What to Know Before Starting a Horse Rescue

Getting a rescue up and running—and keeping it that way—takes more than the desire to save skinny horses. Here are some practical points to ponder.

starting a horse rescue

Heart-wrenching images of horses that have been starved, abused, neglected, or shipped to slaughter are hard to ignore, and sometimes the pictures are enough to get equestrians thinking about starting a horse rescue of their own.

But getting a rescue up and running—and keeping it that way—takes more than a desire to save skinny horses. Here are some practical points to ponder.

It’s a business.

Failing to approach rescues as business operations is one of the reasons many falter, said Nicole Maubert Walukewicz, founder the Palmetto Equine Awareness and Rescue League, in Anderson, South Carolina.

Having a business plan is key.

“You have to know exactly what you’re going to do—rescue horses, buy from kill pens, work with law enforcement, accept surrenders, educate the public—and whether or not you intend to do all of them or just one or two,” she said.

A business plan should also include registering the rescue as a corporation with the Secretary of State in the state or commonwealth where the organization will be based. Though state laws vary, they generally require choosing a corporate name and filing articles of incorporation that include an in-depth description of the business, the names of corporate officers (usually a president, vice president, and treasurer), and officers’ responsibilities. State filings might also include whether the corporation will operate as a for-profit or nonprofit entity.

IRS nonprofit status helps.

Rescues that also file for federal 501(c)(3) nonprofit status with the U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS) have distinct advantages.

“You can raise funds from donors nationwide,” Walukewicz says, noting that some donations might be tax deductible for the giver. “Also, some prospective contributors shy away from supporting rescues that do not have federal nonprofit status because they don’t view those organizations as legitimate.”

To obtain 501(c)(3) status, rescue operators must complete and submit IRS documents that require a detailed description of the corporation, what it intends to accomplish, and how it intends to do so. Paperwork must also include bylaws—rules governing the business—articles of incorporation, officers and their duties, and as a list of the organization’s board of directors. Directors need not include individuals with specific professional credentials, but they must include at least a president, vice president, secretary, and treasurer.

It takes more money than you think.

Rehabbing horses—even just one—isn’t an inexpensive endeavor. It typically requires more than the recurring expenses for feed, veterinary and farrier services, and routine barn supplies.

“I estimate about $400 to $500 to catch up on basic vet care, another $200 to $400 for multiple farrier visits to get hooves back in shape, and between $100 and $200 a month in feed (per horse),” says Jenn Williams, PhD, executive director of the Bluebonnet Equine Humane Society, in College Station, Texas, and author of How to Start and Run a Rescue. “Plus, most of the horses will need training, between $700 and $1,000 per month, to make the horse adoptable.”

You need space.

According to most basic equine minimum care standards, one pasture-supported horse requires at least an acre to roam and graze. But rescue operators need enough space to quarantine new arrivals until Coggins and other blood testing are complete, contagious conditions cured, and newcomers back on their feet.

“Also, these horses are devastated and don’t have a lot of fight in them, so you can’t put them in a herd with other horses” Walukewicz said.

It’s hard work.

Horse rescue operators are very invested in both time and money, said Erin Clemm Ochoa, chief executive officer of Days End Farm Horse Rescue, in Woodbine, Maryland.

“They don’t take family vacations,” she said. “They are involved in running the organization every day.”

You must be willing to do the tough things.

The unfortunate reality is not every horse you rescue can be saved. Prospective rescue operators must be willing to euthanize horses that are too ill, too old, or in too much pain to rehabilitate.

“You have to ask yourself if the investment in time and money to maintain this horse will prevent three other horses from coming into the rescue and getting help from the rescue,” Ochoa said.

You’re probably going to burn out.

Even the most level-headed rescue operator can eventually be overcome by the challenges of operating the organization and raising funds to keep it viable.

“So, you need an exit plan,” Walukewicz advised.

Decide how many horses you plan to help and, when you reach that goal, consider whether you need to step aside, she said. It might be time for someone else to take the reins.

If you’re still enjoying the work, set new goals. When you reach them, once again ask yourself if this is the job for you.

The Bottom Line

Setting up and running a rescue effectively is costly, time-consuming, and difficult. The good news is that, even if establishing one isn’t in the cards, you can assist an existing one and still help horses in need.

“I think you have a lot better standing if you can say, ‘Our organization represents 1,000 horse lovers in this area’ than if you say, ‘I’m with ABC rescue, and we’re a group of three horse lovers,’ ” Williams said.

About The Author


Pat Raia is a veteran journalist who enjoys covering equine welfare, industry, and news. In her spare time, she enjoys riding her Tennessee Walking Horse, Sonny.

What We’re Learning From Horse Racing Research

Researchers worldwide are examining ways to prevent injuries in racehorses; their findings could help prevent issues in sport horses, as well.

