Horses are lovely animals, but they are a big commitment and need good care and attention. James Yeates, Chief veterinary Officer of the RSPCA, suggests some key health concerns to consider.
Infections and Vaccinations
Horses can get infections, often from other horses (although some can be caught by humans, like salmonella). You should vaccinate your horse against equine influenza and tetanus regularly, and you may want to ask your vet about vaccinating against equine herpes virus, as vaccines can give some protection against respiratory disease.
Horses may get injured out riding or just out in the field or in the stable. It is tempting to try to protect them by keeping them indoors or alone. However, horses naturally live in groups and range across wide areas, so preventing these behavioural needs can cause frustration, boredom and loneliness. Plus such husbandry methods can increase the risk of some injuries.
Health and the environment
Rain can lead to unthriftiness and diseases such as rainscald and mudfever. Meanwhile, high temperatures, direct sunlight and insects can be unpleasant. So all horses need access to shelter at all times.
The majority of horses’ diet should be grass or forage. These are more natural, help avoid dental disease and maintain healthy guts. They also help avoid boredom, where horses may start chewing wood or eating bedding, which may cause intestinal impactions.
Colic can be sparked off by poor quality hay, fermentable foods like grass clippings, lack of water, high concentrate feeds or sudden dietary changes.
Horses can get too thin. But more often now we see horses that are overweight or even obese. This may come with laminitis, which is excruciatingly painful and often requires euthanasia. Horses are difficult to weigh, but you can assess their body condition score.
Horses can suffer from stomach ulcers. It may be linked to diet, particularly high concentrate foods. But they may also be due to generic poor welfare for other reasons, such as excessive confinement or isolation. Gastric ulcers can be painful, and may lead to weight loss.
Some scientists think this may cause horses to crib-bite, to produce saliva to reduce stomach acid, although there is debate on that point.
Foods may contain worms, germs and poisons. Hay may include fungal spores that can cause respiratory problems, especially if placed in high haynets or racks.
All horses’ hooves should be regularly trimmed and shod if necessary, in discussion with a reputable farrier. Inappropriate methods of “farriery” may play a role in hoof conditions and navicular disease.
Old age changes
Because our horses are often beloved companions rather than workhorses, we can keep horses well into their old age, which brings risks of chronic and geriatric conditions. They can suffer from metabolic disorders or degenerative conditions such as navicular disease, which can be very painful.
Horses, especially older horses require regular dental care to avoid painful conditions and decreased ability to extract adequate nutrition from food provided.
While many males are castrated, some people are tempted to breed from their horses. However, mating, pregnancy and giving birth bring risks of injury and some diseases. Plus, breeding horses who are being rested for diseases may risk passing on those diseases.
Perhaps most importantly, we are seeing a major problem of large numbers of unwanted horses. Indeed, the RSPCA has launched a campaign to find homes for a record number of abused, neglected and abandoned horses and ponies.
Charities, including the RSPCA, are in the grip of an equine crisis as falling horse prices over the past five years, combined with rising feed and care costs, have led to thousands of horses being neglected, dumped and in some cases left starving to death.
We have managed to double our rehoming rate but we still have 900 neglected, abused and abandoned horses in our care. So think twice before breeding.