Warmer weather, longer days, and … mud! It must mean spring is here. Before you start planning for shows, trail rides, and other equine adventures, make sure your horse is ready for all the action. Here’s what you need to know for your spring horse health check.
Gut parasites are cringe-inducing creatures. Their microscopic eggs are shed in your horse’s manure and then spread across the pasture, where larvae hatch from the eggs. These tiny baby parasites crawl onto blades of grass where they continue to mature into what’s called third-stage larvae (or L3). These third-state larvae wait patiently for an unsuspecting horse to come along and swallow them while grazing.
Then they head to the gastrointestinal tract, mature into adult worms, and cause damage to the inside of your horse. Warm, wet soil is the perfect condition for these eggs to mature to larvae and guess when that occurs—spring! That’s one reason why it’s so important to do a spring horse health check.
In the old days, owners would deworm their horses at regular intervals, usually every eight weeks, starting in the spring, no matter what. However, we now know that overusing dewormers has resulted in the development of antiparasitic resistance, meaning some of these drugs don’t work as well as they used to because parasites have adapted to them.
Because of this, your spring horse health check is the perfect time to test your horse for parasites. This means your veterinarian will take a manure sample and count the number of parasite eggs that are present. Measured year after year, these fecal egg counts will tell your veterinarian if deworming treatments your horse has received are doing what they are supposed to: lowering the number of parasites in your horse.
Most adult horses need to receive one to two deworming treatments a year at a minimum to control a very dangerous parasite species called large strongyles, or bloodworms. They are just one type of parasite that can affect your horse. Additional treatments throughout the year should be based on fecal egg counts.
Talk to your veterinarian about the results of your horse’s fecal egg count during his spring health check and ask what dewormer is best to use in the spring for the specific types of parasites in your area.
Vaccines for Spring Horse Health
You may have heard the term “spring vaccines” before. This is because spring is the most common season to booster your horse’s yearly vaccines, ensuring he has a high level of antibodies to protect him from contagious, or otherwise harmful, diseases during the busiest time of year.
At a minimum, all adult horses should receive yearly vaccines for rabies, Eastern/Western equine encephalitis (EEE/WEE), West Nile virus (WNV), and tetanus. Equine veterinarians call these “core vaccines,” meaning they are the most important.
A lot of other vaccines are available for your horse, too. Knowing which ones your horse needs isn’t hard if you talk to your veterinarian during your spring horse health check. She will recommend vaccines based on your horse’s age, health, where he lives, travel plans, and level of exposure to other horses.
Some common “non-core” vaccines include strangles, equine influenza (flu), equine herpesvirus (rhinopneumonitis, or rhino), and Potomac Horse Fever. Sometimes a boarding stable will require your horse to be vaccinated against these diseases.
Once your horse is on a spring vaccination schedule, it’s convenient to keep him on it yearly—that way you can be sure he’s not left unprotected.
Healthy Horse Nutrition
It’s neat to watch the pastures at the barn turn from frozen mud soup and brown trampled grass to a lush, bright green carpet right before your eyes, but your horse is much more excited for this change.
Green grass is the best food for your horse; it’s what his body was made to eat. In fact, the more a horse is out on pasture instead of in a stall, the healthier he is.
However—and this is a huge however—this can also be too much of a good thing. Spring is the time of year to watch your horse’s weight and grass consumption. New lush spring grass is full of nutrients, but also contains sugars. If your horse eats large amounts of these sugars when he’s not used to them, then he could colic or develop laminitis.
Grass laminitis, also called founder, is a very painful hoof condition that sometimes causes irreversible damage.
When spring grass starts to grow, monitor your horse’s consumption very closely so that you can limit him if your veterinarian recommends. When you do a spring horse health check, pay close attention to your horse’s weight so you notice even the slightest change moving forward. You can limit his grass consumption by only allowing him on the pasture for a few hours at a time to start, or you can fit him with a grazing muzzle to restrict his intake.
Week after week, slowly increase his access. This is especially important for horses that are “easy keepers” or who have conditions like equine metabolic syndrome or Cushing’s disease or who have had laminitis in the past. If you’re unsure how at-risk your horse is for laminitis, be sure to ask your veterinarian.
With worms, vaccines, and nutrition under control, you and your horse should be well off to start all your spring season plans after his spring health check.
This article about spring horse health appeared in the Spring 2021 issue of Young Rider magazine. Click here to subscribe!