating for the horses and good horsemanship. Since retiring as a full-time groom she works in a small animal veterinary hospital, serves on the board for the International Grooms Association, freelance grooms, and teaches grooming clinics.