Is your horse distressed? How you can spot behavioral warning signs in your horse?

Photo of Stethoscope and Cell Phone
Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

by Liv Gude, Guest Author

The horse has lots of ways to communicate with us, and it’s our job to decipher their language.  A horse can and will show us when they are in distress, feeling ill, developing colic, unhappy, or uncomfortable. We need to read their physical signs and their behaviors to get the full picture, and before we can do that, we need to know their normals. Their normal vital signs, their normal eating and drinking habits, and even their normal exercise and turn out behaviors.  Then we have a baseline to follow!

Things you can measure on your horse to check for wellness:

Your horse’s vital signs are a great indicator of their overall health at any given moment. Learning to take your horse’s temperature, pulse, and respiration rate while at rest gives you a normal baseline to compare things to.

  • Your adult horse’s temperature should be between 99 and 101. Anything higher might mean a fever, which is an absolute reason to call your Veterinarian.
  • An adult horse’s normal pulse is anywhere between 24 and 40 beats per minute, but usually between 32 and 36. A higher than normal pulse at rest indicates pain in your horse’s body.
  • An adult horse’s normal respirations per minute are between 8 and 12. A higher than normal respiratory rate might mean pain or trouble breathing while at rest.
  • You can also learn to feel for your horse’s digital pulses. These are located around the fetlock and give you a snapshot into the health of your horse’s hooves. A normal digital pulse is weak or non-existent, it’s when you start to feel a strong pulse indicates that something is brewing in the hoof.  Remembering “no hoof, no horse”, call your Vet on this one right away!
  • Capillary refill time refers to the amount of time in seconds that blood needs to return to an area. You can find this by pressing your thumb into your horse’s gums. When you remove your thumb, there will be a white thumbprint, just count the seconds until you see the color return to normal. Usually, the capillary refill time is about two seconds.

Things to notice about your horse as you clean his stall and refill water buckets:

  • A horse’s water and feed intake should be measured daily to notice trends and be alerted to sudden changes in behavior. Accordingly, your horse’s manure and urine output are also valuable information to note daily. When picking stalls and paddocks, also pay attention to the consistency, texture and size of your horse’s manure.
  • Can you be sure your horse rested at night? Look for shavings in your horse’s tail or a nice flat spot in the paddock. Horses will not sleep if they do not feel safe, and without those tell-tale signs, you know you horse is distressed.
  • You also want to observe how your horse’s stall is. Is he generally messy, or more tidy? Any changes in how he keeps his bedding can tell you about his stress levels and alert you to a behavior change.

When you get your horse out for grooming, keep your eyes and ears peeled for:

  • You might see or notice that his steps and foot falls are a bit off.  Horses are sometimes reluctant to turn or travel on hard ground can mean something is uncomfortable.
  • When you are picking hooves, make sure you take note of how reluctant, or not, your horse is while lifting his legs.
  • Do you notice any sensitivities or new itchy places on your horse?  What about any flinching as you groom him? You might be able to pick up a skin issue or muscle soreness while grooming.
  • Just as with your horse’s vital signs, get to know your horse’s normal so that anything out of the ordinary can be investigated.

Under saddle, pay attention to:

  • Is your horse “girthy” as you cinch up?  A snarky reaction can mean lots of things, from ulcers to poorly fitting tack.
  • How does he behave when you start to ride? Any differences in how your horse feels over time should be noted. Same for your horse’s willingness to go forward under saddle and be comfortable in all of his gaits. This is another great example of your horse communicating to you about his saddle, the bridle, your riding, the footing, his soundness, sore muscles; the list is long!
  • You should also pay attention to sweating patterns. Little or no sweat at all can be dangerous, so definitely get your Vet involved! This can happen suddenly and affects how your horse regulates his body temperature. Look for patterns and situations where sweating would be appropriate to find your horse’s norms.

What about when your horse is turned out?

Turn out is a great opportunity for you to learn how your horse behaves around his horse friends, either in the same pasture next door to them.

Some things to notice about your horse’s turn out patterns:

  • His movement in turnout. Does he have a routine to play a bit and then get down to eating, or is food the top priority? Every day might be different, but you will start to discern your horse’s general patterns.
  • Just as when he’s in a stall, notice his eating and drinking habits. Notice his manure and urine output as well, although it’s much harder to measure urine output. Manure should be closely observed daily to look for changes. In a pasture setting, there’s more opportunity for weeds and things to upset your horse’s digestive system.
  • How well does your horse rest in turn out? You might not catch him dozing overnight, but you might find grass stains on hocks, grass in tails, or pressed down patches of pasture that let you know that a nap happened.
  • Where does your horse like to spend his time? If your pasture has hard ground, does your horse avoid it? How restless is he? Can you notice his gait and foot falls to monitor for soundness?
  • There’s also the aspect of watching his behavior with pasture mates. In herd situations, you might find that everyone is happy with their position in the herd, but some horses are stressed by certain herd combinations.
  • Does he interact, stay to himself, pace or weave, crib, get into fights, or any other horse behaviors that he doesn’t like his pasture mates? Is he reluctant to go out, or come back in?

All of these things should be taken in a big picture approach. If you see something that gets your attention as not normal, observe his other behaviors to gather more information. Always loop your Veterinarian into the mix, as sometimes strange behavior seems silly, but can be serious.

Your horse certainly can’t send you an email, so it’s up to you to learn his normal and notice any changes.

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