Gone are the days of calling out the vet only if something is wrong with a horse. Roger Lee MRCVS discusses whether modern preventative health checks are worth the time and money

How well is your horse? Perhaps you’ve been lucky — he seems perfectly healthy and you haven’t needed the vet out since last year’s vaccination. But can you be sure? Equine vets are often rushing to the next appointment, and a quick flu injection hardly amounts to proper assessment of a horse’s wellbeing.

Owners seem happy to make regular appointments with the equine dentist, the physiotherapist, the saddle fitter and even the nutritionist, but for veterinary matters, the “if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it” approach still seems to rule the day.

So what’s the solution? It could already be on offer from your local equine practice in the form of an annual “wellness check”.

A proper wellness check is an opportunity to have an experienced set of eyes looking for things you may be too close to your horse to see. You also get the vet’s undivided attention and a chance to discuss all the accumulated small concerns you may have — a lump here, a slight cough there — that individually don’t seem worth a call-out.

Early warning signs

vet pictures

Ideally a wellness check will follow a similar routine to a standard vetting, starting with an examination of the eyes and heart.

Fortunately heart problems are rare in horses, but murmurs can develop as horses get older and unusual changes in rhythm can be present without obvious signs. Similarly, a proper ophthalmoscope is needed to pick up on the development of cataracts and other eye problems.

Typically the exam would then move on to the rest of the body, identifying skin problems such as sarcoids and melanomas, as well as checking out the various bumps and swellings that all horses develop over time.

Probably the most valuable part of any wellness check is an assessment of soundness. This doesn’t just mean trotting the horse up to see if he is lame, but checking carefully to pick up on any potential problems before they cause unsoundness.

Considering how many problems start in the feet, foot shape and balance are often neglected areas. All horses will get stiffer as they age, but wear-and-tear also depends on the “miles on the clock”.

Assessing the range of joint movement and how well the horse trots off following a flexion test provides lots of valuable information. Are there any changes within the expected limits for a horse of that age? Early intervention along with careful management can significantly prolong a horse’s active life.

Size and weight is another important topic. Obesity is so widespread that it can come to be seen as normal, while any sight of ribs or muscle definition is greeted with cries of alarm. Vets have to be tactful when telling owners their horse is too fat, but effective weight control is important for soundness and general health — not just preventing laminitis. This is best achieved by creating a customised weight control plan, including monitoring with a weigh tape and measuring feed and hay intake.

a horse having its girth measured by a tape measure

The final part of an examination should be an evaluation of how well the horse is working. Horses very rarely do exactly what their riders want, but is such resistance simply behavioural or is it a reflection of underlying physical discomfort? A wellness check is an opportunity to discuss training issues and to try and eliminate pain as a cause of misbehaviour.

Digging deeper

Blood tests are sometimes offered as part of a wellness check, but the wide individual variation in results means they are a lot less meaningful than owners imagine.

If, for example, a horse has lost condition or his energy levels have declined, then checking cell counts and blood biochemistry is an essential diagnostic tool. However, a one-off blood test from a healthy-looking horse is unlikely to generate much useful information.

But there are exceptions to this.

For older horses and ponies, screening for Cushing’s disease is definitely worth considering, even if they are not showing any of the classic symptoms.

A common first sign of Cushing’s is a bout of laminitis in a horse who has not previously had it. Early screening can help identify and prevent this.

Pros and cons

Stock

Are there any downsides to these wellness checks?

There is the cost to consider, but while you will pay for the vet’s time, it won’t usually involve expensive diagnostic tests.

Additional screening can of course be done, including X-rays, scoping of the stomach for ulcers and ultrasound examination of tendons. However, if a careful examination and a full history from the owner don’t suggest a problem, then unnecessary and potentially invasive examinations should be avoided.

Some practices offer “equine health plans”, under which a small monthly fee covers a yearly health check and vaccination, plus other staples such as a dental examination and regular worm egg counts.

Will vets use such schemes as an opportunity to sell you medication and treatments your horse doesn’t actually need? The answer is to use an experienced vet whom you both know and trust.

The bottom line is that being proactive about your horse’s health has to make sense — because ignorance is unlikely to be bliss for either of you.

Ref: Horse & Hound; 13 August 2015