ArtsAutosBooksBusinessEducationEntertainmentFamilyFashionFoodGamesGenderHealthHolidaysHomeHubPagesPersonal FinancePetsPoliticsReligionSportsTechnologyTravel

Common Horse Ailments

Updated on January 19, 2012

Horse Health and Disease

Horses are large, but surprisingly fragile creatures. They can and do get sick, and even a casual rider should learn to recognize the signs of some of the most common ailments and illnesses of the horse.

It's wise to know when a horse might legitimately not feel up to being ridden that day and also whether an illness might be contagious to other horses - or even to humans.


Colic is not a disease but a symptom. It refers to stomach pain, which can be quite serious in the horse.

There are two kinds of colic - gas colic and impaction colic. Gas colic is just what it sounds like - the animal has extremely painful gas. A horse suffering from gas colic can easily be treated with a mild painkiller and by encouraging it to walk and move around.

Impaction colic is when the horse's intestine becomes blocked. One common cause is sand ingestion. Horses kept on sandy soil need to be given a supplement that prevents the sand from building up and helps keep it moving through their system. It is impossible to prevent horses from ingesting some sand and soil when grazing. A 'twist' is when the intestine ends up doubling over itself, often as a result of reaction to pain such as extreme rolling. In many cases horses with a twist die or have to be euthanized. Impaction colic often requires expensive surgery that does not always work.

Signs of colic in a horse include the violent rolling previously mentioned, but the first signs are milder. A colicing horse will look at its own stomach and possibly kick up towards its belly. A stethoscope will reveal an absence of normal gut noises, especially if there is an impaction.

Mares about to go into labor may also show similar behavior and some mares appear to experience 'colic' when they are in heat.


Lameness is, of course, a catchall term for any injury, illness or complaint that causes a horse to limp or become uneven in its gait. In some regions the word 'off' is used, especially if the lameness is minor.

It is normal for a horse, when standing at ease, to rest one hind leg by lifting it so that only the toe of the hoof touches the ground. Although horses do not do this all the time, they tend to do it when particularly relaxed. However, a sound horse will never rest a front leg - this is always a sign of lameness.

The most common causes of lameness are:

1. A bruised sole. The area under a horse's hoof is somewhat prone to bruising. Shod horses may get a stone or other foreign object caught under the rim of the shoe, which can cause a bruise if it is not removed quickly enough.

2. Arthritis. Older horses that have had long working lives often get arthritis, just the same as older people do. This is generally treated with supplementation and pain medication. Arthritic horses benefit from regular light work carrying a smaller rider.

3. Hoof abscesses. Sometimes a horse can develop an abscess under the hoof. These abscesses can be extremely painful, but in most cases the horse recovers quickly once the abscess has burst. Treatment often involves encouraging it to do so and drawing out the infectious material. Severe abscesses may have to be treated by cutting away part of the hoof.

4. Cuts, bruises, etc. Horses can cut themselves on, well...they'll find something, trust me. Some cuts may not cause lameness, but others might.

5. Laminitis. An inflammation of the soft tissue between the hoof and the bones of the foot, laminitis can be serious and can even result in euthanasia. It is most commonly associated with obesity, but 'road founder' - laminitis from wear and tear is also known.

6. Breaks or fractures. Broken bones are no longer a death sentence in all cases, but they can be very serious. In some cases, horses do need surgery. Some horses do make a full recovery. Others may never be sound again. Each case is different.

An experienced rider can spot (although not necessarily diagnose) lameness very quickly, even if it is very slight. It is possible to learn to feel that the horse's gait is off or uneven, indicating that one leg is being favored. Some riders can even tell the difference between lameness in the foot and higher up the leg.

Severe lameness may be visible in the walk or show itself in a refusal to stand square. Horses with laminitis, which generally affects both fore limbs equally, may show a distinctive 'pointing' stance, attempting to carry all of their weight on their hind limbs. Lame horses may also lie down more often.

Back Problems

Very subtle lameness can be a sign that the problem is not in the legs but in the back (or even the tail, believe it or not). Back problems, therefore, may manifest as a slight hind end lameness visible only when the horse is ridden.

Back issues may also reveal themselves in the following ways:

1. A trained horse suddenly starts to go on the forehand and appears 'off balance'.

2. The horse refuses to canter on one specific lead, possibly also showing a reluctance to bend properly in the same direction.

3. The horse may become 'cold backed', attempting to drop its back away from the saddle when it is put on and/or the rider when they mount. Some horses may remain cold backed even after the back problem has been resolved.

4. The horse may refuse to be saddled or girthed.

5. The horse may demonstrate aggressive behavior when groomed or tacked up.

Bear in mind that some mares may demonstrate both #4 and #5 when in heat.

Just like in humans, equine back problems are generally treated by a chiropractor. In some cases the chiropractor may also look at the horse's rider as it is possible for one of the pair to throw the other 'out'.

Respiratory Diseases

Horses can and do get both 'colds' and influenza. Equine influenza cases are relatively rare as it is now routine to vaccinate against the virus. Like humans, horses need their flu shots once a year.

The equine 'cold' is the EHV virus. (A more severe form of EHV is known that infects a horse's nervous system and can cause paralysis and death). In parts of Europe a disease called equine viral arteritis is endemic. It has similar symptoms to a cold or the flu.

A horse who has a cold or the flu will show similar symptoms to a human with the same disease. Affected horses cough frequently and show a thick, milky nasal discharge. Horses with the flu may also run a temperature (if they get body aches, they can't tell us, but it wouldn't surprise me). The animal's body language will also reflect how he probably feels - miserable.

