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Horse Veterinary Care: The Complete Guide

Sharing your life with your horse is a rewarding experience, but it includes the responsibility of providing veterinary care for your equine for life. There are other aspects of horse care in addition to adequately exercising and feeding your horse that is needed to keep your horse healthy throughout his life.

Routine veterinary care for vaccinations, dental care, parasite control, grooming, and hoof care are all necessary to keep your horse healthy and in good condition. Your horse should have a complete veterinary examination once a year. Older horses around 20 years old should see a veterinarian twice a year.

Let’s look at some advice on general veterinary care for your horse and some routine veterinary preventative treatments.

Importance of veterinary care for your horse

Your horse should see a veterinarian at least once a year.  Your veterinarian’s knowledge and experience will guide you in keeping your horse happy and healthy.

Providing professional veterinary care from a licensed veterinarian is a responsibility and commitment as a horse owner.  A yearly visit for vaccines, parasite control, hoof, and dental care will address many horse’s needs, but sometimes professional care will be needed. 

Old horses and foals usually visit the veterinarian more frequently because they are prone to health issues commonly not seen in healthy adult horses.  It does not mean adult horses will always be healthy; horses can become ill and suffer an injury at any age. 

Monitor for signs of illness

Monitor your horse regularly and look for signs of illness during daily grooming and feeding times.  Generally, any disease symptoms might include a lack of appetite, diarrhea, coughing, or sneezing.  A discharge from the eyes or nose is cause for concern.  Illness will also show up as a loss of hair or itchy patches on your horse’s body.

Problems associated with the musculoskeletal system are often seen as lameness, like not putting weight on a leg, not wanting to move, or head bobbing.  When your horse shows any of these signs for more than a day or two, you should contact your veterinarian immediately.

Monitor your horse for signs of cold-like symptoms. Most diseases affecting horses will appear with symptoms similar to the common cold in humans. These symptoms are often accompanied by lethargy. Some other symptoms can include:

  • Coughing or sneezing
  • Nasal discharge
  • Discharge from the eyes
  • Lack of appetite

Call your veterinarian as soon as you spot any of these symptoms in your horse.

Inspect your horse’s coat

Your horse’s coat is often an indicator of his overall health and well-being.  A shiny coat usually indicates a horse is healthy in general.  An unhealthy or scruffy-looking coat could be cause for concern.

Some of these symptoms include:

  • Hair loss
  • Itchy patches on the skin
  • Change in coat texture
  • Dandruff
  • Failure to shed out

Treat and prevent colic

Colic is a common abdominal problem that can be extremely painful and sometimes fatal for horses. When you notice the symptoms of colic, immediately contact your vet.  Early treatment is the best thing you can do to ensure your horse has the chance of recovery and survival. 

Your veterinarian will prescribe analgesics, laxatives, rehydrating fluids. Sometimes surgery might be necessary.  You should constantly monitor your horse when he suffered a colic episode.

The most significant signs of colic are a horse trying to bite his side, increased heart rate, pawing, repeatedly lying down on the ground and rolling as well as fever.

To prevent colic, the best measures you can take are ensuring your horse has constant access to fresh, clean drinking water.  Don’t make drastic changes to your horse’s diet.  Keep the feedings the same, with no changes in food type or amount.

When horses eat large amounts of whole grain, corn, or pelleted feeds are at an increased risk for colic.


Vaccinations are the critical component of preventive medicine in horses.  Vaccines create and maintain immunity against specific diseases and are given yearly to stimulate the immune system against infection before your horse is exposed to a disease.  Several equine vaccines are routinely given to horses as the primary defense against serious infectious equine illnesses.

What vaccinations should a horse get?

Equine vaccines are listed by the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) as either core vaccines or risk-based vaccines. Core vaccines are essential vaccines that each horse should receive once a year.  All horses should get the core vaccines regardless of age: the Rabies vaccine, Encephalitis/Tetanus vaccine, and West Nile Virus vaccine.

Based on their age, most horses should also be vaccinated for respiratory diseases- Influenza, Rhinopneumonitis, and Strangles.  Risk-based vaccines are vaccines that you can choose to administer to your horse.  Here’s a list of the current vaccines that are available for horses:

  • Rabies – annual
  • VEWT/Flu/Rhino “6-way” – annual
  • Venezuelan Encephalitis
  • Eastern Encephalitis
  • Western Encephalitis
  • Tetanus
  • Influenza
  • Rhinopneumonitis
  • West Nile – annual
  • Strangles (intranasal) – annual
  • Influenza booster (Merial “Recombitek”) – six months
  • Rhinopneumonitis booster (Intervet “Prodigy”) – six months

Foals born from a vaccinated mare are generally protected against most infectious diseases for up to 6 months, as long as the foal drank from the antibody-rich mother’s milk known as colostrum within 6 hours of being born.  In this case, you should delay the vaccinations until maternal immunity has waned.  Otherwise, the vaccination could be ineffective.

