Horse Health by the Season
Winter, spring, summer, or fall…all you’ve got to do is remember what your horse needs to stay healthy. Our seasonal guide will help you.
Pumpkin-spiced lattes and cold, crisp mornings—we call it “sweater season.” Or what about sunbathing and splashing in the waves? Nothing beats “swimsuit season.” Then there’s that cringeworthy time of year taken up by balance sheets and meetings with your accountant. “Tax season” is nothing to look forward to.
In my world, I don’t think about the seasons in terms of fashion or finance. Instead I think “emergency!” That’s right. Instead of sweaters and swimsuits, veterinarians think of colic season, cut season, founder season, abscess season, or allergy season. It’s definitely true that different times of year bring different health-care challenges for your horse.
In this article, I’ll give you a rundown of the most common seasonal health concerns veterinarians see, along with tips to help you avoid them all year long. Then you can refer to my checklist for reminders to help you stay on top of your horse’s health-care needs.
Emergencies can happen at any time of year. Even so, as a veterinarian I know there are certain times of year when I should make sure my truck is stocked with extra bandage material, or that my hoof knives are especially sharp. Read on to learn about the top five health care seasons I’ve learned to expect in my equine practice.
Colic occurs most frequently during cold winter months. Although colic can occur at any time of year, Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas are the holidays most likely to be interrupted by a colic emergency.
Why: Cold weather often means your horse has less time outside and a reduced or irregular work schedule. This decrease in exercise can cause his gastrointestinal tract to slow down and increase his risk for colic. It’s also common for your horse’s water consumption to decrease when temperatures drop, especially if it’s cold enough for water buckets or troughs to freeze. Decreased hydration increases the risk for an impaction colic, or blockage of feed material in your horse’s intestines.
Prevent it: To decrease your horse’s winter-colic risk, make sure he gets plenty of exercise. If turnout in the pasture is limited because of frozen ground, be extra vigilant about a daily work session in the arena.
To ensure that your horse drinks enough, consider providing warm water at least once a day. For pastured horses, consider a tank heater. Studies have shown that providing warm water for your horse can increase his water consumption by as much as 40 percent—and reduce colic risk.
Spring rain and snow have passed, pastures are dry, and the sun is out. Late spring and summer tend to bring on lacerations.
Why: When it’s nice outside, chances are you can hardly wait to turn your horse out in the pasture or paddock—especially if he’s been cooped up inside for a long, cold winter. When he first goes outside to romp around, he’s likely to be a little more rambunctious than normal and more likely to get into mischief. Not only that, essential and hazardous fence or barn repairs might’ve been overlooked during winter months.
Before you even think about turning your horse out for the first time, perform a thorough safety check of pastures and paddocks. Inspect areas around feeders, gates, and water troughs where horses are most likely to congregate. Perform all necessary repairs to remove any potential safety hazards. If your horse is of the high-energy variety and has been cooped up all winter long, consider turning him out for the first time after a work session, ideally during a quiet time of day when he’s less likely to be wound up when you set him free. If you’re really concerned, ask your vet about using a light sedative to minimize the risk of a first-turnout pasture injury.
The birds are chirping, flowers are blooming, and pastures are turning green—really green. Founder episodes are most common in the spring. Fall months, after the first rains, can also see a rise in founder cases.
Why: Fresh, green grass is loaded with carbohydrates and calories. If your horse is out getting fat on pasture when the grass turns green, there’s a good chance the sudden surge of carbohydrates will cause a founder episode. Spring is the obvious time of year for your horse to founder, but don’t overlook the risks of early fall, when pastures dry from summer sun begin to green up once again, and carbohydrate levels rise.
Prevent it: Pay close attention to your horse’s weight and body condition—particularly if he has the characteristic body type of an insulin-resistant horse (a cresty neck or other areas of fat deposits, and a tendency to gain weight easily). If you have questions about your horse’s founder risk, talk to your veterinarian about performing lab work to test for insulin and glucose levels that’ll determine whether your horse is insulin-resistant. If the tests confirm he does have this metabolic condition, take extra care to watch his weight and avoid excessive exposure to green grass. Consider a grazing muzzle to limit grass consumption, especially during spring and fall months.
Even if your horse isn’t insulin-resistant, be sure to gradually introduce him to the fresh, green grass, especially if he’s been locked in for the winter. Start with a maximum of one hour of daily turnout, and gradually increase time over several weeks. Finally, even if you introduce your horse gradually to pasture, make sure he doesn’t get too fat. Obesity will increase his founder risk even without an underlying metabolic abnormality.
The ice/mud cycle when winter temperatures freeze and thaw leaves your pastures and loafing sheds alternately rock-hard and boggy. Temperatures swing from frozen during a blizzard to warm and ice-melting. As if the weather hasn’t been enough of a drag, today your horse can hardly walk; he has an abscess.
Frozen ground can bruise your horse’s feet, and when the ground thaws, mud acts like a poultice to help abscesses develop. At my clinic, we predict at least “an abscess a day” in the weeks following icy-cold conditions.
If your horse gets daily turnout, it’s best to keep him inside when ground is really frozen. If he lives outside full-time, he could fare slightly better with the icy ground than his barn-housed counterparts, but is still at risk for abscesses. No matter his work schedule, and whether he’s barefoot or shod, maintain a regular trimming/shoeing schedule year-round to keep your horse’s feet in the best condition. Also check and clean his feet daily. If his feet are especially sensitive, keeping him shod might lower his abscess risk. Consider a hoof supplement containing biotin to help keep his feet as healthy and strong as possible.
Allergies most often strike in spring and summer and manifest either in the form of hives or breathing troubles.
Why: If your horse is allergic, chances are his body reacts to a long list of different allergens, or allergy-producing substances, including different types of dust, pollens, or insects. Allergic symptoms, such as hives, appear once the amount of allergens he’s exposed to reaches a threshold level. In spring and summer, pollen counts soar, and dry conditions mean it’s dusty everywhere. Your horse’s allergy threshold is easily surpassed.
If you have an allergic horse, pay close attention to his environment. Minimize his exposure to potential allergens by keeping your barn clean—vacuum away dust and cobwebs at least several times each year. Turn your horse out during stall cleaning or barn-sweeping time, and consider soaking or sprinkling hay to minimize dust.