Horse Care: When Less is More
Learn about commonly applied practices that owners and caretakers tend to overdo
It’s feeding time, and a horse eagerly nuzzles his bucket as his devoted owner doles out his dinner. She gazes upon his ideal body-condition-score-5 physique, wishing it were a fleshier 6. She contemplates adding more grain and hay to his ration, thinking, “A little more can’t hurt.” This mentality can sometimes do more harm than good, however, when it comes to managing horses and their diets, medications, and care. Sometimes, the best approach is to “keep it simple.”
Harry Werner, VMD, past president of the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP), recently reviewed with us many situations in equine practice where less is certainly more. Read on to learn about commonly applied practices that owners and caretakers tend to overdo.
Werner has concerns that many owners and veterinarians have come to rely on using joint injections as a routine—though not always warranted—procedure to maintain joint health. “Many joint injections are administered without evidence of lameness and solely based on trainer recommendations,” he says. While horses often do need joint support through intra-articular injections and/or systemic joint-targeted medications, in recent years this practice has become a routinely administered “therapy,” he says. Joint injections are invasive procedures and could be injurious if needle trauma or inappropriate corticosteroid (or other) medication use damages the cartilage.
He also reports that many horse owners are using non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), especially firocoxib, like a “feed supplement” to treat musculoskeletal pain in competition horses. Any medication—NSAIDs, in particular—can have deleterious side effects ranging from gastric or colonic ulcers to kidney disease and intestinal microbiome disturbances. Use NSAIDs as infrequently as necessary, he says, and only when a veterinarian’s diagnosis deems them appropriate, keeping in mind that firocoxib is the option that’s least damaging to the gastrointestinal tract.
Farrier care is another area where sometimes less is more. Werner says many farriers and owners apply shoes and devices to horses’ feet without the benefit of a basic hoof examination and a fundamental and sensible trim. In many cases a good trim can solve a number of challenging foot issues. He says this type of farrier work is particularly problematic when done without veterinary intervention and assessment to target foot therapy to an accurate diagnosis.
Don’t go overboard with the barefoot trim, either. Despite good intentions, during their regular visits, some farriers or hoof care professionals remove hoof wall at a rate faster than it can grow. Over several trimming cycles, a horse might end up with insufficient hoof and sole support and become foot sore. Rather than having the horse trimmed at a specific interval, arrange farrier appointments according to hoof horn growth, which varies depending on a horse’s activity and the season.
Another area of consideration is the use of leg and bell boots. “Boots can cause problems if put on too tightly or left on too long,” says Werner. “They need to be cleaned of debris and, if put on too tightly, can cause skin abrasions or inflame tendons.” Typically, horses don’t need leg boots unless they’re involved in arduous athletic endeavors or if the horse has conformational qualities that result in limb or foot interference. If your horse loses shoes during turnout, you can use well-fitting pull-on bell boots—just be sure you check the horses’ pasterns and heels daily for any problems.
The topic of overtraining could consume an entire article, but we’ll mention a few important points here. “Some show-horse techniques use longeing to exhaustion, tying up a horse’s head for hours, or longeing a horse in ankle-deep wood chips as routine ‘training’ measures,” says Werner. Often these methods are cruel and/or injurious.
“The use of mood-affecting medicines is often used as a substitute for training by those with limited time,” he adds, dubbing it “training in a bottle.” Some of these substances can result in a positive drug test and are even illegal. Instead of relying on such training tools and quick fixes, take the time necessary for the horse to learn skills and develop athletic condition.
Some riders involved in distance sports believe more time on the trail is critical, when what horses need is recovery time to restore energy, body condition, and biochemical enzymes that maximize locomotor efficiency. In many cases intelligently applied training and conditioning strategies no more than two or three days a week will adequately prepare a horse for 50- or 100-mile endurance competitions. The same work-and-rest philosophy applies to other equestrian pursuits to optimize recovery.
