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U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

Animal & Veterinary

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by Karen A. Kandra
FDA Veterinarian Newsletter September/October 1998 Volume XIII, No V

The following article provides information on horses and includes suggestions for their care. Veterinarians may wish to duplicate this article and provide copies to their interested clients. As always, material which appears in the FDA Veterinarian is free of copyright and may be reproduced without permission.

The total equine population in the U. S. numbers approximately six million, but the number of horse owners is increasing rapidly. Prospective owners must realize the extensive commitment in time and money that being a responsible owner entails, since the horse is totally dependent on its caretaker for its welfare. Whether you are lucky enough to stable the horse where you live or employ the services of a local boarding facility, there are many aspects of horse management which should be considered.


Feeding horses is a science wherein the old adage "little and often" must be followed. The horse's stomach is extremely small in relation to its overall size, so it cannot efficiently utilize a large amount of feed at one time. The bulk fiber portion (e.g., forage, pasture, hay) is the most important part of a horse’s diet. Quality grass pasture is the ideal feed for horses and often all that is required for the adult horse. In the winter, or under circumstances when pasture is not available, horses should have good quality hay that is free of dust and mold and does not contain thorny weeds or nonpalatable material. In general, horses should be fed dry hay at a rate of 1.5 to 3.0 percent of their body weight. This quantity should be adjusted depending on the horse’s desired and existing condition, the quality of hay fed, and the expected activity level. Large round bales are an excellent source of hay if made properly and stored inside without exposure to the weather. They also provide activity to keep bored horses from chewing on the fences for lack of anything else to munch on. The quality of hay depends on harvesting management and species of grass or legume. The center and outside of several bales should be evaluated. Generally, the outside of the bale should be dry and light green to yellow in color. The center of the bale should be light green in color and never black or wet. Your local or state extension agent can help you evaluate hay quality.

Ideally, a horse should be fed two or even three times a day. Grain should be considered a supplement to the fiber part of the diet. Grains should be used when additional energy is necessary, or to balance the fiber portion of the diet. There are many commercial feed mixtures available, and you should choose the proper one depending on the intended use and amount of activity your horse will have. Most feeds come in either "textured" or "pelletted" varieties, and each type serves a purpose. Likewise, there are feeds for different life stages, i.e., growing, mature, or senior. Most horses do not require additional vitamin supplements, if fed the appropriate commercial feed. The most important thing is DO NOT OVERFEED. Obesity in horses can negatively impact the respiratory, digestive, and skeletal systems, causing serious conditions such as colic, laminitis (founder), gastric ulcers, and lameness problems.

It goes without saying that horses should have a constant supply of fresh water. Horses on hay drink far more water than horses on pasture. It is also recommended that horses have access to a trace mineral salt block at all times.

The horse's physical condition is totally dependent on the person who feeds him. If his ribs are showing, it is likely he's not getting enough to eat (assuming he does not have parasites). Conversely, if he's obese, he's getting too much. Horses should be fed individually to be sure they get their prescribed amount. If fed in a group, there may be one who wolfs down his own feed and then runs to the other buckets before the more timid horses are finished. Progressive loss in condition despite a good appetite indicates a need for consultation with your veterinarian.

Veterinary Care

When choosing a veterinarian, select one who has an equine practice or at least sees horses 50 percent of the time. Usually you can check with your local veterinary association or other local horse owners for a referral. It is important to develop a good relationship with your veterinarian since there is bound to be a time when you will need to call the doctor out for an emergency.

Consult with your veterinarian to set up a regular health maintenance program to insure against serious diseases. These may vary depending on where you reside, and the expected travel plans for your horse.

Parasites are a leading cause of death, but can be prevented by periodic de-worming and frequent removal and management of manure. Your veterinarian can recommend a specific program based on the number of horses and their environment. For example, two horses on 75 acres of pasture would not have the same exposure level as 50 horses on 75 acres. It is important to reduce the worm burden on the environment, and not just to reduce parasites in a single horse. Pastures should be well drained and properly maintained, i.e., regular mowing and harrowing. Signs of parasites include loss of condition, tail rubbing, dull coat, diarrhea, or constipation. There are several products approved which are effective against different types of parasites.

At least annually, your veterinarian should examine the condition of the horse's mouth and "float" or file down the teeth by rasping any rough edges which may have developed on the grinders. This sharpness can cause pain and prevents the horse from chewing his food thoroughly. If you notice him dropping feed from his mouth while eating, this is a strong indication that his teeth need attention. The veterinarian may have to extract some "wolf" teeth which could interfere with the bit. This is a simple procedure, not requiring surgery or anesthesia (unlike humans).

Hoof Care

When choosing a farrier (blacksmith), it is imperative to select a reputable one, perhaps recommended by your veterinarian or other horse owners. There is much truth to the saying "no foot, no horse," and poor hoof care can take up to a year to repair. The horse's feet need trimming every 6-8 weeks, depending on growth rate, use, and environment. If you intend to ride on hard or rocky surfaces, the horse will need shoes to protect the hooves and keep them from cracking and breaking. Depending on the environment, it may be necessary to apply a dressing routinely to help keep the hooves from drying out.

General Management Recommendations

In horse management, the key word is PREVENTION. Here are some precautions to avoid a catastrophe:

  • Think safety first. Do not leave any sharp objects, i.e., wire, glass, pitchforks, etc., where a horse might injure himself.
  • Don't leave any toxic substances, i.e., paint cans, antifreeze, gasoline, or poisonous plants/trees within the horse's reach.
  • Keep electrical plugs and cords out of reach of horses.
  • Provide a vaccination program recommended by your veterinarian.
  • Feed little and often, but DO NOT OVERFEED. A horse's digestive system is very sensitiveand reacts to any sudden change in diet. Consult your veterinarian regarding the appropriate diet for the horse's age and activity level.
  • Always provide shelter from bad weather with a clean place to lie down. Horses really do enjoy lying down, despite the myth that they only sleep standing up. If you don't have a barn, a 3-sided loafing shed can suffice as protection from summer sun and flies and winter wind and storms.
  • Clean fresh water (ice-free in winter) should be available at all times. This means scrubbing tubs and buckets regularly.
  • Groom horse often to remove dirt and stimulate the skin and coat.
  • Horses are happier if they have company. If you own only one horse, perhaps a neighbor's horse can suffice, or a miniature donkey, goat, or even a chicken can be a barnyard companion.
  • Horses are creatures of habit, so stick to a routine. Feed them at approximately the same times every day. If you must go away, employ the services of a dependable caretaker and leave the phone number of your veterinarian in case of an emergency.
  • Learn first aid for minor abrasions, how to bandage wounds, and recognize when a cut needs stitches; also learn how to take the horse's temperature, pulse, and respiration. The veterinarian will ask you these vital signs when you call in an emergency.
  • The first indication of illness is generally listlessness and/or lack of appetite. The temperature should then be taken, and any elevation over 101 degrees should trigger a call to your veterinarian.
  • Pick out the hooves daily to remove stones and dirt and prevent thrush.
  • If you are new at horse-keeping, choose an advisor -- an experienced stable manager -- to consult when necessary, join a horse club, read horse books. There are endless sources of information on all aspects of horse management.
  • With proper care and nutrition your horse may live well into his 20's, and provide you with a wonderful friend and companion for years to come. The rewards of horse ownership will last a lifetime.