Is Your Horse Unwell? Learn How to Spot the Signs of Illness in Your Equine Friend

As horse owners, we all want our beloved equines to stay healthy and happy. But sometimes, horses can become unwell and it is important to be able to identify the signs of illness in order to provide the best care possible.

The first step in determining if your horse is unwell is to pay attention to their behavior. If your horse is usually active and energetic but suddenly becomes lethargic, this can be a sign of illness. Other signs of illness include a lack of appetite, changes in attitude, and a decrease in energy. It is also important to observe your horse’s gait and stance for any abnormalities. If your horse is having difficulty walking, is limping, or is exhibiting any other abnormal movements, this could be a sign of illness.

In addition to observing your horse’s behavior, it is also important to pay attention to their physical appearance. If your horse is losing weight, has a dull coat, or has any other physical changes, this could be a sign of illness. It is also important to check your horse’s vital signs, such as temperature, pulse, and respiration rate. If any of these are abnormally high or low, this could also be a sign of illness.

Finally, it is important to be aware of any changes in your horse’s environment. If your horse has been exposed to any new elements, such as changes in diet, new living conditions, or new riders, this could also be a sign of illness.

If you suspect that your horse is unwell, it is important to contact your veterinarian right away. Your veterinarian will be able to examine your horse and diagnose any underlying illnesses. With prompt and proper treatment, you can help ensure that your horse remains healthy and happy for years to come.

How to Know if Your Horse Is Sick

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This article was co-authored by . Dr. Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS is a veterinarian with over 30 years of experience in veterinary surgery and companion animal practice. She graduated from the University of Glasgow in 1987 with a degree in veterinary medicine and surgery. She has worked at the same animal clinic in her hometown for over 20 years. wikiHow marks an article as reader-approved once it receives enough positive feedback. In this case, 88% of readers who voted found the article helpful, earning it our reader-approved status. This article has been viewed 110,601 times.

Many novice riders, and even some professionals, sometimes need help assessing if their horse is sick or injured. Knowing the physical and behavioral symptoms of illness or injury will help you determine whether your horse needs veterinary attention. Note, however, that if you ever have concerns about the well-being of your horse, you should immediately contact your veterinarian.

If you think your horse is sick, first take its vitals, like its pulse and temperature, and examine its eyes, ears, and mouth for any discharge, which is a sign that something’s not right. Then look for common symptoms of sickness, like a dull coat, dark urine, or excessive sweating. Pay attention to how your horse is acting, too. Notice if it’s acting overly restless, which could mean your horse has colic, or if it’s eating different amounts than usual, which could be due to ulcers.

Is That Horse Lying Down Sick?

Have you ever found yourself wondering if a horse lying down is sick or hurt? A 1200 lb. horse lying on the ground looks a little odd, even scary at times. It’s normal to wonder if they should be lying down or what it means. Horses are unique in that they can sleep standing up and do frequently. They doze and even reach a deeper sleep standing by locking their back legs for balance and relying on herd mates to take turns “keeping watch”.

But horses also sleep lying down, especially in an environment that feels safe and warm. Picture a horse’s stall or small paddock: it is familiar, enclosed, sheltered from the weather and as comfy as it comes. When in a herd environment, horses love to sleep outdoors in a pasture, if they have herd mates to help them feel secure. A horse who sleeps lying down feels safe, secure and content. Adult horses may sleep for a couple hours a day lying down in total, and younger horses for even longer. They will typically be partially on their side, legs folded underneath with chin resting on the ground. Only seldom, and when feeling very comfortable will a horse roll completely out on their side and lay still for several minutes or even longer. Most horses will still react to loud noises even in this position, but just like us they can take a few moments to wake up.

Horses don’t typically lie down just because they are feeling sick. But things to watch out for could include a horse who stands up and lies down to roll over and over, though some horses do this when they find a particularly nice place to roll. This might be a reason to pay closer attention for signs of (abdominal pain). You might also notice a horse lying on their side nipping at or looking at their belly as if to ask, “why does my tummy hurt?”