Werner notes that two to three decades ago veterinarians began to recognize the prevalence of equine gastric ulcer syndrome (EGUS) and directed strategies for risk mitigation, namely increased turnout and long-stem high-roughage diets. “Stall lockup and feeding carbohydrates in the form of processed grains contributes to EGUS,” says Werner. “Not only is this type of management a recipe for ulcers, but it also increases the risk for behavioral abnormalities, colic, and laminitis. There is a critical need to change the culture of horse feeding.”
Werner believes many of today’s horse owners don’t offer enough turnout: “Horses need to move around for their general health, especially intestinal and joint health, and for their mental health. These are herd animals that enjoy social interactions out in a field.”
While turnout is a good thing, too much can be counterproductive if you’re managing horses with equine metabolic syndrome or insulin dysfunction on green grass. Werner advises acclimating a horse to pasture slowly before grass becomes lush. Also, he recommends feeding hay before turning the horse out—being somewhat sated better controls grass intake. In addition, grazing muzzles are great tools for enabling a horse to be turned out to move around and socialize while restricting consumption of rich pasture. “Owners should continually monitor their horse’s body condition and pull a horse off pasture if the horse is getting too many groceries and not enough exercise,” Werner says.
Most horses can get by with little to no grain. “Grain is way overused,” says Werner. “Instead, a horse’s diet should consist primarily of long-stem, high-fiber roughage. A horse’s DNA is hardwired over eons to eating high-fiber, long-stem feed. This is what keeps the intestines healthy and avoids other problems like insulin resistance and laminitis.”
Vegetable and rice bran oil are good high-calorie food supplements but can be overdone as well. Horses can receive as much as 3 cups daily if suitable to maintain calorie intake, but some horse owners feed up to 5 to 6 cups a day. This results in intestinal upset and often causes a horse to back off its feed. Work with your veterinarian or an equine nutritionist to tailor a plan based on your horse’s needs.
“Novice and not-so-novice horse owners are well-advised to recognize that not all horses are the same in their metabolism or needs,” says Werner. Some are easy keepers; others are not. Customize an equine diet to each individual’s life stage, metabolic profile, and exercise demands.
Some owners consider nonfeed supplements to be panaceas for all ills. Manufacturers produce these products with labels claiming they “help or cure” certain maladies. Werner says feeding good-quality hay (grass or grass-legume mix) along with a salt block and fresh water provides ample nourishment to most horses. Some with extreme exercise demands or underlying morbidities such as insulin resistance, equine Cushing’s disease, or laminitis might need feed additives. But, in general, he says, many products offer limited to no improvements.
Werner says many studies have demonstrated that the ingredients some manufacturers claim on their labels are in the products do not match what is in the bucket. Nutraceuticals are mostly unregulated and have no Food and Drug Administration (FDA) oversight. Companies often make product claims with no basis or evidence. With this in mind, ask your veterinarian whether your horse needs certain dietary supplements, and choose ones backed by science, if possible, rather than piling on the additives with a “well, it probably can’t hurt” attitude.
While dental floating has its place, and your horse should receive an annual dental exam to discern whether his mouth needs care, Werner warns against unnecessarily frequent maintenance and says floating the teeth smooth is detrimental because molar points are there for a reason: grinding. Rounding off the buccal (cheek side) or lingual (tongue side) dental tables, while necessary to an extent to eliminate painful soft tissue ulcerations and abrasions, removes those grinding points. This might not only lead to tooth problems but also affect how well a horse can chew fiber such as hay and pasture. Poorly digested fiber can lead to diarrhea or impaction colic.
“Unless there is a demonstrable dental malocclusion or excess growth of an opposing tooth, there is no reason to do dental floating twice a year,” he says.
Dental work is important for horses with problem mouths—just be judicious in the use of power tools for this purpose. In Werner’s experience, excess heating of teeth through inappropriate use of dental power tools ultimately leads to a dead tooth that appears discolored or gray and must be removed. Water-cooling dental instrumentation helps minimize the risk of overheating the teeth.
Historically, some practitioners viewed bit seats (when the first upper and lower cheek teeth are slightly rounded) as valuable dental procedures. Many second maxillary premolars were ruined unnecessarily by this process, says Werner, diminishing the horses’ ability to grind feedstuffs optimally.
