Preventive Care and Wellness Programs

Preventive care or wellness programs have become popular with both veterinarians and horse owners. These programs are geared to preventing disease and keeping your horse healthy and happy, well into its geriatric years.

Ideally, such a program is tailored to your needs and that of your horse. You and your veterinarian will discuss what is important in maintaining your horse's health. As you might imagine, the health needs of a 15-year old horse maintained outside 24/7 on a small acreage and used for local trail riding are likely to be different from those of a 4-year old performance horse kept at a busy training facility and travelling weekly to shows.

In a typical wellness program, the veterinarian makes a scheduled yearly (or more frequent) trip to your farm to perform certain routine procedures. This is also an opportunity to discuss any other health-related issues.

  1. Physical examination:
    1. Close observation of your horse with 'palpation' (examining by touch – your veterinarian will pass his/her hands over areas of your horse's body) will give your veterinarian important information regarding its health status. Temperature, pulse and respiration rate may be taken. A stethoscope over his abdomen will be used to listen for normal intestinal sounds. Mucus membranes of the eyes, mouth and other areas may be examined for colour and presence of any discharges.
    2. Blood samples can be taken for establishing a base-line of what's “normal” for your horse. If the horse is older, or based on the history, certain other blood tests may be indicated. For example, the horse's physical appearance and diet may suggest testing for metabolic syndrome.
    3. Body condition scoring: Yearly or more frequent scoring will determine if your horse's score is increasing or decreasing- and then a plan can be formulated. What, if anything, needs to be changed in his exercise schedule and/or diet.
  2. Body weight: If you have access to a set of scales, consider weighing your horse on a regular basis. Most feed mills have scales for driving vehicles onto. Weigh the combined weight of your trailer + your horse; subtract the weight of the empty trailer from this total to obtain your horse's weight.
    A 'weight tape' can also be used, which is easily wrapped around the horse's girth directly behind the elbow. At the point where the ends overlap, the weight designated on the tape is read. Most veterinarians can supply their clients with these tapes, or your feed supplier may have them. Be aware that this method does have some degree of inaccuracy. However, measuring this same girth circumference, followed by measuring the length of the horse from the point of its shoulder to the point of the “butt bone” (the ischium) and using these values in an equation gives a more accurate weight estimate (Reavell 1999).

  1. Vaccination: Routine immunizations as recommended for your horse are administered. Has anything changed that would indicate adding or deleting a vaccine? For example, are you traveling with your horse to an area where he will be at risk for a disease that is not typically a concern where he lives?
  2. Fecal (manure) testing for parasites: Discussion of deworming and parasite management. Your veterinarian can advise when manure samples should be taken for testing, and how to collect and submit these. Your veterinarian might leave behind the appropriate dewormer for your horse, or may go ahead and administer it.
  3. Dental examination and dental care: It will be helpful to know ahead of time what horses will require, or are likely to require, floating and/or other dental procedures as sedation will usually be required.
  4. Feed and nutrition: Discussion of how much to feed and what to feed will be impacted by the results of your horse's body condition scoring. A visual evaluation of available feedstuffs can help determine their quality. A visual inspection of the watering system might indicate if water testing is advisable.
  5. Inspection of shelter or housing arrangements, and paddocks/fields: Available pasture will impact on stocking densities; this can have an impact on nutrition as well as parasite populations and risk of parasitic disease.

Body Condition Scoring

Body condition scoring is an evaluation of your horse's body condition by both visual means and palpation. Palpation entails using one's hands on the horse to identify and feel the amount of fat in certain depot areas under his skin. You will want to look at and feel these areas:

  • Along the neck
  • Along the withers
  • Crease down the back
  • Tail head area
  • Over the ribs
  • Behind the shoulder

There are different scoring systems available. The most commonly used ones use a scoring system of 1 to 9. A body condition score (BCS) of 1 indicates that your horse is in poor body condition (emaciated with no fat palpable, and prominence of bones such as shoulder blades, hip bones and ribs) whereas a BCS of 9 indicates that he is very fat. The ideal score in these systems is between 5 and 6.5. A more detailed description of this is available for horse owners on the American Association of Equine Practitioners' website.

*Reavell DG. Measuring and estimating the weight of horses with tapes, formulae and by visual assessment. 11, no.6 (1999): 314-317.