How Organized Are Your Horse Health Records?

Use this list of annual preventive care exams to help you keep your veterinary documents organized and up to date.
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vet and horse owner discussing horse health
Good record-keeping provides critical details for maintaining horse health, as well as useful commercial and even legal documentation of equine care. | iStock

Use this list of annual preventive care exams to help you keep your veterinary documents organized and up to date

Let’s say you’re out for a delightful hack with your favorite equine partner, enjoying the sunshine and cool breeze through the trees, when you get a social media alert on your phone. The post from TheHorse.com says an infectious ­disease—one typically prevented in properly vaccinated horses—has broken out among horses in your very own county.

Right then and there, what do you do?

A) You freak out and call your vet to find out if your beloved baby is up to date on his vaccines. (But you can’t get through because dozens of other owners are frantically calling, too.)

B) You trot back to the barn, drive home, and sift through all your horse’s veterinary papers in the filing cabinet filled with stacks of documents. That vaccination record’s gotta be in there somewhere!

C) You walk back to the barn and pull the health-care notebook out of your trunk in the tack room. Ah, there it is: Your notes show your veterinarian administered that vaccine during a routine visit three months ago.

D) Still in the saddle under the breezy trees, you take out your phone and open the app where you organize and store all your horse’s health records and notes. In less than a minute, you confirm he’s fully vaccinated and up to date on boosters.

Your answer might reveal a lot about yourself as a horse owner—and as a record-keeper.

When it comes to good horse management, it can certainly be useful to fine-tune your documenting skills. Maintaining clear, thorough, dated, well-organized, and easy-to-access horse health notes can be valuable not only during an epidemic but also when buying or selling horses, dealing with insurance claims, participating in large events, crossing geographic borders, or simply ensuring the best care for your horse, says Karen Waite, MS, PhD, Extension specialist in Michigan State University’s Department of Animal Sciences, in East Lansing.

“It’s important to do it anyway,” Waite says. “It’s especially important if you’re going to sell the horse or if the horse is insured.”

Record-Keeping 101: Knowing What to Do and When

Record-keeping might seem simple—even overrated. But experience shows it’s neither, our sources say. Good record-keeping provides critical details for maintaining horse health, as well as useful commercial and even legal documentation of equine care. Still, it requires a little time and a lot of organization, which owners can find especially challenging in our overbusy world.

“It’s easy in this day and age for the years, or time, to run together,” Waite says.

Benjamin Buchanan, DVM, Dipl. ACVIM, ACVECC, owner of Brazos Valley Equine Hospital, in Navasota, Texas, agrees. “People want to do what’s right, and even the people who know really well what they should be doing don’t always do it, just because life sometimes gets in the way,” he says.

Sure, your veterinarian can help with those records, they add. But some professionals might lack the time, equipment, and/or other resources to keep them readily available for you.

That’s why we’ve teamed up with our sources to provide you with a handy preventive care checklist and guidelines for useful record-keeping.

Vaccinations

What? North American horses need all five core vaccines—rabies, tetanus, Eastern equine encephalitis (EEE), Western equine encephalitis (WEE), and West Nile virus (WNV)—as listed in the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) vaccination guidelines.

In addition, different regions pose different risks of disease outbreaks, says Buchanan. And competitive horses need additional vaccines depending on their discipline federation’s requirements. So owners should work with their veterinarians to create a customized vaccine schedule based on geographic areas as well as sport and breeding activities.

Some horse owners might think vaccination schedules are only mildly important, letting booster dates slide. But these schedules are rooted in research that shows when efficacy starts to wane for each kind of vaccine. “The annual booster is not just because of a calendar but is actually based on science,” Buchanan says.

With fatality rates running at 50-100% for some diseases, such as rabies and tetanus, remembering to vaccinate on time can literally save your horse’s life, he says.

It’s economically smart as well, Buchanan adds. “I treated a West Nile case this year on a horse that hadn’t been vaccinated in a couple of years,” he says. “That ended up being an $8,000 to $10,000 bill, probably for skipping a $30 vaccine.”

When? Yearly—ideally in the spring—or twice yearly, Buchanan says. Pregnant mares need more frequent vaccinations on a specific schedule.

Intestinal Parasite Management

What? Anthelmintic drugs can kill worms in horses, but parasites are becoming increasingly resistant to available products. In addition, research now points to the environmental hazards of these chemicals.

