"Look at health care as a year-round cycle and not based on an event," said Liv Sandberg, UW-Madison Extension equine specialist. "Sometimes it's too late if you only call a vet for an emergency."
Looking ahead to spring, Sandberg cautioned horse owners to keep an eye on pastures. Many places in the state experienced a hard drought and pastures were likely overgrazed.
"Most of the forage specialists believe we'll see more weeds this spring because of conditions last year," she said. "And be aware of toxic weeds coming into pastures and hay fields too. You'll need to be on the forefront of weed control this spring."
Related to spring pastures and feeding is body condition scoring. Guides are available online to help horse owners learn how to do body condition scores. A growing issue is obesity in horses, and learning how to detect changes in the way a horse looks can head off trouble later.
"The guides show you where to look for fatty deposits and assign a number to the condition," Sandberg said. "When you see your horses every day it's sometimes hard to notice gradual changes. Learning how to body condition score is also a way to communicate good information with a vet."
Exercise is important to the health of horses. Routinely working with your horses provides needed exercise and creates the opportunity to know how the animal moves and behaves. Knowing normal movement and behavior is a key to noticing a change, she said.
Body temperature, pulse and respiration all offer clues to horse health. A normal temperature is about 100 degrees; 40 beats per minute is a good pulse as a rule of thumb. A horse at rest should breath about 12 times a minute.
"Taking a temperature is something you can learn to do yourself. And it's a good thing to practice so it's not a big thing for you or the horse," Sandberg said. "Keep in mind that temperatures can vary on a hot day or if your horse is exercising. Taking its temperature once in a while helps you learn what is normal for your horse."
Learning how to take a pulse on your horse is another thing owners can learn to do, she added. The best way is with a stethoscope applied to the horse's side just behind the elbow. "The pulse is very soft and low but with some practice you can learn how," she said.
If you don't have a stethoscope, there is a small vein right under the mandible. Find the vein with a finger and press gently until the pulse is felt. Again, the technique may take practice, but it's a great thing to know, Sandberg said.
Respiration rate is a way to monitor lung and breathing health. It's as simple as holding the back of your hand close to a nostril and counting the times you feel the horse exhale.
"If you find yourself in a spot where you have to call a veterinarian, you'll be able to communicate this information right away if you know how to do a few basic things," Sandberg said.
Another key to horse health is found in its mouth. Mucus membranes and the gums around the teeth should be pink. Bright red flesh can indicate infection and dental issues and pale- or gray-colored flesh also indicates something is wrong, she said. Press your finger into the gums around the teeth and the pink color should pop back right away, which indicates circulation is good in the area.
"Horse owners should all know how to do the skin pinch test to see if the animal is dehydrated," Sandberg said. "Pinch the skin on the horse's body into a tent shape. When you release, the skin should snap back to normal. If it stays tented up, your horse may be dehydrated."
Keep an eye on how often and how much the horse defecates and urinates. Changes in volume, color, consistency and smell can indicate something isn't working.
"Listen for gut sounds," Sandberg said. "You should hear gut sounds every 15 to 30 seconds. If you don't hear anything or if it's churning constantly there may be a problem," she said.
Discharges from eyes or nostrils also are indications something has changed or isn't right. Bright eyes and clear nostrils are signs of a healthy horse.
"Being able to relay this kind of information to a vet can really save a lot of time and may help your horse in case a vet is needed," she said.
Last but not least, Sandberg encouraged horse owners to keep records. If you take the time to look your animal over completely, keep a record of the observations, she said. Just like body condition scoring, it's sometimes hard to detect small changes over time.