The 'Not Quite Right' Horse

Wonderful thing about spending time with your horse is that you become familiar with his disposition and attitude through your many interactions, from grooming to feeding to riding. You know how he heads for his favorite spot to roll when you turn him out, how he starts watching the house exactly 25 minutes before dinner, and how he quietly snorts as you lead him in on cool mornings. So, when you peer over the paddock gate in the morning and get a gut feeling that something isn’t quite right, it’s probably a good thing to trust your instincts.

Does your horse appear quieter than normal? Instead of his usual enthusiastic greeting at the gate or stall door, is he withdrawn? Is he typically social but standing by himself in a corner of the field? Or, is he an avid eater who’s left some of his meal behind? These are just a few possible scenarios of not-quite-right horse behavior, says Sarah Reuss, VMD, Dipl. ACVIM, equine technical manager at Boehringer Ingelheim Animal Health, who is based in Duluth, Georgia. Other signs can be musculoskeletal. For instance, when you turned him out after yesterday’s ride, he strode with purpose toward the hay rack but now stands with little weight on one leg, not willing to move.

“Signs such as nasal discharge, being off feed, or reluctance to move may be easily detected,” says Tiffany Hall, DVM, Dipl. ACVIM, ACVECC, of the Equine Medical Center of Ocala, Florida. “However, more subtle signs include changes in behavior, low head carriage and ear position, a dull look to the eyes, and a general lack of interaction.”

Reuss adds that if you carefully assess a horse’s face, you might notice tightening of the muzzle or tension in the eyelids, which are signs on the horse grimace scale used for pain scoring. (See “Is Your Horse Hurting?” in the December 2019 issue.)

These are all telltale signs that something isn’t right. Your horse might not vocalize his feelings as a human would, but his body posture and behavior speak volumes. Where do you start to determine what might be wrong?

The 'Not Quite Right' Horse

First Steps

Collecting your horse’s vital signs is a good place to begin. Doing so can provide revealing information, especially if you know your horse’s normal parameters. So, before a problem arises, practice taking basic vital signs ( temperature, pulse, respiratory rate, mucous membrane color, capillary refill time. Be familiar with how much manure your horse usually ­produces and its consistency, and his water consumption. Then, when he seems a little “off,” you can collect this information and compare it to his normal.

“After gathering vital signs, observe for coughing, nasal discharge, swollen lymph nodes under the jaw and in the throatlatch area, and look for limb and/or abdominal swelling,” adds Reuss. “This information helps your vet know how quickly your horse needs to be seen and informs him or her of any special diagnostic equipment or biosecurity precautions that need to be taken.”

Hall strongly advises against trying to wait it out to see if your horse will improve. “Delays in evaluation could result in higher expense to treat and poorer prognosis for recovery, such as with prolonged colic or pneumonia,” she says.

Reuss recommends doing a little detective work first, then contacting your veterinarian immediately to discuss your findings and help determine the urgency of your horse’s condition.

“A horse that isn’t eating or is passing abnormal (or no) manure can progress very quickly into full-blown colic or colitis (diarrhea-causing inflammation of the colon), either of which can become life-threatening,” she says.

For example, some causes of diarrhea, such as Potomac horse fever (PHF), often start with a low-grade fever and very mild clinical signs. Immediate identification and implementation of appropriate therapy make it easier to thwart the illness, says Reuss. If you don’t recognize the problem and instead allow it to progress for several days, she adds, the horse is at greater risk of the painful hoof disease laminitis or even death. Having a simple conversation with your veterinarian can help you avoid serious consequences.

​This article continues in the July 2020 issue of The Horse: Your Guide to Equine Health Care. Subscribe now and get an immediate download of this issueincluding this in-depth feature on how you and your horse’s veterinarian can get to the bottom of subtle problems.

Already a magazine subscriber? Digital subscribers can access their July issue here. Domestic print subscribers who have not received their copy should email