While this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use anthelmintics, it does mean the days of scribbling “Deworm the Herd” four times throughout your yearly horse calendar are over, our sources say.

Instead, owners can work with their veterinarians and consult the AAEP Internal Parasite Control Guidelines to develop a parasite management program adapted to your specific region and pasture. Based primarily on identifying which horses shed the most eggs in their feces, the program aims to minimize chemical use. To be effective, though, following a well-designed schedule is critical, says Martin Nielsen, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ACVM, associate professor at the University of Kentucky’s Gluck Equine Research Center, in Lexington.

When? The AAEP makes the following recommendations:

  • Once or twice a year, in spring and/or fall when parasites are most infectious, deworm all adult horses, targeting large strongyles, tapeworms, bots, and spirurid nematodes. Deworm foals four times in the first year and yearlings and 2-year-olds three to four times a year.
  • Twice a year, perform a fecal egg count on each horse, and treat any high-shedding horses for strongyles.
  • Once every three years, run fecal egg count reduction tests on the whole adult herd to assess anthelmintic efficacy and resistance. Do this once a year in herds of foals, weanlings, and yearlings.
  • Once a week, collect droppings from the pasture and add them to an active compost pile.
  • Every three months, rotate pastures with cows, sheep, or other ­ruminants.

dental exam
Schedule oral exams twice a year for adult and senior horses and once a year for youngsters. | Stephanie L. Church/The Horse

Dental Care 

What? The traditional recommendation has been to examine horses’ mouths once a year for hooks and points that need floating and teeth that need removing. But a greater understanding of periodontal disease is leading to better surveillance and care on a more frequent schedule, says Chris Pearce, MRCVS, specialist dental veterinarian and director of The Equine Dental Clinic, in Witchampton, U.K.

Equipped with a high-quality speculum, mirror, light, sedatives, and even a specialized dental camera, equine veterinary dentists can detect issues before they have a significant negative impact on horses’ health, welfare, or performance, he says.

Regular oral exams are also great opportunities to check for lesions that could signal the need to change the bit, the riding technique, or both, says Mette Uldahl, DVM, Cert. Equine Diseases, of Vejle Hestepraksis, in Denmark.

When? Twice a year for adult and senior horses, once a year for ­youngsters.

Hoof Care

FREE DOWNLOAD: Horse Hoof Care Record Form
FREE DOWNLOAD: Horse Hoof Care Record Form

What? Because of constant foot growth, equids need the skilled care of a farrier several times a year, says Kirsty Lesniak, PhD, SFHEA, PGCHE, MSc, BSc (Hons), a senior lecturer of equine science and equine postgraduate program manager at Hartpury College University Centre, in the U.K.

When? Whether horses are shod or barefoot, they need farrier care approximately every five weeks—with an average range of four to six weeks, depending on individual differences such as growth rates, wear, footing, work, and underlying disease, Lesniak says.

“Even though barefoot wears more quickly, not rebalancing a bare foot in a timely manner can be detrimental,” she says. “It is better to get minor adjustments made at short intervals, rather than larger adjustments made at greater intervals, as this could cause damage to the integrity of the horn.”

Owners should keep records about any changes that might affect hoof growth, including feed, field rotations, and supplement use, she adds.

coggins test for horse
Wellness exams are also good opportunities to update Coggins tests. | Anne M. Eberhardt/The Horse

General Wellness Assessment 

What? Horses benefit from a general checkup and, just as importantly, a detailed dialogue between owner and veterinarian, says Buchanan. “It doesn’t need to be super intense,” he says. “It’s often conversations about diet and endocrine conditions that horses develop as they get older, and less about specific problems.”

Routine bloodwork is generally unnecessary in horses, he adds, because it rarely reveals problems the veterinarian hasn’t already detected during the exam and conversation. “If we’ve got increased water consumption, increased urination, lack of appetite, or body weight loss, absolutely run lab work,” he says. “Otherwise, I’m not sure it’s worth the cost.”

Such wellness exams—which often coincide with annual vaccine boosters—can also “pick up on little things,” like cardiac arrhythmias or increased body fat, says Buchanan. They provide peace of mind and a sound basis for preventive care before concerns become actual conditions, he says.