What We're Learning From Racing Research

Researchers worldwide are examining ways to prevent injuries in racehorses; their findings could help prevent issues in sport horses, as well

When a racehorse suffers a catastrophic injury in a high-profile race, the industry makes headlines … for all the wrong reasons. In recent decades mainstream media has shone a spotlight on racing injuries, and industry organizations have poured thousands of dollars into investigating why they occur. As a result, we know a lot about the forces placed on these elite athletes’ bodies.

Much of the research has revolved around identifying risk factors for and ways to prevent catastrophic injuries and fatalities. Here, several university researchers from North America and abroad share recently published and ongoing studies on this topic, along with their potential impact on racehorse and sport horse health down the road.

Identifying Early Warning Signs

Preventing injuries is important not only for racehorse health but also jockey safety and public perception, says David Horohov, PhD, chair of the University of Kentucky’s (UK) Department of Veterinary Science and director of the Gluck Equine Research Center, in Lexington. He and his colleagues have been working on a series of studies investigating injury prevention.

An assembled group including James MacLeod, VMD, PhD, and Jennifer Janes, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ACVP, of the Gluck Center; Laura Kennedy, DVM, Dipl. ACVP, of the UK Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory; and Mary Scollay, DVM, of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, are evaluating injury risks and possible precursors.

Horohov says their research thus far suggests that orthopedic injuries in racehorses are related to long-term effects rather than acute events. “It’s a chronic injury pattern that eventually leads to an acute failure,” he says.

In addition, Horohov and colleagues, including UK’s Allen Page, DVM, PhD, are looking at whether inflammatory changes that occur in racehorses and sport horses indicate a pathologic (causing disease or damage) condition is brewing.

As bones and muscles experience stress during exercise, they undergo microdamage as part of their normal adaptive process. Ideally, this process helps strengthen both bone and muscle. However, if the horse is overtrained or does not adapt well to training, the result is inflammation and potential injury. Horohov and Page have hypothesized that bloodwork should reveal certain inflammatory marker patterns that indicate systemic inflammation caused by early microlesions.

“Some microlesion formation is likely part of the normal remodeling effort,” Horohov says. “It is when the destructive aspect of lesion formation gets ahead of the repair process that the inflammatory response becomes exaggerated, leading to systemic inflammation … thus, the tipping point where inflammation does more harm than good.”

The team has already examined bloodwork of 2-year-old racehorses and older racehorses in training, along with racehorses working on treadmills. They’re now gathering data from endurance horses, jumpers, and dressage horses to look for similar patterns in those ­populations.

Horohov says the underlying goal is to identify horses with abnormal expressions of inflammatory responses so trainers can back down a horse’s training as needed to prevent him from becoming predisposed to or developing an injury.

Another important population this team has studied is racehorses rehabilitating from injury. Their goal is to identify inflammatory markers to help trainers determine the rate at which they can safely bring horses back into training and how much training a horse can tolerate.

Identifying Fatality Risk Factors

Some racing and training injuries are so catastrophic that they result in death or euthanasia. In a retrospective study led by Peter Physick-Sheard, BVSc, Dipl. VetSurg, MSc, FRCVS, at the University of Guelph¹, in Ontario, researchers analyzed racehorse deaths logged with the Ontario Racehorse Death Registry from 2003 to 2015 that occurred within 60 days of a race or trial entry (timed workouts and Standardbred qualifying races).

The researchers examined differences between racing Thoroughbreds, Standardbreds, and Quarter Horses as they related to age, sex, and circumstances of death, such as time and location, suggested cause, and whether it was an exercise-­associated mortality (EAM) or non-­exercise-associated mortality (NEAM).

The mean combined EAM and NEAM mortality rate was highest for Thoroughbreds (2.93 deaths per 1,000 starts), which was 4.6 times higher than that of Standardbreds (0.63/1,000 starts). Quarter Horses landed in the middle (2.08/1,000 starts). Thoroughbred mean annual EAM was 8.1 times that of ­Standardbreds.

Physick-Sheard’s team said their most notable finding was that Thoroughbred mortality was highest in young, intact male horses. In Thoroughbreds and Quarter Horses, mortality rates of all sexes were higher at age 2 than any other.

Researchers noted a higher mortality rate across all breeds for younger horses (possibly due to skeletal immaturity and a propensity toward fatigue) and older horses (possibly due to cumulative damage). The mortality risk among middle-aged horses was lower. Basically, says Physick-Sheard, mortality rate followed a curve, falling over the first two to three years, then increasing. Groups were aged by year, for Thoroughbreds, from 2 to 10.

When looking at cause of death, “musculoskeletal injury, including breakdowns, fractures, dislocations, and tendon ruptures, was the largest category,” said the authors. Thoroughbreds experienced musculoskeletal injuries 8.59 times more than Standardbreds.

The second-most-common cause was collapsing for no reason and sudden death. Colic; medical problems (e.g., bacterial infections, septicemia, kidney disease, etc.); iatrogenic problems (those inadvertently caused by treatment); and accidents of any kind (including necks and pelvises fractured in falls) followed.