Body Clipping, Blanketing, and Whisker Shaving
Werner says two things keep a horse warm in winter climates: adequate body condition with sufficient flesh to cover the ribs and a healthy hair coat. He reminds owners that once you begin blanketing in late autumn, you’ll need to continue through the winter, as the horse won’t grow a sufficient hair coat. “A blanket may be needed for health and compassion reasons for some horses with difficulty maintaining a body condition score of at least 5 (on the 1-to-9 Henneke scale) or competition horses that need to be clipped,” he says.
In contrast, a weekend warrior with a good hair coat and fat layer does not need to be blanketed, particularly if he has a windbreak or run-in shed in his field, says Werner.
Also, consider that a blanket shouldn’t be left on all the time, especially as the day warms up. This causes a horse to overheat and sweat, with the potential for skin condition flare-ups beneath the blanket, where it is dark, warm, and humid.
In some countries, such as Germany, France, and Switzerland, trimming away the whiskers on a horse’s muzzle is deemed illegal, as these hairs serve an important sensory and proprioceptive function for a horse to detect and analyze things close to his face. For FEI competition horses, as of July 1, 2021, it is illegal to shave off a horse’s whiskers. Do your horse a favor by avoiding the temptation to shave his whiskers for a tidy look.
Fly spray can be wonderfully helpful to horse comfort, but in some cases it can cause problems of its own. Some horses can develop a hypersensitivity reaction to certain ingredients that leads to skin inflammation or hives. A variety of fly deterrent products exist, and Werner recommends sticking with vegetable-based (chrysanthemum) pyrethrins and pyrethroids. He also suggests not spraying the product directly on the horse, especially around the face, but rather spraying it on a rag or mitt and wiping it on. This avoids blowback into your face and keeps it out of the horse’s eyes, he adds, and helps the product better adhere to the coat.
Werner suggests assessing how big your barn’s fly problem truly is. Could you manage it sufficiently with a fly sheet instead of fly spray or by placing fans to disturb flying insects’ behavior? Too much fly spray also has the potential to adversely affect some people.
Bathing and Shampoos
An occasional bath removes dirt, grime, sweat, and debris but, if done too often, bathing removes natural protective oils and beneficial commensal (living in close association such that one species benefits without harming the other) bacteria that live on the skin and keep potentially pathogenic (disease-causing) bacteria at bay. “Don’t fool with Mother Nature,” says Werner. Sheath cleaning can also remove commensal bacteria and irritate delicate skin, so clean your male horse’s sheath once or twice a year at most, if necessary.
Tests and Therapies
Werner objects to overtesting horses for lameness and illness when you have little to no indication to do so. He cites a prepurchase exam of a sound horse in full training that received 54 radiographs, including six of the neck, despite excellent flexibility on physical exam. This strains an owner’s pocketbook, exposes the practitioner and assistant to large amounts of radiation, and leads to unnecessary scrutiny of imaging abnormalities when no real lameness or other problem exists.
Horses can also undergo unnecessary laboratory tests, especially immunoassays, for certain conditions. If you order an antibody test against Lyme disease, for example, a horse with no clinical signs might return a positive result. While an owner may desire a “baseline value,” if a horse is clinically sound, Werner says this test is a waste of money. The same can be said for anaplasmosis (another tick-borne disease) titers, for instance, in a horse that is not sick. He also questions doing unnecessary airway exams: “Why do an upper airway endoscopy if a horse exhibits no abnormal airway sounds during exercise?”
Testing is extremely relevant and helpful in the appropriate situations, he notes—it’s just important to put the concern in context with the physical exam and the horse’s current state of health.
Try to keep things simple. Your horse might be better off when you realize he needs less meddling, maintenance, and medications. You might find yourself with more time and money on your hands with which to enjoy your horse, as well.
“The more a horse owner knows about appropriate husbandry and wellness care, the better off the horses will be,” says Werner. “This is the best place to spend dollars, rather than having to resort to emergency care.”
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