Vaccinations should be given by your veterinarian or a properly trained individual.  If you administer vaccines yourself, you need to learn how to do it properly.  Use only vaccines from a reputable source who can verify that the vaccines were kept refrigerated correctly. 

There is an increased risk of adverse reactions ranging from inflammation at the injection site and fever and severe allergic reactions that can affect the entire body, like anaphylaxis when buying vaccines from untrusted suppliers.

Vaccine guidelines vary between adult horses, broodmares, foals, and horses that have never been vaccinated. Follow the AAEP guidelines for a vaccination plan. Usually, it takes several weeks after giving a vaccine for your horse to be protected, so remember to plan accordingly.

Parasite Control

Horses that graze on grass ingest parasite eggs that are found in the environment. Internal parasites of horses can cause intestinal problems, like gastrointestinal upset, diarrhea, and potentially colic. 

Intestinal parasites of horses include roundworms, large and small strongyles, tapeworms, stomach bots, and pinworms. Worms cause significant damage to the digestive tract and blood loss and interfere with the absorption of essential nutrients. Strongyles cause the most significant damage, called redworms or bloodworms, and main parasite programs are designed around strongyle control.

How often should you deworm your horse?

Appropriate deworming is becoming more strategic and should be customized to your horse’s parasite burden and environment.  The key to this is fecal testing. 

Generally, all horses should be on a deworming program that consists of a deworming treatment, generally by administering a dewormer paste every 4 to 8 weeks. 

Managing your pasture and good grooming practices are also vital aspects of parasite control.  You should periodically submit a fecal sample to your veterinarian to check for the type and number of intestinal parasites found in your horse.

Types of deworming medications

There are three types of anthelmintics/dewormers available for horses:

  • Benzimidazoles – Fenbendazole (Panacur) and Oxybendazole (Anthelcide)
  • Macrocyclic lactones – Ivermectin and Moxidectin (Quest)
  • Pyrimidines – Pyrantel (Strongid)
  • It has been suggested by some veterinarians to prevent parasites from becoming resistant to medication only to deworm your horse every six months.  Recommended using an Ivermectin product during Spring and Fall. Ivermectin is a larvicidal that will kill parasite larvae, and when used every six months on a horse, large strongyles will be also be eliminated from your pasture.  When you bring a new horse to your farm, deworm that horse immediately with Ivermectin, then stall him for four days to avoid contaminating your field. After that, implement him into your other horse’s deworming schedule.
  • Horses can develop immunity to roundworms, infection is most commonly seen in foals, and weanlings are usually immune by one year. Intestinal worms can cause significant damage to your foals, so it is vital to deworm while they are young.   Also, the eggs can persist up to 10 years in the environment, so preventing environmental contamination is crucial.  Start deworming your foal at 60 days old.
  • Unfortunately, Ivermectin has shown some treatment failure in pinworms. Researchers don’t know whether this failure is due to the resistance of parasites to Ivermectin or that the dose of Ivermectin is not effective against the worms. Pyrantel pamoate is usually adequate for pinworms.
  • Not a lot is known about tapeworm biology and transmission. Praziquantel and Pyrantel pamoate Paste, a double dose of normal Pyrantel, is effective against tapeworms.

Dental care

A horse’s teeth grow and wear down continuously throughout its life. Sometimes, they wear unevenly, leading to sharp points, edges, and even hooks that need to be trimmed down or “floated.”

Signs of Dental Problems in Horses include,

  • The reluctance to eat or chew.
  • Dropping food during eating.
  • Hesitating to take a bit and signs of a painful mouth.
  • Bad breath that is caused by tooth decay or gum disease.

Your horse will require a dental checkup with your veterinarian at least once per year; older horses need more frequent checkups. Your veterinarian will check inside your horse’s mouth for any teeth with edges and sharp points, trimming the teeth down with a file or nippers. The same as with hoof trimming, this procedure should be done by an experienced professional.

Hoof care

Caring for your horse’s hooves is an essential part of the daily grooming routine. Your horse’s hooves should be “picked” clean every day to remove manure, stones, and dirt.  The hooves should be checked for signs of bruising, discoloration, odor, or discharge. Also, check the horseshoes for wear and tear and tightness of the nails.

Sometimes hoof dressings might be needed, but you should take care and apply them appropriately.  Water-repellent dressings can be essential to keep hooves dry and healthy during wet weather.  However, overuse of emollient dressings will soften the hooves and lead to further problems. 

Apply Antifungal solutions every 1 to 2 weeks during winter and wet weather to prevent thrush. Your farrier and veterinarian can provide information on when and how frequently to treat your horse’s feet if there are any problems.