“Breed differences in mortality provide pointers toward management strategies that could reduce mortality, enhance welfare, increase longevity, and reduce costs of participation,” wrote the study authors. “Exercise-associated mortality, in particular, is clearly related to the nature and intensity of competition undertaken by the different breeds and may reflect the time different industries allow for preparation of young athletes.”

In the U.K., Sarah Rosanowski, PhD, PGDipl. VCS, and colleagues evaluated risk factors for race-day fatalities in flat racing (not jumping obstacles) Thoroughbreds in Great Britain from 2000 to 2013 as part of her postdoctoral research at the Royal Veterinary College.² She’s currently an assistant professor in ­evidence-based veterinary medicine for the Centre for Applied One Health Research and Policy Advice at the City University of Hong Kong’s Jockey Club College of Veterinary Medicine and Life Sciences.

What We're Learning from Racing Research

The study included 806,764 race starts, 548,571 of which were on the turf. Out of 610 fatalities, 377 (61.8%) occurred on the turf. The incidence of race-day fatality during all flat racing was 0.76 per 1,000 starts, with 0.69 per 1,000 starts on turf and 0.90 per 1,000 starts on all-­weather (synthetic) surfaces. This indicates that all-weather surfaces increase fatality risk, says ­Rosanowski, compared to turf.

Her team divided fatality causes into three categories:

  • Musculoskeletal injuries (88.8%);
  • Nonmusculoskeletal injuries (10.3%); and
  • Related to both (0.9%).

Of musculoskeletal-injury-related deaths, 75.5% were due to fractures, with tendon or ligament injuries, fetlock dislocation, and multiple injuries accounting for the rest.

Of nonmusculoskeletal-injury-related deaths, 8.6% were due to vascular catastrophe (any terminal event of vascular origin, such as cardiac issues or ruptured aortas); sudden death due to this cause is rare compared to musculoskeletal injury, says Rosanowski. They attributed a small proportion of deaths to epistaxis (­bleeding from the nostrils), lacerations, other soft tissue injuries, or multiple causes. 

Risk factors on both turf and all-­weather tracks included a firmer (turf) or faster (all-weather) racing surface, longer race distance, wearing an eye cover such as blinkers for the first time, increased age, racing in autumn or summer, horses in their first year of racing, and high average performance scores (better-­performing horses). An increased number of starts reduced a horse’s odds of fatality.

Auction races (restricted to 2- or 3-year-olds bought or sold at certain public auctions) had 1.46 times the odds of fatality as other race types. Turf horses running in Group 1 races (the highest-level stakes race) were 3.19 times more at risk.

Rosanowski’s team published a 2017 study³ using the same data set that showed epistaxis incidence was 1.59 per 1,000 starts on all-weather surfaces. Faster (firmer) going increased a horse’s odds of epistaxis and distal (lower) limb fracture but not fatality. Longer race distance increased the odds of fatality but reduced the odds of epistaxis. The odds of distal limb fracture increased with firmer surfaces, with more than 14 runners in a race, with increased horse age at first start, in better-­performing horses, and in horses that raced eight to 93 days previously. Horses from trainers with higher win percentages on all-weather surfaces were at increased odds of fracture, as well.

What We're Learning From Racing Research

Preventing Catastrophic Injuries

Researchers at the University of California, Davis, (UC Davis) have been studying racehorses in various capacities, particularly their injury risk, for decades.

“Because 80% of racehorse deaths are due to catastrophic injuries, focus on factors that affect injury risk should be a high priority,” says Susan Stover, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ACVS, director of the UC Davis J.D. Wheat Veterinary Research Laboratory. “Because the causes of injury are multifactorial, a several-pronged approach is needed,” including racing surfaces, hoof management and shoeing, and training schedules.

She says her team’s most recent impactful findings include using ultrasound to detect humeral (the bone between the shoulder and elbow joints) stress fractures in racehorses (TheHorse.com/167901) and positron emission tomography (PET scan) to detect pre-­existing issues that could lead to catastrophic fetlock injuries.

In a 2018 study4 UC Davis researchers compared the use of PET scans with F-sodium fluoride (F-NaF, which serves as a tracer to detect changes in bone) to other methods of diagnosing bone-stress-­related fetlock injuries, in hopes of preventing catastrophic injury. They found that PET scans with F-NaF picked up more bone lesions than nuclear scintigraphy (bone scan), computed tomography (CT), standing magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and histologic (microscopic) examination. They concluded that a combination of PET with CT is important for localizing these lesions because PET findings reflect the tissues’ metabolic activity and CT provides the activity’s anatomic location.

“Consequently, PET has particular advantages for imaging the fetlock in racehorses because of its usefulness for not only detecting but also discriminating between metacarpal condylar (the distal cannon bone) and proximal sesamoid (in the fetlock hinge joint) bone abnormalities,” said the study authors.

“California has made several changes to the industry that stemmed from UC Davis research and have contributed to an overall reduction in injuries in racehorses,” says Stover. “The first key discovery was the recognition that catastrophic bone fractures were the acute manifestation of more chronic (pre-existing) stress fractures.”