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Feeding Sick or Injured Horses

Sick or injured horses, including horses suffering from burns, have different requirements to normal healthy horses, both in the types of nutrients they need and the sorts of feeds they can be fed. To determine the best thing to feed sick horse (or an injured horse) the following guidelines should be followed:

1. Don’t make any drastic changes to the diet

Sudden changes to any horse’s diet should be avoided and this is never more the case than when you have a sick or injured horse on hand. If your horse was on a primarily forage diet (mainly pasture, hay or chaff) prior to the sickness or injury, you should attempt to maintain the horse on a largely forage diet. Likewise if your horse was being hard fed, you can continue to hard feed the horse, but don’t suddenly introduce hard feeds to a horse that wasn’t on them previously, and unless there is a good medical reason (for example in the case of laminitis) you should not just suddenly stop feeding hard feeds or quickly switch to a new feed.

Keeping their feed consistent will keep them happier (they are creatures of habit and don’t like sudden changes) and also make sure you avoid problems like colic that can be associated with sudden changes in feed.

It is quite likely that you are going to need to make some changes to a horse’s diet. If this is the case, do it as slowly as possible or practical.


If your horse has to go to a veterinary hospital take along your horse’s feed he or she is used to having and leave clear directions on what and how much your horse is normally fed. If your horse was not hard fed before going to the clinic leave a note with the staff and if you have to, stick a note on your horses stable door requesting your horse is not fed any hard feed, as most horses in vet clinics will get some sort of hard feed unless otherwise directed.

2. Introduce new feeds as gradually as possible

When a horse no longer has access to their normal feed, you should find something as similar as possible to replace it with. For example, if a horse’s normal grass pasture is burnt out by fire, you should initially put the horse on a diet of free choice grass hay. Don’t change them to something like lucerne/alfalfa hay or a hard feed-based diet straight away as it is just too different from what they were used to and may cause problems like diarrhoea and colic.

When additional feeds or supplements need to be added you should do so as slowly as possible. If the horse can’t eat its normal diet due to an injured mouth or muzzle, you should find ‘easy to eat’ versions of feeds similar to the feeds your horse was used to. So for example, if your horse was on grass pasture or grass hay, use oaten or wheaten chaff as an easy-to-eat alternative. If your horse was eating lucerne hay, use lucerne chaff. And if your horse is finding its hard feed difficult to chew and swallow, soak it in warm water to make it soft before feeding.


If your horse changes from moist pasture to hay suddenly keep a very close eye on water intake and use water sweetened with molasses or apple juice to encourage drinking if water intake is low. Not drinking enough when eating dry hay puts horses at real risk of impaction colic.

3. Feed enough feed, but not too much

A sick or injured horse needs to have its calorie intake carefully managed. There are two main situations you need to be aware of:

Tips for getting a horse to eat

If none of these strategies work and the horse still will not eat, contact your veterinarian that is caring for the horse and discuss the options available for tube feeding if required.

4. Make sure the diet contains everything your horse needs

Never is feeding a balanced diet more important than when feeding a horse recovering from sickness or injury. Protein and certain vitamins and minerals are critically important for promoting the healing process as is ensuring the horse is receiving the correct amount of calories.

If your horse is only eating a small amount of feed each day, the diet should be balanced so that its nutrient needs are largely met within that small meal size. This may involve feeding high protein supplements, concentrated vitamin mineral supplements and using high energy oils and grains to help meet calorie requirements.

FeedXL allows you to balance diets accurately for horses recovering from illness or injury. Simply choose ‘Horse Recovering from Illness or Injury’ or ‘Growing Horse Recovering from Illness or Injury’ when entering your horse’s details.

Special Note for Burns Victims

Thus a severely burnt horse’s requirements for these nutrients as well as fluid and calories can be increased up to 100% above maintenance needs.


If you are not sure where to start with feeding a sick or injured horse seek professional help. We can certainly help on the FeedXL Members Facebook Group. Feeding a horse the wrong thing when sick or failing to recognise that your horse has special requirements can slow the healing process, suppress your horse’s immune system and expose your horse to secondary disease and infections. It is important to get it right.

We would love to welcome you to our FeedXL Horse Nutrition Facebook Group. Ask questions and have them answered by PhD and Masters qualified equine nutritionists and spend time with like-minded horse owners. It’s free!


We would love to welcome you to our FeedXL Horse Nutrition Facebook Group. Ask questions and have them answered by PhD and Masters qualified equine nutritionists and spend time with like-minded horse owners. It’s free!