 A Horse’s hooves continuously grow and require trimming every six weeks. Horses need the training to stand still so that their hooves can be trimmed correctly and damage to the foot avoided. Your farrier or veterinarian should do hoof trimming if you do not have experience with this procedure.

Read more on how wild horses maintain their hoofs.

Horse Shoes

Applying horseshoes to your horse provides him with traction on some surfaces and helps prevent wear and tear of his hooves.  The need for horseshoes depends on certain factors, foot conformation, and health, as well as the types of surfaces your horse walks over.  Horses working on rugged and rough surfaces with tender or bruised feet require shoes for protection.

There are many kinds of corrective shoes available for particular hoof or lameness problems.  Horses with cracked hooves or splayed feet would need a barred shoe for support, while horses with other lameness issues might need a shoe that slows down or stabilizes the gait.  Veterinarians and farriers can provide more information on the type of shoes required for any particular problem.

It might seem expensive to pay for farrier visits often, but this preventative measure will keep your veterinary costs down in the long run.  A healthy horse really starts from the ground up. Issues arising from poor hoof management can cause pain and discomfort in the horse’s neck, back, and upper limbs.

Without regular hoof trimming and maintenance, your horse could also suffer from painful bruises and even potentially life-threatening abscesses.

Read more on why horses need shoes.

First Aid Kit

It is essential to have a well-stocked first-aid kit on hand in case of an emergency and for caring for wounds or scrapes that might occur during the day.  Talk to your veterinarian for their recommendations on which first aid supplies to keep in your kit. A gym bag or plastic toolbox works well for holding and carrying your first aid supplies.


There are several nutrients your horse needs, like protein, minerals, and vitamins. The specific amounts for each of these nutrients will depend mainly on the horse’s weight, activity level or, physiologic status. 

Commercial horse feeds tend to be variable in many minerals and is usually low in sodium and chloride (salt). It is recommended all horses be offered some kind of salt supplement, like a salt block.

Minerals are inorganic nutrients that your horse needs.  Horses require several minerals for a variety of functional needs, including skeletal integrity and cellular communication.

The primary essential minerals include:

  • Calcium (Ca)
  • Phosphorus (P)
  • Magnesium (Mg)
  • Sodium (Na)
  • Chloride (Cl)
  • Potassium (K)
  • Sulfur (S)

Trace minerals are minerals your horse needs in a smaller amount. The essential trace minerals include:

  • Iron (Fe)
  • Zinc (Zn)
  • Copper (Cu)
  • Selenium (Se)
  • Manganese (Mn)
  • Iodine (I)
  • Cobalt (Co

Vitamins are organic compounds that all horses need in minimal amounts.

These are fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K) and water-soluble vitamins (C and B-complex). The Nutrient Requirements of Horses lists estimate a daily need for vitamins A, D, E, and B-vitamins (thiamin and riboflavin).  Vitamins play a significant role in normal metabolism; supplementing vitamins may prove advantageous in some cases.

The horse is unique concerning some of its vitamin requirements. The microbes located within the horse’s large intestine can synthesize the B complex vitamins and vitamin K.  The microbes can do this in quantities sufficient to meet most horse’s needs.  Deficiencies of these vitamins are very rare in horses.

Preventative plans

Horse veterinary care is costly, mainly because treating big animals like horses requires larger doses of medications and specialized machines to be effective. 

Try to be proactive about calling your vet as soon as you notice a problem. It can help you catch problems early before they progress into something more severe and can save you money in the long run.

Get a preventative care insurance program.  Most horse veterinarians offer bundled veterinary care options plans to help minimize surgery costs or other unexpected procedures. These plans can be a financial lifesaver should a medical emergency come up unexpectedly.

Your veterinarian can also offer a payment option plan that can help you pay for high-cost procedures over some time.


Sometimes certain circumstances are sure to arise that will make you question if you need to take your horse to the veterinarian or have the veterinarian come to your horse.  An emergency situation can occur at any time. 

All horse owners have learned the hard way that a rope can cause a broken bone and that fence posts can pierce flesh, and potholes are dangerous.  It doesn’t matter whether the injury appears to be catastrophic or minor, instead make an emergency phone call to your veterinarian to see what he recommends. 

The same applies to any symptoms of illness. I am sure your vet would rather have you overreact with a late-night phone call than learn that your horse died in the morning.

Your horse depends on your commitment and care.  You show your love through grooming, riding, and providing proper veterinary care.

Other articles in this series:

Horse Living Environments: A Comprehensive Guide
Feeding Your Horse: A Comprehensive Guide
How To Groom Your Horse: The Ultimate Guide
Horse Diseases and Ailments: A Beginners Guide