Because the fetlock is the most common site of musculoskeletal injury in racehorses and the leading cause of fatalities in the U.S., UC Davis researchers have focused on the relationship between race surface hardness and fetlock injury risk. This has led tracks to harrow (drag) racing surfaces more frequently during training sessions to help prevent injuries.

Using computer simulations, UC Davis researchers also recently looked at race surfaces’ effects on fetlock motion during the stride’s stance phase (when the foot is in contact with the ground).5 They found that, basically, providing sufficient cushion material on top of the surface’s harder base can help prevent abnormal fetlock motion and reduce injury risk.

The team concluded that harrowing depth and frequency can influence limb motion significantly. They said computer simulations can give researchers more information on how race surface design and maintenance might reduce injury risk.

Stover says future UC Davis studies will focus on sesamoid bone fracture causes in racehorses, hard arena surface effects on the extended trot in dressage horses, economical ways to detect humeral stress fractures using ultrasound, and arena surface property effects on show jumpers.

Take-Home Message

This is just a small sampling of the research involving racehorses around the world. As scientists reveal more information about and ways to preserve racehorse health, their findings can translate to athletic horses of all types. Some are even leading to follow-up studies involving sport horses specifically.

These studies might be “of even greater importance to the sport horse due to … the fact that you’re expecting years of performance out of that animal,” says Horohov. “The ability … to both prevent as well as overcome injury is critical to the long-term health of that horse and the program it’s involved in.”


1. Physick-Sheard PW, et al. (2019). Ontario Racehorse Death Registry, 2003-2015; Descriptive analysis and rates of mortality. Equine Veterinary Journal, 51:64-76.

2. Rosanowski SM, et al. (2018). Risk factors for a race-day fatality in flat racing Thoroughbreds in Great Britain (2000 to 2013). PLoS ONE 13(3): e0194299.

3. Rosanowski SM, et al. (2017). Risk factors for race-day fatality, distal limb fracture, and epistaxis in Thoroughbred racing on all-weather surfaces in Great Britain (2000 to 2013). Journal of Preventive Veterinary Medicine, 148:58-65.

4. Spriet M, et al. (2018). F-sodium fluoride positron emission tomography of the racing Thoroughbred fetlock: Validation and comparison with other imaging modalities in nine horses. Equine Veterinary Journal, 0:1-9.

5. Symons JE, et al. (2017). Modelling the effect of race surface and racehorse limb parameters on in silico fetlock motion and propensity for injury. Equine Veterinary Journal, 49:681-687.

About The Author


Sarah Evers Conrad has a bachelor’s of arts in journalism and equine science from Western Kentucky University. As a lifelong horse lover and equestrian, Conrad started her career at The Horse: Your Guide to Equine Health Care magazine. She has also worked for the United States Equestrian Federation as the managing editor of Equestrian magazine and director of e-communications and served as content manager/travel writer for a Caribbean travel agency. When she isn’t freelancing, Conrad spends her free time enjoying her family, reading, practicing photography, traveling, crocheting, and being around animals in her Lexington, Kentucky, home.

5 Facts About Flax

Flaxseed is quickly becoming a popular nutritional supplement for horses. But what exactly is this grain and how does it benefit the horse? Here are five things to know about flaxseed.

Flaxseed is a popular nutritional supplement for horses, and many feed companies incorporate this grain as a caloric component in their products. But what exactly is flaxseed and how does it benefit the horse? Here are five things to know about flaxseed.

What is flaxseed?

Flaxseed is produced by the flax plant, commonly grown in cool, northern climates, such as North Dakota and Montana. Canada is the No. 1 flaxseed producer due to its ideal climate conditions. Flaxseed is also known as “flax” or “linseed.”

What does flax contain?

Flaxseed contains an average of 40% fat and is one of the few vegetable sources of omega-3 fatty acids (mainly alpha-linolenic acid). Flaxseed also contains around 30% highly digestible fiber and 20% protein.

Should I use whole or processed flax?

Flaxseed can be fed whole to horses; however, due to its hard outer coating, digestibility of the nutrients—especially the fatty acids—is limited when fed whole. Ideally, flax should be fed ground to maximize nutrient digestion. A word of caution: To prevent rapid degradation of fatty acids and, thus, rancidity, either grind flaxseed fresh before each feeding, or use a stabilized flaxseed product. Also, avoid soaking or boiling whole flaxseed as this could alter its nutrient profile.

How does it benefit the horse?

In research environments, adding fat to a horse’s diet has shown to improve skin, hair coat, and body condition and reduce excitability. Most what we know about omega-3’s benefits in horses has been translated from human research.

Forages and concentrates typical in an equine ration contain small amounts of omega-3 fatty acids. Therefore, it’s beneficial to supplement horses’ rations with this essential fat. Research in equids suggests adding one pound of milled flaxseed per day can reduce the allergic response to recurrent seasonal pruritis, or sweet itch.