Wellness exams are also good opportunities to update Coggins tests, our sources say. Saving a digital copy of Coggins test results and health certificates—whether a PDF or a photo—on your phone can be a handy way to keep these documents available as needed.

When? Once a year for adult horses. Breeding stock might need more frequent visits.

Other Special Needs

What? Horses with a history of laminitis, endocrine disorders, kidney dysfunction, or other chronic problems need regular exams, including bloodwork or radiographs, to monitor disease progression and/or prevent flare-ups, Buchanan says.

Previously laminitic horses need X rays, ideally when farriers can participate. “If we can look at them repetitively over time, we can actually catch problems before they flare and become acute,” he says.

Starting in their mid-teens—or earlier, due to relative health or environmental factors—most horses should be tested for endocrine disorders, he says. That includes a blood draw to check for pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction (PPID, once known as equine Cushing’s) and possibly an oral glucose test (to measure a horse’s insulin response following a high-carbohydrate stimulus such as corn syrup) to check for insulin dysregulation (ID). “My suggestion has been to start those sorts of annual screens at age 15 or so and track them over time,” he says. Contrary to popular belief, broodmares don’t need annual reproductive exams, he adds. “She’s either pregnant—in which case you don’t want to mess with the uterus—or she’s open, and we’re getting ready for next year, but not as part of an annual program,” he says.

As for performance horses, besides their core and appropriate/required risk-based vaccines (some competition venues, for instance, require proof of vaccination against equine herpesvirus and influenza), they might not need more than other well-kept horses, says Waite. Regular saddle fitting is useful, she adds, but it’s hard to set dates on it. Horses’ backs can change dramatically depending on their state of work and history of training, muscular development, back pain, and behavioral issues that might red-flag poor tack fit. “It depends on the scenario,” Waite says.

When? Every fall for endocrine testing in horses aged 15 and older.

Once or twice a year, depending on veterinary recommendations, for all other checks.

Good Record-Keeping

Keep all documents—whether paper or digital—that show test results and vaccinations, Waite says. These create an important, easily accessible historical record of your horse’s health status. It’s also extremely valuable when selling a horse, as it provides proof of the horse’s good health as well as your diligence as an owner and honest seller. Plus, such documents can come in handy when insurance companies question your prevention programs.

“So, say your horse sadly passes from Potomac horse fever despite being up to date on his vaccines, and insurance won’t pay out unless you prove you did everything you could,” Waite says. “Unfortunately, I lived that scenario. I had the documents they needed, and what could they say? I tried.”

Veterinarians typically have copies of your horse’s records, she adds. But that doesn’t mean they’re readily available. Equine vets are often on farm calls or out of the office, and their staff is generally small, managing multiple clients at once. “We’re experiencing a veterinarian shortage in the United States,” she says. “So if you need something quickly, there’s certainly an advantage to keeping the record yourself.”

How To Be Your Horse’s Secretary

Many veterinarians offer automatic text or email reminders for vaccinations, our sources tell us. Some—like Buchanan—offer wellness programs that include scheduled tests, vaccines, checkups, and even the unexpected colic surgery, as well as all the record-keeping, for a set monthly fee.

If your vet’s automatic prompts don’t include regular screenings, checkups, and care reminders, you must keep your own schedules based on your records, Buchanan says.

Tech companies are developing equine health care management apps that can even link up to your horse’s data at equine clinics, he says.

In the meantime, owners can use various standard scheduling and reminder apps or basic software like spreadsheets, says Waite. If they prefer, they can even pay a secretarial service or invest in a more advanced planning app.

Take-Home Message

Even though most veterinarians keep good health records, owners benefit considerably from keeping their own paper trail. For responsible and fluid health care, insurance documentation, and peace of mind, owners can follow reliable schedules and track their horses’ individual health histories using whatever system works best for them—whether paper or digital.

“Some people are going to do better with a notebook and wall calendar, and some people are going to do well with an app,” Waite says. “I wouldn’t say one’s any better than the other. The one that’s best is the one you’ll actually keep.”

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Written by:

Passionate about horses and science from the time she was riding her first Shetland Pony in Texas, Christa Lesté-Lasserre writes about scientific research that contributes to a better understanding of all equids. After undergrad studies in science, journalism, and literature, she received a master’s degree in creative writing. Now based in France, she aims to present the most fascinating aspect of equine science: the story it creates. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.

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