Mares that get a respiratory disease are at high risk of losing their foal if in the early stages of pregnancy.

Treatment is symptomatic. Yes, there is such a thing as cough syrup for horses. Sinus issues can be treated by 'steaming' - put a handful of hay in the bottom of a water bucket, pour boiling water over it and hold the horse's nose over it until the water cools. (Incidentally, this works for humans too. Yes, I've tried it).

If the horse loses its appetite, tempt it with a warm bran mash or by mixing molasses or unsweetened applesauce with its food.

Do not handle other horses if you are nursing a horse with a respiratory complaint and keep it in isolation - these diseases are very contagious.


Strangles is a generally non-fatal but particularly nasty disease. There is a vaccine, but it is not 100% effective (it is effective enough to make it worth giving it to your horse, however).

The distinctive symptom of strangles is swollen lymph nodes, particularly in the neck. (It's called strangles because the swollen nodes mess with the horse's voice box and make its breathing sound awful). The swollen nodes then form abscesses. A dangerous variant, bastard strangles, can spread into the internal organs and kill the horse.

Strangles is caused by one of two species of streptococcus bacteria (in other words it is basically equine strep). One of the two species can infect humans. Fortunately, this is by far the rarer of the two, but just in case, it's advisable to wear disposable gloves when handling a horse diagnosed with strangles.

Antibiotics are sometimes used, although studies indicate they are only effective if the disease is caught early, before the lymph nodes start to swell. At that point, treatment is supportive. Warm packs are often used to encourage the abscesses to burst and in some cases, the vet may lance them. Once the abscesses burst, the area needs to be kept very clean until it is healed. Most horses recover in a couple of weeks.

Strangles disproportionately affects horses between one and five years of age.

Fungal Infections

Horses are prone to two specific fungal infections:

1. Thrush. In horses, the most common site for thrush infection is the sole of the foot under the hoof. As a result, it causes lameness, and is definitively diagnosed by a foul smell coming from the foot and the sole appearing 'soft'.

2. Ringworm. This infects the skin and causes the hair to fall out of circular patches that then expand into distinctive 'rings', with the hair returning faster in the center.

Both are treated with fungicidal medications. Both can be passed on to humans - a horse with a fungal infection should only be handled wearing disposable gloves. Trust me. You don't want either of them. Yes, I speak from experience.


The bacteria that causes tetanus loves stables. Absolutely adores them.

Horses need to be vaccinated against tetanus every two years. Humans need a booster every ten years. Anyone who rides should be extra careful not to miss a tetanus booster, as this disease can easily be fatal.

Equine Infectious Anemia

This nasty virus is endemic in the Americas, some parts of Europe, the middle and far east, Russia and South Africa. It does not exist in northern Europe or Britain.

It is a similar virus to HIV, and like AIDS, there is no cure for EIA. There is a vaccine, but it is currently only available in China. The virus is transmitted by certain flies (meaning fly control is the best way to prevent your horse from catching the disease, at least until a vaccine becomes available). EIA can also be tested for by the 'Coggins' test. In the US, negative Coggins is required for a horse to be shown, transported interstate or sold at auction, and many boarding barns require one before the horse is moved onto the property.

Some horses can carry the virus and never show symptoms. Symptoms, when they do occur, include weight loss, anemia and depression (and yes, horses do get depressed). There is no cure for the virus and infected horses have to be kept 200 yards from all other equines for the rest of their lives. Because of this, most EIA positive horses are euthanized even if they show no symptoms.


    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    • jenniferrpovey profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago

      Grass sickness usually presents with severe colic symptoms.

      My first thought - and I'm not a vet - is to ask if this gelding is overweight and/or a pony/draft cross? If so, check his digital pulse - it could be mild laminitis.

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      It seems my gelding has gotten into something in the pasture. He is lethargic and laying down all day with loss of appetite. THis does not seem to be colic as there are no obvious signs of pain or distress. The other two horses in the pasture are fine. Grass disease?

    • jenniferrpovey profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago

      Lock him in at dawn and dusk and close the doors and windows. Use a DEET-based insect repellent.

      That's all I know...I've heard some essential oils can help, but don't know much about that.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      I have no idea but it does work. I knew an old woman a long time ago who use to keep Goats.One of my pet lambs had eated Yew. I asked her what to do and she told me what to do with the coffee. It did work. We have tried it on Cattle as well as horses. I wouldn't say it would work on a twisted gut but if you could catch it in time you may have a chance.

      Any tips for sweet itch? I have an andalusian Stallion who is prone to it. Seemed to have tried everything. He is stabled and has a yard to go in and this year my husband is building a sand paddock for him. I do not graze him outside due to the fact I have only just got him and he has always been stabled. Too much temptation for him to go stupid and try to jump the fences to get to next doors mares. im trying a rug Ive just got from the USA, Spring comes early in Ireland and the midges are out.

    • jenniferrpovey profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago

      Two good ones I forgot. And I also just remembered that I forgot choke, too. And mud fever. And sweet itch.

      *makes notes for a future hub*.

      How does the coffee thing work, Robbs?

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      If you think your horse has ate Ragwortor anything that may be poison to him, use a full jar of instant coffee, dilute with warm water and give him a drench with the mixture.

      Also if your horse suffers from 'Rain Scald or mud rash, cover him in Vegetable cooking oil. This will waterproof his skin.

      Works for my horses


    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at:

    Show Details
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the or domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)