Also, omega-3s could have beneficial effects for horses suffering from inflammatory diseases such as heaves and osteoarthritis. Researchers have not yet determined the exact physiological mechanism to these benefits, and more research is needed to further examine flaxseed’s role in immune response.

How should I add flaxseed to my horse’s diet?

Ground flaxseed has been fed up to a maximum one pound per day without adverse effects. But as with any fat supplement, flaxseed should be gradually introduced into the horse’s diet over the course of three to five days. This allows the digestive system time to adapt to the added fat. Similar to other grains, flaxseed has an inverse calcium to phosphorous ratio, so your horse’s diet should be balanced accordingly.

Take-Home Message

Flaxseed can be a valuable tool in your horse’s nutrition program as a source of calories and fiber, and it is an excellent source of fat, particularly omega-3’s. Use the ground, stabilized form to prevent rancidity and increase the nutrients’ digestibility.


Kristen M. Janicki, a lifelong horsewoman, was born and raised in the suburbs of Chicago. She received her Bachelor of Science degree in Animal Sciences from the attend the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and later attended graduate school at the University of Kentucky, studying under Dr. Laurie Lawrence in the area of Equine Nutrition. Kristen began her current position as a performance horse nutritionist for Mars Horsecare, US, Inc., and Buckeye Nutrition, in 2010. Her job entails evaluating and improving the performance of the sport horse through proper nutrition.

Is Hot Weather Making My Horse’s Legs Stock Up?

Our equine nutritionist offers feeding advice to help the stocked-up horse.

Is Hot Weather Making My Horse's Legs Stock Up?

QUESTION . Recently, we have been experiencing some very hot weather, and I noticed that my horse’s legs are stocking up. This has not happened before. Could this be related to the heat, and is there anything I can do nutritionally that might help?

AANSWER. “Stocking up” is swelling in the lower limbs caused by pooling of lymph, a fluid containing infection-fighting white blood cells that circulates through the lymphatic system. Stocking up is typically temporary and often occurs due to reduced activity, which impairs circulation. It is commonly seen in horses that live outside that are brought in for a time and, therefore, do not move as much as normal. Sometimes, though, it develops in other scenarios.

Step One: Check for Injury or Illness

Any time limbs swell, it’s important to check for heat and pain to determine whether the cause might be an injury. Also, take your horse’s temperature; if it’s elevated, he could have an infection.

Stocking up should not be painful to the horse or result in a fever or reduced appetite. These signs would suggest something more serious is at play. If in doubt, always contact your veterinarian; some conditions, such as cellulitis, present like stocking up but are more severe and require medical treatment.

Lymphatic System Basics

If you’ve determined stocking up isn’t due to injury, illness, or other health issues, you’re likely dealing with pooled lymph.

The lymphatic system is part of the circulatory system and follows blood flow around the body. Oxygen- and nutrient-rich blood travel away from the heart and to the horse’s extremities, where very small arteries (arterioles) and tiny capillaries carry it. Oxygen and nutrients leak from the capillaries and into the surrounding tissues, which use them for metabolism and other cellular functions. The deoxygenated blood then travels back in vessels, and the lymphatic system transports any waste products or unused nutrients to the lymph nodes (where they’re filtered out) and then back to the veins and heart.

When blood and lymph are in the horse’s legs, gravity takes a toll. Obviously, by this point, the fluids are a long way from the heart and so face an uphill battle to get back up the legs. The horse’s foot plays a vital role in fluid return because the digital cushion’s action helps push the blood and fluid back up the leg.

Therefore, stalled horses and those that don’t move around frequently are at greater risk of stocking up. Additionally, older horses tend to stock up more than their younger counterparts because their circulatory systems don’t work as effectively. Finally, horses with a history of cellulitis are also more likely to stock up than those without, even if it was a one-time event many years ago.

Nutrition’s Role in Stocking Up

A horse’s hydration status can play a role in if and how much he stocks up. A dehydrated horse’s blood pressure might be reduced, which could impair the lymph’s ability to flow back up the leg and result in pooling and edema (fluid swelling). Adequate hydration and sodium balance also impact how fluids move across cells. Therefore, it is possible that dehydrated horses and/or those that haven’t consumed enough sodium could be susceptible to stocking up.

If this is the case, the solution is to improve hydration by ensuring adequate salt intake and fluid consumption. Because you can’t rely on a horse to consume enough sodium from a block, it’s best to provide loose salt (or a good-quality electrolyte supplement) in feed. A 1,100-pound (500-kilogram) horse at rest in cool weather needs about 10 grams of sodium per day—about what 2 tablespoons of salt provides. This amount increases in hot weather and/or when working, which is when an additional electrolyte is helpful.

Other Options

Another way to help prevent stocking up? Try applying standing wraps when your horse is stalled. These apply pressure to the lower limb, which can help keep fluids circulating smoothly.

