What is Wrong with my Horse?

Managing horses is like riding a roller coaster. With highs, lows, twists, and turns, maintaining healthy, functional animals can be a challenge on a good day. Then we factor in our own riding goals and begin to juggle. A friend of mine jokingly nailed it on the head when she decided that owning horses and riding them were two completely different sports. That being said, we have devoted passion for our animals and this all consuming life style. With a mission to grow as riders and horsemen, our horses become a source of fulfillment and drive.

With this established, I want to talk about what to do when the horse’s health goes sideways, and we don’t know how to fix it. For those who are familiar with the sinking pit in your stomach, paired with the sense of entrapment and a blank page where answers should be, I feel for you. For those fortunate enough not to relate to this feeling, it stems from watching your horse’s body condition deteriorate before you whilst you feed him everything and your soul. It stems from anxiously transitioning into a trot to find that after months, he is still lame. Or my personal flavor, it stems from watching his mind deteriorate as he becomes a danger to himself and those around him.

To summarize this picture, it’s a manager’s greatest fear to have the horse’s health decline and not be able to stop it. For anyone dealing with this, know that you are not alone, and you are not trapped. With an organized process, plenty of humility, and a focused effort, you can deal with the mysteriously unhealthy horse.

Know Your Role

Notice that thus far, I’ve labeled us managers, and not owners. Whether you’re a professional or an amateur, run a 30 horse operation, or board one horse, you provide for the horse, make decisions for the horse, and arrange care for the horse. Particularly when dealing with a clinical case, you must step up to be the manager over your horse’s situation.

Get Organized

Have a Mission

Now it’s time to organize. We first need to clarify our mission. While this may seem unnecessary, we’re starting down a potentially long road of diagnostics and treatment, dealing with different vets and experts who have varying perspectives on the value of the horse and your drive to get him well. It is important to be clear.

“Taffy is my 22 year old heart horse who’s losing weight and musculature at an alarming rate. My goal is for her to be comfortable, stable, and in healthy body condition. I would like to ride her again, but if she needs to be retired, I am prepared for that.”

“Rocket is a 7 year old hunter who has been unsound for a month now, and we can’t pinpoint why. I am willing to invest time and X amount of dollars to get him sound, but my goal is to compete this year. I need to get an idea whether or not to lease another horse while Rocket heals.”

“Twister is a 15 year old lesson pony who is foundering. He will likely not be serviceable to my program again, and I have a limited budget to stabilize his comfort at x amount of dollars for 6 months. I need to weigh my options.”

These are three very different situations. When we are clear with ourselves and experts involved about expectation, end goal, and the reality of our resources, subsequent decisions become more straight forward.

Grasp the Urgency

When dealing with any health problem, we should always have an understanding for the level of urgency the situation calls for. This understanding will lead you down one of two paths.

The Stable Horse

On one hand, it will give you room to breathe, make thoughtful connections and decisions, and allow you time to create a baseline for unsoundness. This baseline could be a time period where you remove all unnecessary pressure from the horse to better grasp the problem at hand. If you have an lameness problem, this might mean taking time without training to see what comes from a rested horse and work up a diagnostic plan. In a horse with stagnantly poor body condition, this gives you time to remove unnecessary stress, evaluate the horse in his environment, and come up with a plan before trying new nutritional aspects. Time is valuable, and if the horse’s clinical urgency allows, take advantage of it.

The Unstable Horse

On the other hand, know when time is not in your favor. An unstable horse changes the dynamic of the diagnostic process. Quick disclaimer, and sorry for the intensity of the following paragraph, but this is where the warm and fuzzy feelings must subside. Emotion must be placed on a back burner to the horse’s wellness.  

Off the bat, a horse in rapidly declining health is likely to have a systemic problem. As managers, we need to know our finances and our ability to care for this horse in the case that he is no longer service-ably sound post treatment. Ask yourself this— “If I can’t ride him, sell him, or give him to someone who can use him kindly after getting through this, can I afford to keep him?” This is a hard question, but a real one. Be honest with yourself, as the decisions that follow will be streamlined, and humane management will be maximized.

The next aspect in grasping an urgent situation I can only explain through my experience. When the horse is unstable, manage him on a short rein. In 2018, I had a wonderful thoroughbred who took an unexplained turn for the worse. He became hot, aggressive, and dangerous in a short amount of time. We ran every diagnostic test you might imagine with no luck in pinpointing the problem. My only regret with this horse is that I managed him on too long a rein. I thought he was stable enough for his environment, and on March 7th, 2018, he killed another horse in his pasture. Now, had I managed the situation with more caution, we still may not have found the answers, but it would have prevented a tragedy, and he would have had a longer timeline to try.

Friends, I urge you in unstable situations, whether it be aggression, unsoundness, or a horse in systemic decline, manage them on a short rein. Keep your eyes open, ask tough questions, and be prepared for an emergency. You would rather be overly cautious, and you would rather be a day early than a day late.

