The conscientious horse owner is always in tune with the horse — aware of how the horse is feeling and recognizing what's normal or abnormal for that horse. If you know what to look for, you can interpret clues the horse gives and detect early signs of injury, lameness, or illness.
Except in cases of acute illness or injury, early warning signs or behavioral clues often will tell you something is wrong, before the ailment becomes severe or dangerous.
Symptoms such as a runny nose or coughing are easy to see, but you should keep a watchful eye for more subtle signs of problems, such as when a horse changes his normal activities or eating habits.
If he's standing with head down and a dull demeanor, rather than looking bright and alert, this may be a sign of pain or fever. If you suspect a problem, check his vital signs — pulse and respiration rates and temperature. An elevated pulse may be a sign of pain, and fever is a common sign of disease.
Normal temperature for a horse is 99 to 100.5 degrees. Take his temperature with a rectal animal thermometer with a string attached, so you don't lose it in the rectum. Check his respiration rate by watching the animal's flank movements. Normal respiration is eight to 10 breaths per minute.
Heart rate can be checked with your hand pressed against his left side just above/behind the elbow — or with fingers on the big artery that goes under the jawbone. Normal pulse at rest is 36-40.
Colic, or abdominal pain, is a common equine ailment. Obvious signs are pawing, rolling (not just a scratch-the-back kind of roll), dullness, and sweating.
Mild pain may be harder to detect unless you have a feel for when he isn't quite himself. A horse with mild colic may be a little dull, restless, off feed, or spend too much time lying down — often with nose tucked around toward his belly.
He may stand stretched, with front legs forward and hind legs back, trying to ease gas pains. Use a stethoscope or press your ear to his belly to see if you hear any gut sounds. Ominous silence may mean impaction or blockage and that could be deadly.
Posture can give clues to leg or foot injury. If he's standing with one front foot ahead of the other, or constantly resting the same hind foot, he's trying to relieve pain in that foot/leg by not bearing much weight on it.
Check the leg or foot for heat and swelling. Lead him a little, to see if he favors the leg while walking. If he's unwilling to move, don't try to make him walk; this could make a serious injury worse.
Another instance in which he might be reluctant to move is if major muscles in the hindquarters cramp and "tie up." This can happen during or after a ride or even after running and bucking in his pasture. His pain, anxiety, and pawing may be mistaken for colic, but you can tell the difference by his stance, and reluctance to budge from that spot.
Other abnormal body positions can be clues to various ailments. A horse standing with front and hind feet bunched close together is an indication his body hurts. Perhaps he has pain in his back or chest from injury or pneumonia.
If he's standing with weight mostly on his hind legs, with his front legs stretched forward, this usually means his front feet hurt and could indicate laminitis.
Posture and behavior changes could be the first signs of serious injury/illness. If your instincts tell you something is amiss, it probably is, so call your veterinarian.
The alert horseman, detecting subtle signals, can often make a big difference in the health — and even the life — of the horse.
Heather Smith Thomas has authored several books on livestock including Storey's Guide to Raising Horses, which is available at your local Tractor Supply store.