Vaccinations, parasite control, conditioning, and hoof and tooth work should all be on the spring health checklist of horse owners.

Large numbers of horses are congregating these days for spring shows, competitions, and socializing; some of them will bring disease-producing organisms to the events. The best disease protection is a good vaccination program by a veterinarian. Most vaccines require an initial injection followed by a booster within 4 to 6 weeks for maximum protection. The vaccinated horse must be healthy at time of vaccination, the vaccine must be properly refrigerated before it is administered, and the vaccine must be properly injected into the muscle of the horse.

Horses should be exercised only lightly for 3 to 5 days following vaccination, as many will be stiff, sore, or have swelling similar to the "normal" vaccination reaction many humans experience. A veterinarian will choose what vaccines are best, depending on the horse’s age, use, exposure to other horses, and vaccination history.

New vaccines are making life simpler for everyone. Combined vaccines that include coverage for up to five of the most common equine diseases reduce the number of "shots" a horse needs. Intranasal vaccines for influenza and strangles are proving popular and effective; most horses are quite willing to accept them, but some are not thrilled about having them squirted up their nose.

All injectables should be given before giving the strangles spray vaccine to reduce the risk of strep abscesses at the site of injections. Because vaccinations require some time to take effect, the horse will not have immunity immediately after a vaccination. Allow two weeks after vaccination before exposing the horse to other horses that may be carrying a disease.

It is most important to vaccinate against tetanus; the vaccine is effective and safe and has minimal side effects. The Eastern and Western Encephalomyelitis vaccine provides protection against the most common forms of sleeping sickness. Influenza and Rhinopneumonitis are the most common respiratory diseases in horses; boosters every three months may be needed to sustain an adequate level of protection for these two diseases. Vaccines for these five diseases are currently available combined in a single injection.

A rabies vaccine is used more and more often in horses. Rabies is a viral disease of warm-blooded mammals that is universally fatal once symptoms appear. Horses are frequently bitten on the nose due to their curiosity, so the site of infection is uncommonly close to the brain, where the virus causes its damage. Rabies vaccine in horses is given annually.

Other diseases for which vaccines are available include Potomac Horse Fever and Equine Viral Arteritis. Usage depends on risk of exposure. New vaccines are constantly being developed. A veterinarian should provide advice on which ones are appropriate.

Horses should be checked for internal parasites and dewormed as needed. A parasite burden places horses’ health at risk and reduces their level of performance. A veterinarian can check a fecal sample and lay out a treatment program specific to the horse’s activities. A deworming program may be continual or periodic. If drugs are rotated, families of drugs–not just brand names–should be changed.

Trimming of feet and shoeing may be needed depending on the horses’ hooves and anticipated use. It is wise to schedule farrier appointments in advance. Most horses need reset about every 6 weeks to avoid excessive changes in hoof length or shape. If it looks like the horse needs to be reset, it’s probably too late.

Conditioning is often delayed until nice weather; then horses are worked too hard for the shape they are in. Exercise under saddle at least four times a week gets both horse and rider in shape and reduces after-exercise soreness that results when horses and riders are only weekend warriors.

The best conditioning is job specific. If the horse is a riding horse, ride it to condition it. Ponying, lunging, or other forms are poor substitutes for actual riding. Having a horse in the best physical shape possible at the start of the season goes a long way toward preventing lameness or health problems later.

Horses should receive a dental exam once or twice a year. Any abnormalities or age-related problems should be corrected. Retained caps, wolf teeth, and lack of even wear are issues that may need attention. More and more veterinarians are becoming involved in performing good equine dentistry. In Illinois it is illegal for anyone not a veterinarian to administer drugs to horses or to perform dental procedures on them unless they are under the direct supervision of a veterinarian.

Contributed By: Dr. R. D. Scoggins, Retired
University of Illinois / College of Veterinary Medicine

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