Involve Your Veterinarian

If your horse’s stocked-up legs don’t resolve in a few days, have your veterinarian out for an exam. Extended periods of edema can cause the skin to stretch or fold, which increases the risk of infection.


Clair Thunes, PhD, is an equine nutritionist who owns Summit Equine Nutrition, based in Gilbert, Arizona. She works as a consultant with owners/trainers and veterinarians across the United States and globally to take the guesswork out of feeding horses and provides services to select companies. As a nutritionist she works with all equids, from WEG competitors to Miniature donkeys and everything in between. Born in England, she earned her undergraduate degree at Edinburgh University, in Scotland, and her master’s and doctorate in nutrition at the University of California, Davis. Growing up, she competed in a wide array of disciplines and was an active member of the U.K. Pony Club. Today, she serves as the district commissioner for the Salt River Pony Club.

Don’t Learn the Hard Way With Equine Disease Outbreaks

Don’t learn the hard way or wait for another outbreak to make disease risk reduction a priority on your farm. Do it now. Your horse’s life might depend upon it.

Don't Learn the Hard Way

It started in May 2011 with a single horse. Then a few more. Then multiple horses a day. Before long, horses all over the Western U.S. and Canada were testing positive for equine herpesvirus-1 (EHV-1)—some suffering from devastating neurologic signs. And I, six months into my time working for The Horse, was wondering what on earth I’d gotten myself into, communicating with veterinarians and animal health officials daily and trying to accurately pin down facts about and report on a constantly evolving situation.

This EHV-1 outbreak, which stemmed from the National Cutting Horse Association’s Western National Championship, in Ogden, Utah, is an example of how quickly, easily, and quietly equine infectious disease can spread. The more than 400 horses in attendance dispersed before vets identified the first cases and anyone realized they might have had a viral tagalong for their return trip. Once those horses got home they mingled with other resident equids, exposing them to the pathogen. Those equids exposed others, and the virus spread.

All told, officials believe more than 2,100 horses were exposed to EHV-1 following that horse show. They confirmed 90 cases of EHV-1 or its neurologic form in 10 states; 13 horses died (TheHorse.com/19924).

This outbreak scared me as a horse owner into examining if I was taking the appropriate steps to protect my horse, Dorado, from disease. There’s always room for improvement, but I’ve since adopted several easy biosecurity and health care practices to reduce the chances of my family’s small herd contracting infectious diseases:

  • Our veterinarian vaccinates our horses against the appropriate infectious diseases. Dorado travels to competitions, inherently putting him at a greater risk for infection.
  • Yes, we even vaccinate the two that rarely leave the farm, as they could still be exposed to disease via Dorado. Plus, I don’t know the neighbor mare’s vaccination or health history. While she can’t touch noses with our herd, her pasture is close enough that she could be an infection risk.
  • I no longer let Dorado touch noses with other horses at shows.
  • I avoid using stalls at horse shows, if possible, as properly cleaning and disinfecting them before putting a horse inside isn’t always easy. Instead, I do my best to park near some shade and plant a haynet and water bucket ­underneath.
  • Now, seven years later, I’ve covered more disease outbreaks, large and small, than I can count. You can read about some of the most significant in Christa Lesté-Lasserre’s feature, “Legendary Equine Disease Outbreaks.” Each one is different, yet they have similarities: Someone’s horse gets sick or dies, and equestrians vow to take vaccinations and biosecurity more seriously. They do for a time but eventually might get lax again, leaving their horses vulnerable to infection.

Don’t learn the hard way or wait for another outbreak to make disease risk reduction a priority on your farm. Do it now. Your horse’s life might depend upon it.

This column originally appeared in the August 2018 issue of The Horse: Your Guide to Equine Health Care.

About The Author


Erica Larson, former news editor for The Horse, holds a degree in journalism with an external specialty in equine science from Michigan State University in East Lansing. A Massachusetts native, she grew up in the saddle and has dabbled in a variety of disciplines including foxhunting, saddle seat, and mounted games. Currently, Erica competes in eventing with her OTTB, Dorado.


Dealing With Unwanted Wildlife on Horse Properties

Out-of-control critters can pass along pathogens, damage property and structures, and create unhygienic messes. Find out how to deter unwanted visitors such as birds, raccoons, skunks, and other rodents on your horse farm.

Dealing With Unwanted Wildlife on Horse Properties

Birds and small mammals attracted to barns can cause disease and damage; here’s how to discourage or remove them

One night this past winter around 9 p.m., long after the sun had set, I headed out with my two dogs to do the last of the day’s three feedings at our 12-horse boarding facility. The dogs bounded happily past me out the door and around the corner, status quo, the three of us oblivious to anything out of the norm. As I strolled under the light at the front of our barn, however, I caught sight of the dogs standing over something ahead of me, wagging their tails intently. A handsome young skunk was boldly showing them the backside of his tail. You can probably guess what happened next.

My dogs made a mad dash away from the two-tone visitor and rolled in the snow, desperately trying to rid themselves of his perfume. The skunk, unconcerned, shuffled off, and I began making plans for where the dogs would sleep that night and how I’d get them clean the next morning.

