In its natural state the horse strives to do three things, to survive, to nourish itself and to reproduce. The horse has a good appetite and an efficient digestive system to allow it to grow well to cope with its environment. In order to survive in the wild, the horse also needs to be alert for danger. True health is not just freedom from disease or lameness – it is also a state of mind and one that we have to achieve in captivity, or the unnatural environment the horse lives in modern day society.
The true horseman has to learn to be observant and perceptive and develop that great gift – the Stockman’s Eye – or the ability to note the normal look and behaviour of each individual animal in their care so that any difference is noted immediately.
In order to achieve this, it is vital to know how the animal looks and behaves normally. Anyone who owns a horse or even runs a yard of horses will be aware of the individual characteristics of the animals in their care. Some horses are naturally exuberant and curious and will be eager to greet everyone that comes in their proximity. Others are shy and prefer their own company, these animals may normally stand at the back of their stables, or graze alone in the paddock. A good horse owner true will instinctively observe the animals and be able to recognise instantly when things deviate from the norm. This is especially important for foals, youngstock, breeding stock, horses that are just in from grass, and those just out on grass and those who are under the stress of competition life. Individual horses will differ and this is where the experience is so important, as any out of character behaviour can indicate the beginnings of a health problem.
As a general rule, the healthy horse will show the following:-
He will look alert with bright eyes and an interested outlook. The skin should be loose and clean and the coat will be flat with a healthy sheen. The membranes under the eyelids, inside nostrils and inside the mouth should be salmon-pink and moist. The droppings should be normal in consistency and number and the urine almost colourless. The horse should stand normally, with no signs of lumps, bumps or wounds. When led out the hoses should take strides of a normal length. The horse should not show any signs of sweating, or being tucked up. The feed and hay should have been eaten up, the normal amount of water consumed and the bed should not have been unusually disturbed.
The normal temperature of a horse is 100–101F or 38C. Foals will show a temperature of up to 101.5C or 38.6F. The horse’s temperature is taken in the rectum using a clinical thermometer. Temperatures can vary by half a degree and still be normal. The normal pulse is 36-42 beats per minute, with up to 45 beats being quite normal in young horses. The pulse can be taken by pressing the fingers against an artery that runs close to the surface of the skin, an easy place to do this is the facial artery on the inside edge of the lower jaw. Another place to feel the pulse is the radial artery inside the foreleg, level with the elbow. The respiration rate should be 8–15 per minute, with up to 20-30 being quite normal in a foal. To assess the rate of respiration watch the horse’s flanks while he is standing still, you will be able to see the rise and fall as the horse breathes, each complete rise and fall is one breath. Temperature, pulse and respiration may vary between individuals and it is advisable to establish these for future reference. A high temperature can mean a general infection, while a higher pulse may suggest that the horse is in pain as is faster than normal respiration.
In the wild horses have freedom to graze constantly, browsing on a wide range of grasses and plants, drinking when necessary with no mental or physical stress. When the horse lives in captivity, especially in the hugely unnatural environment of the stable enormous stresses are placed on his body and mind. He is required to eat when food is available, often large amounts at one time, and may also have restricted access to water; his exercise may well be short bursts of strenuous activity, all of which is at complete odds with nature.
In order to keep the horse free from disease, try and make the horse’s life as close to his natural way as is possible within the restrictions of captivity and the horse’s work. When a horse is stabled he is prone to respiratory problems caused by hot or stale air or from dusty fodder or bedding so it is essential to ensure that all stabling allows plenty of fresh air to circulate, without the horse being in a draught. It is also essential to ensure that all bedding and fodder used is of the highest quality and free of any dust or mould that could cause problems.
In the wild the horse will move constantly, this routine can be mirrored for a horse that is kept outside, provided that adequate shelter is provided. The cold will not bother a horse, but they do not do well in wet, windy weather. A horse that is left standing out in these conditions can be subjected to all manner of health problems such as skin problems, sore, chapped heels, mud fever. For our convenience most horses are stabled during the winter, it is essential that the stable is comfortable as possible for the horse, by ensuring that there is plenty of bedding so that the horse will not get chilled when lying down, or bruise itself when getting up. Stabled horses should be allowed to graze freely in a field every day if only for a short time, the equine equivalent of our relaxing in front of the television after a hard day at work!
Correct exercise is very important for the stabled horse, but it is essential that this is not done just after the horse has eaten as this can lead to colic. Giving a horse a day off while he is fit and being fed large amounts of concentrate is very dangerous and can lead to diseases such as azotoria and lymphangitis. Feeding is of prime importance as the horse has a delicate digestive system. Be sure to feed little and often and ensure that fresh water is always available. Also try as much as possible to keep to a regular routine to avoid placing unnecessary stress on the horse.
In the wild horses would not be exposed to contagious and infectious diseases or the internal parasites that can cause such havoc to their digestive systems. When horses are kept in the confines of our world, be it in a stable or field, no matter what working role they play, be it pleasure riding or high level competition, there is a lot that we can do to prevent from these conditions. A correct worming programme is essential as is an up to date tetanus injection. Competition horses and those who come into contact with other horses, at riding clubs, or hunting should be given a vaccination against equine influenza.
Observation is an essential part of caring for the animals, learning their routine, watching their body language, ever aware that noticing the first stages of a problem could save a life. A good stockman will spend time just watching the animals under his care. Leaning on the gate to watch the horses graze, or watching over the stable door is not time that it is wasted. It is all part of developing that essential tool that every true horseman has to have – “The Stockmans Eye”.