At an evening talk about bits and bitting that I attended recently, the speaker mentioned how important all the usual health checks were, before you assess the suitability of the horse’s bit. Whether your horse is a leisure ride who takes you a few miles at the weekend, or an athlete who is in full work, looking after their overall health will improve their welfare and their longevity, and could reduce your vet bills too.

Nutrition
You’re already aware of the important of this factor if you’re a regular reader. Ensuring your horse has a balanced diet is the only way to avoid deficiency symptoms and keep your horse healthy and able to exercise. Make sure you add enough vitamins and minerals, especially to overweight horses or ponies on restricted diets. Don’t overfeed concentrate feed and ensure you feed appropriate forage so you can feed plenty of it. Choose therapeutic supplements only after you’ve balanced the diet for essential nutrients, when they can help with health issues such as itchy skin, joint stiffness, respiratory irritation and poor hoof growth.

Reread the blog Simplifying feeding to help you get your horse’s nutrition just right.

Feet
‘No foot no horse’ is very true, and there is no point in an otherwise healthy horse if their feet are unhealthy. Correct nutrition will ensure good horn growth and strong laminar attachment. Regular and balanced trimming and shoeing (if necessary), an environment with a dry area and plenty of exercise and the other factors important for hoof health. External products that help keep hooves healthy are useful if your horse’s environment is less than ideal e.g. long periods of stabling or very wet ground.

Teeth
Horses are prone to sharp edges on their teeth due to the way they continually grow and their chewing action. Good dental care is essential for a horse who is comfortable enough to accept a bridle (bitted or bitless) and so that the horse gets all the nutrients out of his feed. Annual checks with a skilled vet or qualified dental technician are necessary, or six-monthly if your horse has problems. Older horses lose the rough chewing surfaces of their teeth and can eventually lose teeth altogether and need specialist diets after that time.

Domesticated horses need regular dental attention to keep their teeth healthy.

Parasite control
Strategic parasite control ensures good health and it’s no longer recommended to simply deworm every 6 or 12 weeks. Use faecal egg counts and either blood tests or strategic deworming for parasites that don’t show up in the egg counts (ask your vet for more details). Read more about horse parasites and how to control them at the University of Liverpool.

Back and musculoskeletal system
Healthy horses and ponies can carry riders without a problem, but they should have their musculoskeletal systems – and especially their backs – checked regularly by a qualified person. Chartered physiotherapists who have trained to treat animals are useful because they can use a variety of treatments including massage, manipulation and machines such as ultrasound. Organise at least annual checks or more regular for horses in hard work or those with problems.

Lifestyle
Horses are social, herd animals who are healthiest if given space to roam and a trickle-feeding type of diet. If you have to stable your horse, bear this in mind and ensure they can see others (and ideally touch them), go no longer than 4 hours without forage, and have some type of exercise daily. Try to manage your horse so they live out and then come in if necessary, rather than being stabled and going out if they are lucky.

Horses are social, herd animals who are healthiest given space to roam.

Response to training
Horses are prey animals and are naturally wary of confinement and pressure. They are able to learn complex things but need a great deal of patience and skill of timing if they are to remain confident and relaxed about their training. Try to see life from their point of view (as a prey animal) rather than from ours (a natural predator).

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About Clare MacLeod

Clare MacLeod MSc RNutr is one of the UK’s few registered independent equine nutritionists who also has expertise in health and fitness. She advises private and commercial clients in all sectors of the horse world and is a hands-on horse owner herself. Clare is passionate about correct nutrition as a foundation for good health, without which peak fitness is not possible. She states “Good nutrition isn’t everything, but there’s nothing without it”.