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Eight Keys to Horse Health

Being an equine veterinarian, researcher of health and observer for over 18 years, I have come to some personal conclusions as to what seems to work when it comes to improving the health of our equine companions.  I feel that optimal health can be achieved, but that doesn’t always mean extravagant living conditions or huge expense.  In fact, some of the healthiest horses that I have seen as a veterinarian were those kept in large pastures with minimal man made housing, but plenty of food and attention by the owner.  


Optimal health for our equine companions can be achieved no matter the age, with the right guidelines and effort.  Health can mean many different things to different people, but from my perspective, it equates into a well balanced, emotionally stable, socially adept animal that is free from most medical conditions and seems to maintain well overall.  The benefits can be huge including less cost in veterinary care, improved soundness, enhanced performance and overall a happier and a more cooperative horse.

Here are my 8 suggestions, keys or observations for enhancing horse health.  Keep in mind that there is much overlap between suggestions as they are often intertwined.  

  1. Annual Physical Examination:  In order to know abnormal, we must know normal and in order to detect subtle changes that may prove threatening, it is crucial to have at least a yearly physical examination performed on every horse.  Preventative care is the easiest and least expensive investment one can make for your equine companion.  It is not just for the older horse, but I feel that every horse should be examined yearly from yearling to the geriatric patient.  Unfortunately, many horses are given a quick once over along with spring vaccines or not even that due to time constraints. The reality is that often problems tend to “pop up” from our perspective as owners, but the signs were there but just overlooked or worse, ignored.  I feel the annual examination is very important and time should be dedicated to being thorough from the mouth to the rear, making notes, body temperature, oral exam, eye exam, cardiac and lungs, gastrointestinal evaluation, evaluation of the limbs, feet and palpation of tendons along with other structures.  The key to managing many health problems is to catch them early in which case annual blood work is not a bad idea in order to establish baseline levels for that particular animal.  It could be one of the best investments you could make.
  2. Support A Healthy Immune System:  A properly functioning immune response is one of the most important aspects of health, aiding in warding off disease and infection, while also enhancing recovery from illness and injury. Some things we can do to encourage a healthy immune response include:
    • Maintain a good plane of nutrition with quality hays, grains with minimal preservatives
    • Monitor body condition, preventing overweight as obesity can negatively impact the immune response
    • Annual vaccines to keep the immune system strong
    • Routine deworming
    • Control stress in environment and daily life
    • Supplements to reduce impact of stress if unavoidable including Ashwaghanda, Curcumin, Green Tea, Spirulina, antioxidants
  3. Proper Dental Care:  Oral evaluations should be a part of every annual examination.  The teeth are obviously important to obtaining and chewing food properly, which then impacts overall health and gastrointestinal function.  The horse’s mouth is unique in that the teeth continue to erupt or grow as they age and considering this, they will keep their size in check by rubbing or wearing against their opposing tooth.  The upper jaw is wider than the lower jaw in the horse, which means that only a certain percentage of the tooth actually wears against it opposite, leaving some exposed which will then be prone to developing sharp points due to lack of wear.  This occurs on the outside of the upper cheek teeth and on the inside of the lower cheek teeth.  The sharp enamel points can pinch the tongue, cheek creating pain and deterring the action of chewing food.  If the food is not chewed properly, then they can be more prone to poor nutrient assimilation but also might have an increased risk of colic or choke.  Other problems detected during a dental evaluation include overbites which impacts alignment of the cheek teeth, missing teeth, overgrown teeth, retained caps in younger horses, hooks, ramps, shear mouth and loose teeth, not to mention dental infections.  Proper dental attention is needed, but each horse will vary as to their requirements for what needs to be done.  It is by far better to try to manage a poor aligning mouth than to wait and attack the problem after years of neglect. Keeping enamel points reduced and monitoring for problems may just produce a happier horse in the end.
