Cobs: the health issues you need to watch out for [H&H VIP]

  • Cobs are generally considered to be tough and trouble-free, but they suffer their share of health problems. Karen Coumbe MRCVS highlights the main issues to watch out for

    Low-maintenance, living off fresh air, the legendary cob constitution suggests that these popular all-rounders are never less than hale and hearty. While it’s true that cobs are generally robust and tend to require smaller feed rations than many of their counterparts, they still need careful management to stay in tip-top health.

    Even with his thicker skin and abundant hair, a cob cannot be expected to fend for himself throughout the winter without appropriate shelter or rugging. And if he’s in hard work or competing at a moderate level or above, he’ll need the kind of care required by any equivalent equine athlete.

    An itch and a scratch
    Typical cob problems centre on the coat and skin.

    “To cut or not to cut” is often the question for owners struggling to manage their cob’s leg hair, known as feathers. This can be a dilemma for owners of the hairy heavier breeds, to a lesser extent with cobs but even more so with shires, Clydesdales and others.

    Mites preferentially attack these feathered legs and cause mange, which is unpleasantly itchy for those afflicted. This uncomfortable skin disease is caused by Chorioptes mites, tiny parasites smaller than the size of the standard full stop on this page.

    They are just about visible with a very powerful magnifying glass and good eyesight, but are best diagnosed by looking at samples of skin scurf under a microscope.

    The mites feed on the outer, most superficial layers of the skin and are found particularly on the lower limbs — especially those with feathered heels. The earliest signs of a problem are usually foot-stamping and biting at the limbs, often apparent before any obvious skin irritation is seen.

    Occasionally, the mites will spread to the body, head and neck and cause generalised skin scaling and severe self-trauma. Usually, lots of mites are found when samples are checked, but clinical signs of itchiness can be surprisingly severe when there are only a few parasites present.

    Cobs seem to be particularly susceptible because of subtle factors affecting their thick skin, which has a tendency to crust and seems to be the mites’ favourite. Often, cobs suffer more discomfort than one might expect for the severity of infestation.

    These mites can also affect horses without hairy legs. Carriers showing no sign of infection may still have mites on board, so perpetuating the infestation.

    Mange mayhem
    Winter is the time to watch out for mange, as adult mites seem to increase in number in cooler weather and can survive in bedding and on stable floors for some months. The problem is often worse where stabled horses are in close contact, especially in the current wet conditions.

    The mites do not survive as well in summer, when horses are at grass. Turnout generally results in reduced mite numbers.

    Treatment options vary, but there is no consistent miracle cure. Regular treatments are required as horses can be reinfected. It is almost impossible to eliminate completely the parasite from all the horses in any yard and their environment, so the key message is to keep at it.

    Lower limb swelling
    Another unpleasant condition that can affect cobs is chronic progressive lymphedema (CPL), which results in swelling of the lower limbs. The exact cause is unknown but mites are implicated. If you have a cob with hairy legs, check them regularly.

    Your cob may also be prone to the poorly understood skin disorders mallenders and sallenders. The problem is termed mallenders when it affects the back of the knees and sallenders when the front of the hock is involved. In either case, the result is flaking and scaling of the skin. Again, mites are blamed, but are not the only cause.

    Watch his waistline
    Cobs are well known for gaining weight very easily. This was confirmed in a 2014 study published in the Equine Veterinary Journal, which surveyed a number of horse owners. Breed was identified as a risk factor for obesity, with draft horses, cobs, Welsh and other UK native pony breeds at an increased risk compared to thoroughbreds.

    The likelihood of obesity was greater in non-competition horses, with pleasure animals being more than twice as likely to be overweight. This risk was multiplied by three for non-ridden horses and ponies, including unbroken, retired or breeding stock.

    Free access to pasture has previously been reported to be a risk factor for equine obesity and this was not disproven here, as horses that did not compete tended to be turned out for longer.

    This confirms what we have long suspected – cobs need regular work, are better off competing and should not spend too much time at grass.

    Don’t miss this week’s special cob issue of Horse & Hound magazine (30 October 2014), where we look at the cobs who have belied their breed and reached the highest level — and meet the legendary Super Ted

    Looking to buy a cob? Take a look at our horses for sale