Like a car with a dicky engine note or an ominous rattling from the bodywork, a horse making an odd noise is a worry. An alarming sound is often the first sign that all is not running smoothly — a red flag for trouble to come.

It’s natural to fear the worst if you hear something new, yet must every snort and splutter be an early warning of a health problem?

The obvious first step is to locate the source of the noise.

Abdomen

“Loud noises from the abdomen usually indicate a healthy digestive system,” says H&H vet Karen Coumbe MRCVS, referring to the rumblings of hindgut fermentation. “Moderation is important, though. Exaggerated or notably increased gut sounds might signal that a horse has eaten excess lush grass, and can be associated with some forms of colic. An absence of gut sounds may also be a sign of colic problems.”

Burping while eating is usually no more than a sign of a good appetite, but throat gurgling with obvious swallowing problems could point to choke.

“Very occasionally a horse can make an odd burping sound associated with a congenital throat defect, usually of the fourth bronchial arch,” adds Karen. “If he burps or has difficulty breathing, talk to your vet about the possibility of an endoscopic examination.”

Forging

Forging also has a clear source, when the hind toe raps the front shoe on the same side.

“This may reflect lack of musculoskeletal strength and coordination, or perhaps poor trimming and shoeing,” says Dr Sue Dyson of the Animal Health Trust. “Forging can also indicate a pain-related alteration in the step length of the forelimbs relative to the hindlimbs, so professional advice is probably needed.”

Pneumovagina

Mares can make a suctioning noise from the rear end, usually at exercise but sometimes while squatting to urinate or when in heat.

“This could be a condition called pneumovagina, where air is sucked into the vagina,” says Lesley Barwise-Munro MRCVS, of Alnorthumbria Vet Group.

“The vulva must be vertical to maintain a good seal. If the anus sinks forwards, usually due to poor vulval conformation or because the mare is older and/or thinner, the vulva can be pulled with it and the seal is no longer airtight.”

Aside from the unattractive noise, the sucking in of air through the vulva can be hazardous to the mare’s health and fertility.

“Bugs, bacteria and airborne dust can enter and irritate the vagina, causing a uterine infection such as endometritis,” adds Lesley. “Simple reconstructive surgery, a Caslick procedure, involves removing a strip of tissue from either side of the vulva before suturing it, so it heals and seals.”

Sheath

One sound that is difficult to pin down is the grinding noise produced by some geldings and stallions as they work.

“This usually emanates from the sheath,” says Lesley Barwise-Munro. “Consult your vet if you find any swelling, discharge or smell from this area. Cleaning the sheath may make the noise disappear, but if it stays it’s most probably due to air trapped between the folds of the skin, the prepuce, that protect the penis. This is usually nothing to worry about.”

Grunting

Like certain top tennis players, some horses grunt or groan with exertion. This may be rhythmic, with each stride, or occur on take-off or landing over a challenging fence.

Is there truth in the suggestion that this could indicate heart problems?

“In my opinion, it’s not a very useful sign of cardiac disease or an association with cardiac murmurs,” says Phil Ivens MRCVS. “Cows can grunt and groan with a particular condition, but we do not see this in the horse. Cardiac enlargement in dogs and humans due to disease may cause the heart to press on the trachea, causing a cough, which could be confused with a grunt or a groan. It’s uncommon, however, to see a horse present with a chronic cough due to cardiac disease — even when the heart is abnormally enlarged.

“A horse with a rare heart condition such as bacterial endocarditis and/or pericarditis might groan, but he would usually be overtly unwell.”

Wind

If you own a horse with a stereotypical behaviour such as crib-biting or windsucking, you’ll be familiar with the sound effects. Certain wind problems also produce recognisable noises, but these can be more difficult to distinguish in the early stages.

“Upper airway problems tend to cause noise that is audible throughout exercise, or often towards the end of the session as the horse tires,” says Tim Barnett MRCVS, of Rossdales Equine Hospital. “Noises heard at the outset, which disappear as the horse warms up, are usually of little concern.

“Whistles, gurgles and harsh sounds occurring during faster paces and increased intensity of work may indicate a problem with the upper airway and would warrant further examination, especially if they coincide with a reduction in performance.

“An initial cough is fine, but if it continues during and after exercise, along with wheezing, it could mean a problem with the lower airway.”

Grinding

Grinding of the cheek teeth is a normal phase of the chewing cycle.

“If it happens at rest, however, when the horse is not eating, it is known as bruxism,” says dentistry specialist Neil Townsend MRCVS, of Three Counties Equine Hospital. “This may be linked to low-grade abdominal pain, most commonly mild colic or gastric ulcers, and may also be displayed with
stress-related stereotypies. Bruxism during exercise can be a sign of evasion of the bit.

“There’s no long-term consequence for the teeth, but it’s important to rule out any potential underlying causes,” adds Neil.

Groaning

Phil Ivens MRCVS, of Buckingham Equine Vets, says that grunting or groaning is often a normal sign of physical exertion.

“If it was abnormal for that horse it might indicate gastric ulcers, musculoskeletal pain or, more rarely, a urinary issue,” adds Phil. “Making these noises at rest can, again, be normal. If they occur repeatedly during
a particular task, however, such as urinating, defecating or lying down, it might be wise to investigate.”

Joints

A loud clicking, often heard during exercise, can usually be narrowed down to a certain joint. According to Liz Barr MRCVS, of Bell Equine, the exact cause remains unknown.

“One theory is that movement can cause a reduction in the pressure within the joint, releasing bubbles of dissolved gases from the joint fluid and creating a popping sound,” she says. “Or the clicking could come from a relatively lax joint capsule snapping back into place as the joint moves.

“Unless there is any swelling or pain associated with the joint, I advise people not to worry about it,” adds Liz. “There’s no evidence in the old wives’ tale that clicking can lead to — or is an early sign of — osteoarthritis.”

A competitive disadvantage?

“A noise by itself is of no consequence in the dressage arena,” says List One British Dressage judge Sue McMahon. “Clicking joints are fine, as long as the horse is sound with no irregularity. Forging is acceptable, if he is balanced — but this almost always goes with lack of balance and hurrying, which would be marked down.

“We want to see harmony, fluency and ease. If a horse grunts audibly with the use of spurs he would lose marks, especially if this was accompanied by flattened ears and a swishing tail. Whistling and roaring are fine, but not if the horse appears stressed, out of breath or obviously unfit.”

There’s a performance link in the show ring, too.

“We don’t know the horse’s medical history so we have to make a judgement on what we see on the day,” explains judge Nigel Hollings. “So many factors can affect a horse’s performance. Noises arising from a conformational fault or because the horse is tense will be penalised.”

Ref: Horse & Hound; 2 June 2016