  4. Deworming:  Gastrointestinal parasites can be a huge problem for some horses, impacting overall health, body condition and performance.  Most parasites that affect the horse are found in the environment but are mainly focused in the feces, dirt and pasture.  A certain level of parasites in the gut are desirable for immune enhancement and even to aid in digestion to an extent, but too many can dramatically impact health depriving the body of nutrients and opening the door to many gastrointestinal problems.  Routine deworming is highly recommended and critical, but the exact protocol varies from one horse to the next.  The more a horse travels and is exposed to foreign environments and other horses, the higher their risk and thus the more often they need to be dewormed. On the opposite extreme, we may have a horse that is in the same pasture, on the same farm for many years with no traveling or interaction with other horses.  Their exposure is low and thus the frequency of deworming is generally lower.  Personally, I am not a fan of daily dewormers for many reasons but more so believe it categorizing horses based on their use and exposure risk.  Fecal egg counts performed by your veterinarian can also be very useful to help strategize and determine who may be carriers in a particular herd.  I have found that often, in a herd, we have one or two horses that tend to have the highest worm burdens and are the culprits in pasture contamination.  In many cases, those same horses tend to be less healthier overall, which may play a role in their parasite increased susceptibility.  Taking all this into consideration, we must not forget about pasture maintenance, removal of feces or dragging to spread the manure out for drying and increased parasite killing action.
  5. Proper Hoof Care:  Improper hoof care is often the number one source of lameness in my experience, with the impact transferring up the limb to the joints and tendons.  The causes range from inadequate nutrient provision for proper hoof growth, strength and health, but also is due to improper trimming and shoe application.  Understanding hoof health and proper digital angles on a very basic level is paramount for success.  Each owner should understand the ideas, concepts and general anatomy.  Again, if we know normal, even for just that individual horse, we can be quick on the gun to detect problems and thus faster to react.  We also need to look at the hoof as a reflection of health.  Dry, brittle and cracking hooves are an indication of possible nutrient deficiency, imbalance or even illness.  The hoof condition can help guide us in other health conditions as they are often a window to the inside. Everyone is different when it comes to the feet in horses, some more aggressive than others.  Myself, I tend to be less aggressive, realizing that dramatic changes can take months to counteract as we are dealing with a living and growing tissue.  I also believe in establishing baselines in our personal horses, which means acquiring x-rays of the feet at the time of acquisition and yearly if indicated to determine angles and sole depth.  We have to remember the saying “no hoof, no horse”, which is very true on many levels. The concept of hoof care is no different from us as if we are on our feet all day long, we want to be comfortable and have properly fitting shoes.  If our feet hurt or are abused, it impacts our outlook on the day and our ability to function.  The same goes for the horse. Supplements that we use in our personal horses that have enhanced hoof health include pea protein, spirulina blue green algae,  amino acids and cofactors including CoQ10 and lipoic acid.  I find that natural food sources of nutrients are by far better for overall assimilation than synthetic sources.
  6. Maintain Proper Body Condition:  Proper body condition impacts health on many levels with too thin implying improper level of nutrition and overweight inferring too many calories and not enough exercise.  The reality is that if the proper nutrition is not provided and tissues are deprived, then the horse is less likely to perform properly, may be more prone to injury and illness.  The same holds true for one that is overweight as an obese or overweight horse is more prone to inflammatory conditions including metabolic syndrome, insulin resistance and immune dysfunction. The Henneke body condition scoring system was developed to help grade horses based on a scale of 1-9, with 1 being ‘poor’ and a 9 being ‘extremely fat’.  An ideal body condition is generally accepted as being between a 5-6 on the scale.  In general, owners should apply weight tapes, keep records and put their hands on the animals to detect changes in body condition.  One of the biggest goals with any animal, is to be able to feel the ribs with light pressure but not have them be readily visible.  We have to remember that we are feeding to maintain body condition and overall health, not to just give the horses something to preoccupy themselves with.  