The most common diseases in horses

Without a doubt, one of the animals that generates the most passions is the horse. Like anyone who takes care of other animals at home, those who have horses suffer greatly when the animal suffers from a health problem, which in the case of equines are diseases unknown to most people, since unfortunately it is not easy nor cheap to access these animals. For that reason we will tell you in this article what are the most common diseases and ailments in horses.

As with people, equine flu is a virus that attacks the upper respiratory tract, although depending on its aggressiveness it could also attack the lower respiratory tract (the lungs and bronchi).

Its infection is airborne, as in humans, through the mucosa. The symptoms are, as in the flu we all know, a cough, a runny nose or loss of appetite. Fever can also appear and lead to other more severe ailments, such as bronchitis, if it becomes complicated.


It is a set of ailments that affect the horse’s abdomen, causing great pain. There is no single origin of this problem and it is for this reason that the treatments also vary in each case. The equine that suffers from colic, will also suffer sweating, abundant nervousness and lack of control due to pain, as well as problems with feces and even dehydration. The postures you acquire are also a sign of colic, as you may vary them to relieve pain.


Tetanus in horses is caused by a bacterium found in the soil with the scientific name Clostridium tetani. The richer the soil in organic matter, the more likely it is that the disease is present. They slip into the body of horses through the usual scratches or small wounds on the animal’s legs.

The most common symptoms are involuntary and constant muscle contractions, called tetanic. In addition, the horse will suffer from jaw and muscle problems throughout its body, including facial ones, because the bacteria affect the animal’s nervous system. If the horse is correctly vaccinated in a preventive way and the open wounds are healed correctly, the disease can be avoided.

Equine encephalitis

Equine encephalitis is usually caused by mosquito bites and causes brain inflammation. If it occurs in a very aggressive way, it can even cause seizures and paralysis, so we are talking about one of the most dangerous pathologies for horses, and with a worse prognosis for their life expectancy. That is why prevention through vaccination is key.

Babesiosis (piroplasmosis)

Babesiosis is caused by the protozoan “Babesia equi”, and transmitted by ticks. It is a very common disease in other domestic mammals such as cows or dogs, and it attacks the horse’s red blood cells causing fever, anemia or weight loss. It is a very harmful disease, so it is advisable to go quickly to a specialized veterinarian in case of detecting similar symptoms or ticks in the horse.


Also like humans, the horse is an animal that can also suffer from this disease. In the case of equines, it is very well detected, since it is easy to observe the inflammation of the animal’s lymph nodes in the same area of ​​the jaw. It is a very contagious disease, so you must act very quickly.

In the event of any symptoms described above, it is important to go to a horse veterinarian as soon as possible to try to stop the effects of the animal’s disease, and may even avoid its death.

10 signs of good health in your horse

Keeping your horse healthy and happy are the most important priorities for any equine lover… but do you know the vital sigs to look out for?

1. Temperature, pulse and respiration

These are a good place to start. Your horse’s normal heart rate is 28-44 beats per minute. If you don’t have a stethoscope to listen just behind his elbow, by the girth area, you can feel for his pulse on the underside of the jaw, where an artery passes over the jaw bone. Take the pulse for 15 seconds then multiply by four to determine the number of beats in a minute.

Your horse’s normal temperature is between 37.2 and 38.3degC. To take his temperature, use a digital thermometer inserted underneath his tail. Don’t forget to use a bit of Vaseline to make it more comfortable, and don’t let go of the thermometer!

A normal respiratory rate for an adult horse is 10-24 breaths per minute. You can measure this by watching his flank move as be breathes, watching his nostrils, or even by holding a hand in front of his nose. If you have a stethoscope, you can listen to the air travelling across his trachea (on the bottom of his neck), and ensure the breaths are clear and not wheezy.

2. Pink gums

Your horse’s gums should be moist and salmon pink. If they are pale, deep red, purple, overly yellow or streaked with blood, it’s time to call the vet. Pale gums can indicate shock, deep red ones can indicate poisoning, blue or purple gums low oxygen and yellow ones a liver problem.

3. Capillary refill time

If you gently press your horse’s gums, they should turn white, but return to pink within two seconds. A delay in this time (known as the capillary refill time) indicates poor circulation and can be a sign of dehydration, shock or poisoning.

