I is for Horse Illnesses

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small_185495090For such large, athletic animals domestic horses are surprisingly fragile, due to the artificial environment man puts them in. Wild horses are sturdy, hardy animals—smart, wily and able to take care of themselves. They graze all day, move constantly and only the healthiest survive and reproduce. They are also relatively small, not particularly pretty and very strong-willed.

Consequently, when man decided horses were good for more than providing meat and milk, he began breeding them for specific traits. Good temperament, large size, speed and beauty were some of the prized characteristics. Over the millennia horses morphed into creatures that often would have a hard time surviving in the wild and even have problems surviving in man’s care. The desire to win races has resulted in many Thoroughbreds being very fast but having weak feet and overly sensitive emotions. Show ring “fashions” have encouraged huge bodies with slim, tiny legs and feet that cannot stay sound for the long run. And, of course, miniature horses, as cute as they are, would be hard pressed to survive on their own.

small__598978125Add to that, being confined twenty-three hours a day in a small stall, being fed large amounts of hay, instead of eating grass, and being asked to do intense work instead of moving casually, and today’s horses develop problems that they wouldn’t encounter in the wild.

One of the most common and deadly problems is a result of how they are kept and fed. The horse’s stomach is designed to digest small portions of food all day long. While some horses are kept in large pastures where they can graze naturally, this kind of open land is disappearing and most horses, by necessity, live in confined areas, either stalls or paddocks. Then they are fed calorie-dense hay and often grain too, usually twice a day because that fits best with human schedules. As a result their digestive systems can be easily upset and they can colic.

Colic is basically a painful bellyache that can be relatively easy to treat or can develop into something deadly. It is the most common cause of death in horses. Bad food, dirty water, parasites, lack of exercise, a sudden change in the weather are some of the many things that can provoke a colic attack. In most cases, the problem can be solved by a visit from the vet. Sometimes surgery is required (a very expensive proposition) and other times the only thing to do is to put the suffering animal down. Good management is vital to keeping horses healthy and happy.

freeimage-144227Another illness connected to food and care is known as laminitis, a very painful condition that affects the hooves. The equine digestive system cannot handle large amounts of concentrated, high-carb food. If a horse should get loose and into the grain barrel or pig out on high-sugar Spring grass, this can trigger an inflammatory response which destroys the tissues in its hooves that hold the boney structures in place. Depending on the extent of the damage, the result can be devastating. Conditions such as Cushings Disease or Metabolic Syndrome can make horses susceptible to laminitis problems too.

As odd as it might seem, horses have many of the same problems that humans do. They can have allergies, COPD, arthritis, thyroid dysfunctions, bursitis and a host of other disorders. And they are treated with many of the same medicines. I used to give my daughter’s mare powdered Synthroid for her low thyroid and albuterol for her breathing problems. Horses with stomach ulcers often get Tagamet.

Of course, wild horses are unlikely to have ulcers or allergies or a lot of the other problems. These tend to be the result of living with man and doing the work he asks of them. So it behooves us to be aware of the consequences and do our best to take good care of our equine friends. Today, because of advances in understanding and veterinary care, horses are living and working into their thirties. Something very rare in previous times.

Race horse photo: http://tinyurl.com/mtxc7uo
Stable photo: http://tinyurl.com/lu8ysme
Categories: horse care, Horses, nature, outdoors, ponies, riding, stables, Thoroughbreds | Tags: , , , | 10 Comments

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10 thoughts on “I is for Horse Illnesses

  1. I’m wondering how many years a wild horse usually lives. It’s odd that we’ve put horses in a man-made environment which is really not “normal” for them, yet due to advances in vet care, they’re living very long lives. I wonder how happy they are, though.

    • Apparently, “wild” horses, which are actually domesticated horses gone feral, typically live 15-20 years, about the same as working horses until fairly recently. From what I’ve seen, horses that have a connection with a herd (their rider most often) and have a job, be it pulling a plow, carrying a rider or acting as a therapy horse, are the happiest. (In the wild their job is to reproduce and stay alive.) They, like people, can adjust to varied situations and thrive. We just need to be aware of their limitations.

  2. This is a poignant post, Kate. I never knew most of this and always figured how much better the horses were living “safely” in stalls. I’ll share.

    • As I said above, we need to be aware of potential problems and do our best to alleviate them. I guess you could equate stalls to office cubicals. Being confined isn’t that good for humans either. At least when stabled horses get sick or injured they’re usually treated right away and have a better chance of surviving.
      Thanks for sharing.

  3. I agree. Interesting article. I never knew about this. Looking back, I think of those horses that were kept at the Claremont Stables in the middle of Manhattan. Talk about a life of unvaried routine!!! I don’t think Claremont exists any longer. I also think about the horses that are hitched to the carriages (waiting on 59th Street across from the Plaza Hotel) that take people through Central Park.

    • But they had/have jobs and that makes a big difference. Horses that are used to doing things can get really depressed when they are “retired.” I’m sure the carriage horses get lots of attention and pats. As long as they’re well cared for, they probably enjoy what they’re doing.

  4. Thanks for the post. I guess I never thought about how long horses stay in theirs stalls. Most of my exposure to horses has been in Kentucky where I often saw them roaming freely within large gated pastures. So sad for those who don’t live that type of life.

  5. Actually grass hay would be a fairly natural winter food, but wild horses would get exercise pawing through the snow to get it. Alfalfa hay would be less natural, and grain even more so. If hay is fed, I think it should be in a low net where it has to be pulled out a bit at a time. Managed (or lack of) exercise is far more of a problem.
    I have to admit that my old Gus lived entirely on complete pelleted feed his last few years–his teeth were past floating and he couldn’t chew grass anymore

    • It’s interesting how differently horses are fed, based on what’s available. In the Midwest alfalfa was only for cows and we fed horses timothy and clover. In California, those two weren’t available and traditionally we fed low-protein alfalfa and oat hay. In recent years there’s been a push for grass hay and now it can be bought, but usually at a higher price. Areas that feed grass hay usually have to supplement hard working horses with grain because the grass isn’t quite enough.

      I agree exercise is a vital part of the equation. Horses need to move.

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