This all goes to say that some wildlife in and around our barns might be desirable, such as barn swallows, each of which consumes around 800 soft-bodied flying insects per day (better than a bug zapper), or barn owls, a family of which can consume up to 3,000 rodents a year. Or, you might just enjoy watching a herd of deer or elk graze in your back pasture.

But other wildlife, such as my dogs’ fragrant foe, pose drawbacks, causing situations like ours or, worse—acting as vectors for diseases. These animals can pass along pathogens (disease-causing microbes) such as the bacteria that cause leptospirosis, which can lead to abortion, chronic uveitis, and/or kidney failure in horses; hantavirus, which can infect and cause a rare lung disease in humans; or the deadly rabies virus, which can infect horses, humans, and a variety of other mammals. Out-of-control unwanted critters can also damage property and structures or create unhygienic messes.

In this article we will explore ways to deter unwanted visitors and prevent the complications they can cause.

Dissuade and Deter

When it comes to dealing with problem animals, “there is no magic bullet,” says Stephen M. Vantassel, MNI, CNI, CWCP, ACP, the vertebrate pest specialist for the Montana Department of Agriculture and former program coordinator of wildlife damage management for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln School of Natural Resources. “I want to disabuse people from the idea that we just flick a switch and these (animal) problems go away,” he says. “Habitat modification, removal, and exclusion are the only three options.”

To discourage unwanted guests, begin with a few basic steps, the first of which is to eliminate wildlife habitats (desirable food, water, and shelter) on your ­property:

  • Do not leave cat or dog food out at night. Feed household pets indoors when possible, and pick up leftovers if feeding outdoors.
  • Store pet and livestock feed where it’s inaccessible to wildlife, such as in metal trash cans with securely fastened lids.
  • Eliminate pet water bowls, dripping water faucets, and other water sources (when possible).
  • Move bird feeders to locations where they’re less likely to cause problems if they attract rodents or small animals (which are prey for larger, possibly unwanted animals such as coyotes), or bring the feeders in at night.
  • Do not discard edible garbage or household food waste in compost or where it might attract opossums, raccoons, and other nuisance animals. 
  • Secure garbage containers with proper lids.
  • Limb up shrubbery near buildings to reduce cover for small animals.
  • For many animals, “barns are basically a sieve, a food source with an open door,” says Vantassel. “If you have a hole into a (feed room) where grain is stored, then close up the hole. Mice can get through a 38-inch hole. If you are leaving 4-inch gaps, a raccoon can get in.”

If you want to remove or trap wildlife, first research regulations for your area. In most parts of the country, wildlife is protected, and there might be regulations on trapping approaches and disposal.

“Typically,” says Chad Soard, owner of Trifecta Wildlife Services LLC, in Lexington, Kentucky, “regulations are handled by the state wildlife department or department of natural resources. Wildlife is managed as part of public trust; if they are causing property damage, there will be laws to control them, but generally (these offices) don’t have staff to send out to do something about it.”

Soard, who has a master’s in wildlife biology and worked for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife, says, “We don’t do any poisons. Poisons, like rodenticides, require a special use permit when you are working commercially on someone else’s property and may be illegal for larger animals altogether. For the most part, they’ve been engineered to be as safe as possible with shorter elimination half-lives, but if a mouse eats it and it goes off and another animal eats it, like a fox or a hawk, then this creates a circle of death due to secondary toxicity.”

Both sources emphasize the importance of having professionals select and handle any poisons for wildlife control to eliminate secondary impacts.

But what about nonlethal control options? “There’s no evidence that auditory sonic control mechanisms work at all,” says Vantassel. “There’s some minimal evidence that rodents will avoid [ultrasonic pest repellers].”

Researchers have shown that animals habituate quickly to frightening devices such as movable plastic owls that dissuade roosting house sparrows, “yard-art” silhouette cutouts of coyotes used to scare off Canada geese, or recordings of hawk cries for chasing off starlings or other birds. So these types of devices have limited use, say our sources. 

That leaves you with three options: Shoring up buildings; reducing food, water, and shelter sources for pests; and using control methods. Here’s how to handle various species.

Dealing with Unwanted Wildlife


Bird problems are common. “Typically, barns are relatively open places for them,” says Soard. “Sometimes there’s access to feed. It’s a wonderful, safe roosting habitat if you’re a bird and, because of this, some (horse properties) will get tremendous populations of birds.”

Pathogens in bird droppings in water or hay can potentially (albeit rarely) lead to cases of salmonella, histoplasmosis, or other diseases. Plus, the mess is unsightly and annoying.

Birds such as insect-hunting swallows are protected under the Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. “Exotic species (nonnatives such as European starlings, house sparrows, and Eurasian collared doves) are not,” says Soard. “You can try things like air guns, but this is only a Band-Aid approach. If it’s legal (in your area) and safe, you can do it for temporary relief. But to make a difference you need to alter habitat, so they don’t want to—or physically can’t—stay.”