Many health problems are linked to poor or excessive diets and an overweight body condition. Excessive body weight is reflective of a higher level of systemic inflammation, which can manifest in a variety of ways.  We also have to keep in mind the impact of body condition on hoof health and lameness.  A thin or malnourished horse is more likely to have poor quality hoof condition and tendon health, not to mention overall poor immune function.  An overweight horse is no different from that perspective, but excessive body weight is then distributed to the feet, tendons and joint, possibly imparting excessive damage contributing to lameness.  We have found that utilizing digestible pea protein can help enhance an underweight body condition, plus support muscle development.  In those horse that are overweight, I find that the use of various berry extracts, cinnamon and if indicated, inflammation modulating herbs such as Curcumin and Boswellia help to control the cycle of events and aid in maintaining healthy sugar metabolism.  In those horses with suspected low thyroid conditions, thyroid supplementation may prove useful but in the long term, I have found equal if not superior benefits by enhancing nutrient supplementation through the use of spirulina blue green algae and other nutritive herbs in addition to modulating the inflammatory response that is contributing to the problem.
  7. Systemic Inflammation Management:  Age, diet, environmental factors, training and competition all impact health by contributing to systemic inflammation on varying levels.  The concept of ongoing or chronic inflammation impacts cellular health negatively which enhances age related degeneration, predisposes to health problems, accelerates joint degeneration and tendon injuries, impacts performance and overall recovery. We need to be more pro-active when it comes to this concept of chronic inflammation by looking to preventative methods to keep the problem under control to the best of our ability.  If we see and recognize this concept and understand that it is impacting every horse, but to varying levels, then we can potentially intervene thereby reducing medical associated costs, impact performance, recovery and extend the quality of life for that particular horse.  Herbs that I find very useful to help manage ongoing inflammation include curcumin, boswellia, ashwaghanda, green tea and various individual antioxidants.  The level needed is going to be dependent on the circumstances for each horse.  The long term impact can be huge, from my clinical observation perspective.  Again, prevention is ideal with therapies started before problems develop. Read more on the impact of inflammation on health in this article.
  8. Reduce the Impact of Stress:  I have discussed the impact of stress on health in the horse before in a separate article.  The implications are real, confirmed by research and impacting everything from immune function, digestive complaints, increased predisposition to injury, poor performance, increased incidence of illness and overall poor recovery.  We can minimize stress by monitoring herd status, maintaining proper body condition and overall nutrition, monitoring for signs of excessive training or competition, reducing the impact of a less than ideal environment and by just letting our horse be a horse sometimes, which means adequate turnout time, sunlight and grazing. Box stall confinement is one of the biggest sources of stress outside of constant training or competition.  We need to understand our horse’s requirements as a living, breathing creature and we need to understand the negative impacts that are evident when these needs are not met.  If stress cannot be reduced or only partially managed, then we need to turn to options that may help to reduce the negative health impacts.  This is where I believe that adaptogens come into play, including Ashwaghanda, Green Tea, Bacopa, Rhodiola, Schisandra and Hawthorne Berry.  In one of our recent clinical trials, we demonstrated the ability of Ashwaghanda to dramatically impact anxiety in a small group of horses.  


Our horses provide us much enjoyment and depend on us, as humans, to provide for their care.  Most medical problems, including lameness, can often be minimized through proper overall care.  As I eluded to in the beginning of the article, some of the healthiest horses I have encountered were those outdoors 24/7 with no to minimal shelter.  They received the minimal care needed from proper diet, vaccines, deworming and hoof care, but ultimately, they were allowed to be a horse and thus, they were internally content and outwardly healthy.  Problems seem to happen when we ask too much of our equine companions without realizing the need to counter effect those extra demands through enhanced nutrition or supplementation.  The approach doesn’t have to be complicated or expensive.

All my best,

Tom Schell, D.V.M.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         Nouvelle Research, Inc.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         

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