A spring WOF for your horse

Dr Michelle Logan takes a look at the health and wellbeing checks every horse needs for the spring season

At last we are getting into spring, and the start of the new season. It is always an exciting time, as most of us can’t wait to get started with our plans for the months to come, whether that’s pony club, trekking, show jumping, dressage, eventing, hacking or any other of the many activities – competitive or not – that we are lucky enough to be able to do with our horses and ponies. 

The start of spring is an ideal time to do a ‘warrant of fitness’ on our horses to check on any potential health concerns. If you find any problems; you can deal with them now to hopefully prevent them becoming more serious issues later on. 

We will look at six things to check off on your horse’s pre-season ‘WOF’. 

1. Vaccination

When doing your pre-season check, get out your horse’s vaccination records to check that his tetanus vaccination is up-to-date (talk to your vet if you are not sure). All horses and ponies should be vaccinated against tetanus. Strangles is another vaccination that is worth considering, especially if you are planning on taking your horses out to places where they will mix with lots of other horses. Now is the time to get the course done, or a booster if that’s all that’s needed, so your horse will have protection throughout the season. 

2. Checking for body condition score, swelling, skin and tack

Take the cover off and walk around your horse or pony, then use your hands to feel his body thoroughly to assess the overall condition. This will help you determine if your horse is too fat, too thin or about right. The ideal condition score may vary slightly according to the job the horse has to do; for example, if we compared a fit lean racehorse to a lead rein show pony, the ideal body condition would be a little different. However, we still don’t want either horse to be too thin or too fat. An event horse who is overweight now will need a carefully-planned fitness programme to avoid putting too much strain on joints, tendons and ligaments. Alternatively, a show pony who is on the lean side may need to gradually put on a little weight without becoming unmanageable, and at the same time increase muscle and fitness.

While you are grooming your horse each day, make sure you feel all over for any unusual swellings, or anything abnormal, especially on the legs. Knowing what is normal for your horse will help you pick up on early signs of a problem. If you find any swellings, or are unsure, then please talk to your vet.

While you’re at it, use the increased daylight hours to thoroughly check over your horse’s skin for any issues. This could include any cuts or sores, mud fever, rain scald and lice. Any skin problems should be treated now, and the skin monitored throughout the season. 

Check your tack carefully for any signs of wear, check your saddle still fits well and most importantly, check there is nothing is in contact with your horse that could rub or poke into him or her (of course also check that there is nothing to rub or irritate the rider either!).

Give all your saddle blankets a good wash and dry in the sun if possible, to reduce the risk of spreading any infection. 

3. Hooves and soundness

Hopefully, even if his shoes have been removed, your horse’s hooves will have been regularly trimmed over winter to help prevent them getting out of shape or developing cracks. Now is a good time to book your farrier for a pre-season appointment. 

Even barefoot horses will need a thorough trim to ensure they have good foot balance, and all hooves should be carefully checked for signs of footrot and thrush, which tend to flourish in wet, warmer conditions. Some horses will need shoes on before they can start any serious amount of work. 

Working your horse with long toes or generally poor hoof balance can put extra strain on the tendons, ligaments and joints, and we certainly don’t want to end up with an easily preventable injury. X-rays can be taken of the hooves for more detailed assessment of foot balance, and this may be a good option for some horses.

After looking at the feet we need to know if there are any signs of lameness; mild cases are not always easy to spot when horses are turned out in muddy paddocks. 

Ask someone to lead your horse in trot away and towards you on a hard surface, to really assess for any mild lameness, and then with lunge on both reins. Pay close attention to how your horse moves on the lunge on both reins, as the increased strain in a circle can show up a lameness that might be difficult to spot otherwise. If you have any concerns, then contact your vet. It is better to be safe than sorry, and dealing with a potential problem now may prevent it become a much more serious one a few weeks into the season.   

4. Teeth and worming

A lot of horses will have had their dental check and any treatment performed at the beginning of winter but, if not, then it is a very good idea to get a check done now. Dental problems can cause a whole range of issues for horses when they are under saddle. The commonly-found sharp points on the teeth can cause ulceration in the cheeks and this can result in behavioural signs from reluctance to go on one rein and reluctance to go on the bit, to rearing and napping. 

Horse should have received an autumn worming paste to treat encysted larval cyathostomes (small strongyles that have buried into the intestine wall and hibernated)) and tapeworms. If they didn’t receive this, then it is important to give the wormer now. We see problems when a horse’s nutrition improves (as in the spring) when these encysted larvae emerge, and cause severe damage to the lining of the gut. This can result in a serious (life-threatening) case of diarrhoea. In some situations, this wormer is recommended to be given routinely in spring as well as autumn, and in others, a worm faecal egg count is recommended. Discuss with your veterinarian which is best in your situation. 

5. Selenium and general nutrition

Selenium is a very important nutrient, and it is only found in low levels in the soil in most of New Zealand (and so in correspondingly low levels in pasture and hay). This means that a lot of horses and ponies, who are not hard fed to recommended levels, will have low selenium levels in their blood. Unfortunately, selenium is dangerous in high levels, and so it is important to get your horse’s blood tested before giving any supplement. This is especially important if selenium has been used in any fertiliser, or you are feeding any hard feed containing selenium. The information from the blood test will help with determining your feed plan for the season.

You will be able to use the information from the body condition score, and the selenium results, together with your expected workload to decide what you need to feed your horse as you progress through the season. Get advice from a professional if needed. Remember not to make sudden changes in the feed; do them gradually or you increase the risk of colic. There are a lot of different options, but make sure you use a feed that is the right energy level for your horse’s requirements, and that fibre is the main part of your horse’s diet.    

6. Level of fitness and action plan

Your horse’s level of fitness will depend on how much time off they have had, whether they have been kept in a box, in a small paddock or in a large hill paddock, and on your horse’s temperament and behaviour. Are they are the type to gallop around the paddock a lot or would they rather stand around eating?  There are also the distinct types of fitness to consider (as in ourselves):

  • the level of cardiovascular fitness – how well their heart and lungs can cope with exercise 
  • musculoskeletal fitness – the strength and conditioning of the muscles, bones, ligaments and tendons; and 
  • flexibility and suppleness 

Assessing the level of fitness in these different areas will help you devise a plan to get your horse ready for whatever you want to do with them, whether it is day-long hacks, week-long treks/cavalcades, or competing. You need to be realistic about where they are now, and what you are expecting of them over the next few months.

Once you have all this information you can make a (flexible) plan on how your season will progress, and then the fun part begins!