Now that you’ve acquired your freebie, here’s how to keep him healthy
You’ve discovered your diamond in the rough. That handsome horse you rescued (or found at an auction or on Craigslist or secured through a random giveaway) barely cost a penny and is now yours. Once he’s home, though, be prepared to start spending money on veterinary and farrier bills and even training fees.
In Part 1, we talked about whether a free (or nearly free) horse really ends up being a bargain and what a prospective owner should consider before taking one of these horses home. Now we’ll look at the steps you should take after you’ve acquired your free horse and how to keep him (and the rest of your herd) healthy.
The Fundamental First Exam
Keeping your new horse in good health starts with veterinary and farrier exams. Jennifer Williams, PhD, co-founder and president of Bluebonnet Equine Humane Society, in College Station, Texas, suggests scheduling the first veterinary and farrier visits for as soon as your horse arrives at his new home. These are even more crucial if the horse has an unknown health history and/or underlying lameness or illness.
The veterinarian and farrier are your main partners for managing a new horse, Williams says. They’ll help you cater a care plan, depending on the horse’s age, gender, intended use, current and past health issues, and location.
Nicole Eller, DVM, a Minnesota-based field shelter veterinarian for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals’ Field Investigations and Response Team, says the horse’s first veterinary visit might include a thorough physical exam, an ophthalmic exam, fecal egg count sampling, an endoscopic exam to look for ulcers, and a dental exam and possible floating. Depending on what the veterinarian finds, he or she might also perform a lameness exam, take radiographs, and complete an ultrasound scan.
Williams suggests owners have the veterinarian estimate the horse’s age based on dental wear, since the previous owner might have misjudged (or misrepresented) his age. For a horse that is thin, aged, or having trouble eating, Eller says, an oral exam, using sedation and speculum, is important for identifying dental issues.
Eller says she might test for conditions such as equine Cushing’s disease (pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction), depending on the horse and his clinical signs.
“A horse of questionable gelding status with no palpable testicles should be blood-tested for anti-Müllerian hormone (AMH, which is produced by certain testicular cells) and testosterone,” she adds. A male horse that has retained one or both testes inside the body is called a cryptorchid. If he is confirmed as such, you might need to make plans for castration to prevent stallionlike behavior or inadvertent mare pregnancies. During routine examinations, Eller says she has found quite a few cryptorchids. A cryptorchidectomy (testes removal) can run from $750 to several thousand dollars, she says.
Julia Wilson, DVM, Dipl. ACVIM, executive director of the Minnesota Board of Veterinary Medicine and the president of the Equitarian Initiative, suggests checking mares for pregnancy status so a surprise foal doesn’t arrive down the road. If a mare is already pregnant, she says the veterinarian might make specific nutritional and vaccination recommendations.
During the initial exams Williams also suggests asking the veterinarian and farrier about any conformational defects or other concerns that could affect the horse’s future health and soundness.
For a horse with an unknown history, Eller suggests having the veterinarian go over the horse with a microchip scanner to see if a chip is present that could provide information about his age and past ownership. If not, you might consider having him or her put one in.
“Permanent identification such as a microchip is always a good idea for companion animals,” she says. “This provides owner information if the horse is ever lost, left behind in a natural disaster, or stolen.”
Eller says to begin initial hoof care immediately. This will provide an opportunity to assess for conditions such as thrush, laminitis, white line disease, and more, she says, and address any discomfort the horse is experiencing.
Some horses, especially rescued animals needing rehab, have overgrown hooves, some so severe they curl upward. “You can’t just wallop off the feet, because most of the time you’ll end up with a very sore horse,” says Wilson, who recommends incremental biomechanical changes to the foot. “What we’ve tried to do is do it gradually and take off the curling up part of the toe, and then you take the toes back gradually over a series of visits.”
If a horse has no health issues, the farrier might schedule visits every six to eight weeks. If there are problems to address, he or she will come back more often.
Be sure resident horses on your property (or where you board) are vaccinated for influenza, rhinopneumonitis, and strangles before bringing a horse with an unknown health history home, says Eller. And give these vaccinations the time (at least two weeks, but ideally 30 days) they need to build horses’ immunity.
In this scenario your veterinarian will most likely manage your new horse as if he has never been vaccinated, says Wilson. “Your veterinarian will have an opinion on whether or not the horse is healthy enough to do all (vaccines) at once or whether they need to be spread out,” she says, being mindful of his naive immune system. “My inclination with a horse that has an unknown vaccine history would not be to put nine vaccines in them at once. That would be a bit overwhelming.”
And remember, says Eller, the veterinarian will need to come back out to give booster vaccinations about four weeks after giving the initial vaccines.
While all horses should receive the core vaccines against rabies, tetanus, West Nile virus (WNV), and Eastern and Western equine encephalomyelitis (EEE and WEE), the risk-based vaccinations your veterinarian recommends will depend on where you live and whether your new horse will be traveling off the farm to show or trail ride.
“Different parts of the country are going to have different disease problems and different vaccination needs,” says Williams, and those traveling off the farm are at a higher risk of disease exposure.