Create a Timeline & have a Baseline for Unsoundness

When organizing the horse’s case, it’s important to have the relevant history and clinical progress readily available to look back on. When you bring the horse to a vet, they have a blank canvas to cover. By having a chronological outline of the horse’s symptoms, environment changes, training program, diet, ongoing management, and diagnostic work, you have sketched an picture for the vets to color in. Have baseline photos, videos, and descriptions. Also make sure to document the initial clinical state to refer back to as the horse undergoes treatment.

This type of outline allows us to stay on track with our mission, keeps us focused in carrying out treatment plans, and gives us a way to track the horse’s progress over an extended period of time. On the veterinarian’s end, it gives them freedom to review the horse’s case, consult easily with other vets involved, and get third party opinions without us having to be in the middle. Essentially, outlines facilitate progress.

Borrowing Knowledge

Where Humility meets Reserving the Right

A mentor of mine once told me that the best manager will surround herself with people who are better than her in their perspective fields. This way all she has to do is steer the ship. This is the mindset we should take when managing a horse’s case. Veterinarians are capable, knowledge professionals who have a great understanding the medical needs of the horse we bring to them. This is where we must play a balancing act of humility and reserving the right to be the decision maker.

It’s safe to say that when working with a vet to diagnose a horse, the vet knows more than we do. That being said, in a prolonged process to try and pinpoint the problem, we are both wearing question marks to some extent. Here, I “reserve the right” over three things—


This is a pretty loose point, and when we are organized managers it rarely becomes a concern. Just make sure to communicate with your vet what your mission is for the case. Share your outline and help them understand what you are financially capable of. Make sure they know what type of management you are capable of as well. It will help them shape treatment plans from the get go.


A lesson I’ve learned the hard way. It’s ok to have limits. It doesn’t make you a bad horse owner. In fact, knowing your financial limits gives way to responsible decision making and streamlined treatment for the horse. Never be afraid to step in and say so.

I recently took a horse to the clinic for recurrent colic/ty-up behavior. We had plans to muscle biopsy to address a potential PSSM diagnosis. Upon arrival, my vet suggested we scope the gelding first just to rule out gastric ulcers. It was to my surprise, as we had already discussed the outline of his symptoms and ruled that ulcers were unlikely. So I clarified my situation.

“I have a sensitive thoroughbred and I am following a budget. If we think ulcers may be the problem, I want to hold off on a fairly invasive muscle biopsy. If we think PSSM is the culprit, I don’t want to irritate the horse’s stomach and invest the finances in scoping. If we get it wrong and need to go the other route down the road, that’s doable, but let’s start with diagnostics that have the most potential, then invest down the road if we need to.” This situation worked well because I was organized, knew my financial limits, and the horse was stable, so there was no need to rush the process.

Adding People to the Team

Never be afraid to add people to the team. When trying to trouble shoot health problems, different perspectives can be life savers. When you hit a wall, turn, consult with someone who specializes, or ask your vet who they would be comfortable consulting with. If the horse has unexplained lameness, see if an internist can see potential for a systemic problem by talking to your vet and looking at your outline.

This concept is pretty simple, and most vets will be receptive to different perspectives. But be aware if diagnostics become prolonged, and you begin to feel trapped. This feeling may sprout when you start repeating diagnostic work as a vet hits a wall in their own process. Pride is usually pushed aside at this point, but make sure that it does. New people, thoughts, and ideas should respectfully be welcomed in the interest of the horse’s wellness.


To Wrap Up

So, to all those who deal with diagnostic riddles, you are not alone. You are not trapped. Personally, dealing with cases of head scratching health problems has been no doubt the most trying aspect of horse ownership and barn management. However, the experiences develop us as horsemen. Professional management style, a tactful eye, and empathetic handling are all fruits of stepping up to this challenge.

Having a process for managing these cases makes a world of difference for the horse and the person. Knowing the role as case manager, addressing the horse’s state of urgency, summarizing the case at hand, and guiding a team of people who support the mission to help the horse will be the name of the game.


“Strength doesn’t come from what you can do, it comes from overcoming the things you once thought you couldn’t.”

~ Rikki Rogers




2 Comments on “What is Wrong with my Horse?

  1. I really liked your article, as a horse owner who has had to deal with a multitude of issues over the years. I want to say something that is important to me and that is regarding teeth. I have seen and heard of countless horses ruined by the use of power tools in their mouth. I work with an equine orthodontist/bodyworker who has told stories for years of what power tools do to a horse’s mouth. It can make them lame, aggressive, body sore, unbalanced, unride-able, and because it is the last thing anyone thinks about, it is the least checked item in horses. People have no idea about this. When you can’t find a reason for lameness, it can be teeth. When you can’t find a reason for body soreness issues, shortened muscles, unbalanced gaits, it can be bad teeth floating. And the real problem is that most vets don’t have a clue. The orthodontist I use is Tom Howell from Indiana. He has a dental school to train proper floating techniques. I suggest you contact him so that you can understand and add to your arsenal of knowledge about caring for horses. Your article was terrific, and I will pass it on.


  2. Pingback: FERDINAND. Recognizing Heros in horsemanship – The Well Horse

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