For 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.
Add 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.
Another 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