4. Gut sounds

Put your ear to his flank, and you should be able to hear gurgling noises coming from the gut; tinkling and the odd roar are normal. But beware if you can’t hear anything, especially if your horse shows other signs of colic. Listen regularly to work out what is normal for your horse.

5. Bright eyes

Your horse’s eyes should be clear, bright and free from discharge. Any swelling or weeping needs further investigation, and may need the vet.

6. Pinch test

You can check your horse’s hydration status by gently pinching the skin on the base of his neck or shoulder, then releasing. It should snap back to normal within two seconds.

7. Decent droppings

Dung can be an indication of health. Your horse’s droppings should be well-formed balls without massive chunks of undigested food, have an inoffensive smell and a fairly even colour. Very loose droppings (apart from when your horse is very excited or has been on fresh grass) or failure to pass droppings for hours may be indicative of a stomach upset.

8. Legs eleven

Lumps and bumps are pretty inevitable on a horse’s legs as they get older. But you need to work out what is normal for your horse, so you can spot anything new. Cold, healed splints aren’t a problem. Feel your horse’s legs daily, checking for heat, swelling, puncture wounds and anything out of the ordinary. Remember that if your horse has been standing in the sun, his legs will be warm!

9. Be picky with feet

Are your horse’s feet overdue for a trim or for shoeing? Has he lost a nail or sprung a shoe? Do you know the early signs of thrush, white line disease and footrot? These are just some of the reasons every pony clubber is taught to pick out feet on a daily basis – it’s the best time to give hooves an overall inspection. Ask your farrier or trimmer to show you what to look out for and how to treat problems before they turn into lameness.

10. Weighty matters

Your horse’s overall condition is the best way to tell his overall health status. Has he put on or lost weight recently? Is his coat shiny or dull? Learn how to assess the correct body weight by feeling the fat covering his ribs, withers, neck and tailhead – beware if a winter coat is hiding the bones. Take his rug off at least once a week to fully assess him.

Bacterial Infections

There are many types of bacterial infections that can affect your horse. If you notice symptoms of any of the following common types of bacterial infections, contact us, so we can examine your horse and provide appropriate treatment options.

Is a bacterium that forms spores, which allows it to survive longer outside an animal’s body. The most common way for a horse to become infected with anthrax is by eating something contaminated with the spores. Infection can also occur by inhaling the spores or through a break in the skin. One of the early signs of infection in horses is colic. Horses may later develop a high fever, difficulty breathing and collection of fluid in the body (edema). Anthrax can kill horses rapidly. Treatment includes the use of antibiotics, as well as supportive care.

Is a condition caused by a toxin produced by a bacterium. The main symptom is weakness or paralysis. This can occur in both foals and adult horses, which is why it is also known as . Botulism can cause death if the muscles that control breathing are affected. Horses can become infected by eating feed contaminated with the toxin, eating the bacterial spores themselves or having a wound become infected with the bacterium. Treatment includes the use of a drug to fight the toxin. The horse may also be given antibiotics.

Is a condition that occurs mainly in horses in Europe; although several cases have been found elsewhere. The cause is unknown; although some research suggests that the bacterium that causes botulism might be involved. The disease may be triggered by a change in the horse’s nutrition, which throws off the balance of bacteria in the gut. The main symptom is partial or complete paralysis of the digestive tract. This may show up as colic, difficulty swallowing, drooling, a swollen stomach or constipation. Horses may also develop sweating, muscle tremors or weight loss. Treatment involves nursing the horse and providing high energy and easily swallowed foods.

(also known as pigeon fever, false strangles or dry land distemper) is inflammation of the lymphatic vessels caused by a bacterial infection. These vessels carry fluid from the body’s tissues back to the bloodstream. Infection occurs through wounds in the skin, such as insect bites, injections or contact with contaminated grooming equipment or tack. Symptoms include small lumps or swelling, sores that heal slowly (often on the fetlock) and painful inflammation. Sores may also develop on the chest region. Swelling is often treated with poultices, hot packs or flushing with water. Small sores may be pierced with a needle and rinsed with iodine. Larger sores may require surgery. Medications to support healing and reduce pain may also be prescribed.

Is a condition that produces fever, mild colic and diarrhea. It affects horses of all ages and can also cause pregnant mares to lose their foals. The bacterium that causes this condition has been found in parasites (flukes) that live in certain insects and freshwater snails. Horses may become infected when they accidentally eat aquatic insects that contain the infected flukes. Treatment includes antibiotics and sometimes drugs to reduce inflammation (non-steroidal).