If a horse is in poor condition, Eller says she administers an initial four-way vaccination—against tetanus, EEE and WEE, and WNV—and then wait a few weeks before administering the all-important rabies vaccine and others.
Or, “if the horse is extremely thin and the temperatures are too cold for blood-sucking insects, I may start with just a tetanus vaccine and add those against insect-borne diseases and others as the horse improves,” she says.
A high worm burden can lead to parasite impactions, says Eller, so it’s important to deworm. But don’t do so blindly.
She recommends performing a fecal egg count (FEC) prior to deworming to help guide your dewormer choice and administration timing. “A very debilitated horse with a high parasite burden will require a different protocol than a horse who is a body condition score of 4 out of 9 with a lower FEC,” says Eller. “Or that very debilitated horse may have a low FEC, allowing you to choose to hold off on deworming until the horse is stronger.”
When warranted, she says she likes to start with a mild anthelmintic, such as fenbendazole, a broad-spectrum dewormer used to control small and large strongyles, pinworms, and ascarids. After that, she might deworm again in two weeks with ivermectin, which is designed to control large strongyles, stomach worms, pinworms, ascarids, threadworms, hairworms, lungworms, and bots. However, some veterinarians might want to clear out all parasites at once with a heavy-hitting dewormer such as praziquantel with moxidectin or ivermectin. So see what he or she recommends.
Wilson says young horses might not have ever been dewormed. Your veterinarian might recommend deworming these horses in stages. Your veterinarian should also consider your farm’s existing deworming plan when making recommendations for your new horse.
With regard to feeding your new horse, “there is no ‘one plan fits all,'” says Eller. “Diet should be based on age, condition, and circumstances.”
Wilson says it’s important for any new owner to know how to use a weight tape and monitor a horse’s weight.
Eller recommends good-quality hay—alfalfa, grass, or a mix—as the basis of any equine diet and testing it to understand its nutrient composition. This can then guide the veterinarian or equine nutritionist to the right concentrate, if needed.
If the horse has a body condition score of 3 or higher, Eller likes to add a balanced vitamin-mineral pellet and will continue feeding it depending on what a hay analysis indicates. Horses that can’t chew well might need a senior feed, beet pulp, chopped hay, or other easy-to-digest feed.
Fresh pasture is also important. But Eller warns owners not to introduce horses that haven’t had grass access to fields too quickly due to the risk of colic or laminitis.
Rehabbing a Horse
Sometimes people take on a horse that was rescued from a neglectful or abusive situation. Wilson warns owners that these horses might have been underfed and need to be brought back to a normal weight carefully.
“You can’t just pick up the skinny horse and throw the food in front of it,” she says. “You’ll in all likelihood get a metabolic crisis going if you do that.”
Feeding these animals improperly (whether incorrect nutrients, at an incorrect rate, or both) can cause “refeeding syndrome,” which results in insulin, glucose, and electrolyte imbalances and, in worst cases, death.
While some refeeding guidelines recommend offering high-quality alfalfa, Wilson recognizes that not all horse owners have access to this forage in their regions. Because grass hay is usually more readily available, she suggests initially feeding very small amounts of quality grass hay 10 to 12 times per day to help prevent digestive upset. She reminds owners to watch how the horse’s body condition changes with the reintroduction of feed. Gradually decrease the number of feedings, but still withhold free-choice hay for several weeks. Wilson says she might add an easy-to-chew, nutritionally complete concentrate to the mix, but this choice and its timing is individual to each horse.
Again, one feeding model does not fit all horses. “It can be challenging to rehab a nursing mare or a pregnant mare because they’ve got different needs,” says Williams, noting that mares usually lose body condition as their bodies prioritize taking care of the foal.
Wilson also cautions that if a nursing mare is too thin due to neglect or health issues, the foal might need supplemental feed to meet his nutritional needs.
Williams adds that owners of horses requiring rehabilitation need to be committed financially, especially initially, to make sure the horse recovers. “Rehabbing them is really expensive … hundreds of dollars a month, sometimes $300-$400 a month for what they need to put the weight back on,” she says. “Then as they get healthier, you tend to back them off the feed, and they don’t need as much.”
Riding and Training
You might need to delay riding your new horse if he’s not at a healthy weight or has health or behavior issues that need to be dealt with first. “Get a little bit of education, probably from a veterinarian or trainer, if they think the animal is ready to be ridden,” says Wilson.
She also suggests owners consider saddle fit. As a horse gains weight and muscle, his back will change, so owners should ensure the saddle continues to fit.
As horses get healthier, they might exhibit personality changes, Williams adds. “They can undergo some pretty amazing and severe behavioral changes as they start to feel better,”; she says.
In addition, horses that have been abused or poorly handled might need training or restarting, says Williams. She suggests owners take the horse back to ground lessons and teach him to give to pressure and stay out of people’s space. Any horse with fear issues might lash out, she says, and these horses are best left to professional trainers for safety reasons.
“It can be a slow process if you just got a free horse that you want to ride,” says Williams. “You want to fix those holes before you get on. It pays off by keeping you safer and giving you a better partner.”
With a little TLC and proper veterinary and farrier care, a dental exam, a wellness plan, and some thoughtful training, that free or almost-free equine partner could end up being the horse of a lifetime.