Are a group of bacteria that can cause diarrhea in horses. Younger horses are more at risk of developing infections. More severe cases of salmonella infection can lead to inflammation of the intestines or even death. Horses are most often infected through the mouth, such as by ingesting contaminated feed or water or coming into contact with the feces of an infected animal. Treatment involves antibiotics and sometimes the use of intravenous (IV) fluids and electrolytes.

, also known as distemper, is an infectious and contagious disease. The main symptoms include fever, abscesses in the upper respiratory tract, discharge of mucus or pus from the nose and swollen lymph nodes. Horses may also have difficulty swallowing and exhibit noisy breathing. Antibiotics may be used to treat this condition; although there are pros and cons to this route. Warm compresses can be applied to the area of the swollen lymph nodes. Other drugs may be given to reduce the fever and pain.

Is caused by a toxin produced by a bacterium. The toxin blocks certain nerve signals, which causes severe contraction of muscles and extreme responses to stimuli. Signs of tetanus may include stiffness of the muscles of the jaw, neck and hind limbs. The bacterium that causes tetanus lives in soil, so a horse can become infected through a deep puncture wound. A vaccine is available for tetanus, which should be given before infection. Once infected, a horse is treated with antibiotics and a drug which fights the toxin.

If you notice changes in your horse’s health or habits, contact us right away. We will diagnose, treat and care for your horse.


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Sick Horses: Feed Them Less or More?

If a horse stays at an ideal body weight and has plenty of energy for the exercise program it is on, the owner can usually assume that the horse’s feeding program is adequate. However, feed management is not so simple when horses are sick, injured, or recovering from illness.

Usually, moving a pastured horse into 24-hour stalling will decrease its energy needs because free exercise has been curtailed. Also, athletic horses that have sustained minor injuries, are recovering from elective orthopedic surgery, or have mild bacterial or viral infections should have a reduction in energy intake. During convalescence and until resumption of , most of these horses can be maintained on a diet composed primarily of hay fed at 1.5 to 2.0% of body weight per day, a vitamin/mineral supplement, and salt, either loose or in a block. To facilitate the return to full grain feeding upon return to training, it may be desirable to continue feeding a small amount of grain each day.

In contrast, metabolic rate can rise significantly for some equines. Confined horses that are healing from a severe injury may need more than a one-third increase in dietary energy, and those that have endured serious infections or major burns might require up to 1.7 times the normal amount as they recover. These horses will also need more protein as they rebuild damaged tissues.

Another situation exists with sick foals. Premature foals and those that have been diagnosed with neonatal maladjustment syndrome (NMS) may have metabolic rates that are only about 50% compared to healthy, age-matched counterparts. This may be due to the sick foals lying down most of the time, while healthy foals are active during most of the hours they are awake. Despite their low rates of metabolism, these foals can be in negative energy balance because of very low milk intake.

Feeding levels should be based on the horse’s body weight, previous exercise program, and current state of health. For horses that can’t or won’t eat willingly, it is often difficult to meet maintenance requirements. Nonetheless, delivery of even part of the maintenance requirement is likely to be beneficial in sick horses. The primary goal is to prevent further loss of .

If a sick horse is willing and able to eat, this should be encouraged, even if the animal doesn’t consume the amount usually eaten. If the horse consumes at least 85% of its optimal intake, no other form of nutritional support is required unless the illness is prolonged and the horse begins to lose an unacceptable amount of weight.

Pain and fever can depress appetite, and suitable medications can improve the horse’s comfort in many cases. Although hospitalized horses should be offered feeds similar to those fed at home, it is often necessary to provide a variety of feedstuffs to encourage intake. Highly palatable feeds such as fresh grass, leafy hays, and small amounts of grain or bran mash containing some grain can be offered. For horses that have not been eating, only small amounts of these feeds should be offered initially to avoid problems such as diarrhea and laminitis. Increases in grains or concentrates should be limited to less than one pound (0.5 kg) per day for an average-sized mature horse. Various types of forage and feed can best be provided in small, frequent meals throughout the day.

Veterinarians and equine nutritionists can advise owners on the best way to prevent excessive weight loss and support recovery in sick or injured horses that are being cared for at home.


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