Soard says it might be possible to physically exclude birds from rafters with low-profile netting or a closed ceiling.

“Bird spikes (long strips with nails sticking up, laid down where birds would normally land) can work with larger birds like pigeons,” he says.

For more populous flocks he recommends a newer technique of installing electrified strips down building ridge lines. “Shock strips will give the birds a bad experience, but it doesn’t harm them,” Soard says.

Going forward, find a way to physically exclude committed species (those that call the space home); otherwise, controlling them will become a cycle. Whatever method you choose, the process must be ongoing; the barn owner or manager must maintain constant pressure on nuisance bird populations so they don’t become comfortable and choose to stay.

(For more solutions, check out our paid download on controlling nuisance birds on horse properties at ­TheHorse.com/ProblemSolver/­NuisanceBirds.)

Skunks and Groundhogs/Marmots

“Both skunks and groundhogs are burrowing animals that can create a tremendous amount of issues for a horse property,” says Soard. “Groundhogs will burrow in and around barns, creating an 8-12-inch hole. Skunks will either dig their own hole or use someone else’s. Sometimes these tunnels will go under foundations.”

Both species can gain access to buildings through crawl spaces or below decks or porches. Skunks present an odor issue, of course, but bigger issues can arise if burrowing animals disturb the ground enough for foundations to become unstable and unsettled. “Plus, there are fecal and urinary contamination concerns and disease,” says Soard. “Both species can carry leptospirosis. Skunks are the primary vector for rabies in Kentucky.”

Soard recommends “surgically” removing the problem animal using what he calls positive-set trapping. A baited cage trap can catch nontarget animals. A positive-set cage trap uses no bait, instead relying on forcing the animal into or through the cage trap, which he carefully positions along its path..

Dealing with Unwanted Wildlife on Horse Properties

Raccoons and Opossums

Methods for controlling raccoons, which can also carry rabies, and opossums, which are the definitive host for equine protozoal myeloencephalitis, are similar and involve ­trapping.

“Raccoons are adaptable and smart,” says Soard. “We start with permanently removing committed animals, then look at physical exclusion to avoid future issues. I have seen where a hayloft is open and they get in and set up maternity dens with piles of feces 10 feet in diameter. Raccoons can spread roundworm (Baylisascaris procyonis), which can infect (dogs) and people and can even be fatal.”

Avoid contact with raccoon waste, wear gloves when cleaning up after them (or other wildlife), and wash hands thoroughly with soap and water.

To discourage these species, eliminate food sources, such as pet food, particularly at night. Also, don’t compost human food scraps, such as meat, fats, or bones, in the barnyard compost pile. Raccoons can be a particular concern with chickens. If you raise chickens, install a secure door on your chicken coop and close chickens in at night. Again, clean up or put away feed or grain, storing it in aluminum garbage cans and securing the lids with bungee cords or other methods.


Many rodent species can be nuisances on horse properties, including squirrels, rats, and mice. While rodents play an important role in grassland and forest health, some types, especially the nonnative Norway rat, the roof rat, and the house mouse, are pests when they infest and destroy property. They can cause hundreds or thousands of dollars in damage a year on a horse farm. Plus, they can carry serious diseases for humans and livestock. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, mice and rats can directly or indirectly transmit more than 20 diseases. Some of these, such as leptospirosis and salmonellosis, affect horses.

Rodents are one of the more challenging animals to deal with on horse properties because they climb well and get through extraordinarily small holes. In barns we often don’t have an ability to close all gaps, so keep feed and tack rooms and other areas tidy to eliminate nesting areas and food supplies. Store towels, horse blankets, and saddle pads in covered rodent-proof containers. Again, store all feed in aluminum garbage cans with secure lids. Pick up cat and dog food and water at night, and clean up spilled grain. Keep the hay storage area swept and tidy to reduce potential nesting sites.

When it comes to catching rodents, “traps are like money: More is better,” says Vantassel.

If you have a mouse problem, he says you should set dozens and dozens of traps. “Get enough traps, and place them where you see droppings. Bait them, but do not set them,” he says. “You are going to condition the mice to visit the traps. Put traps all over, in out-of-the-way areas. Your knees need to get dirty!”

After the traps have been out for a while, check to see if the bait is gone. “If you are getting good action, then set them all at once,” he says. Wear gloves when removing mouse carcasses, as deer mice can transmit diseases that infect humans such as hantavirus. For more information on how to clean up safely after a mouse infestation, visit cdc.gov/rodents/cleaning.

Typically, managing rodents is a year-round activity because even manure is a food source, says Vantassel. “There may be more pressure in winter when mice are attracted to heat (in a tack room, for instance),” he says, “but this (management) process is never going to stop.”

Balance in All Things

So whatever happened to our skunk? He slipped silently into the night and hasn’t been seen since.

Because I don’t want disease-carrying critters in our barns, I remove as much habitat that appeals to them as possible. I see my horses as an extension of the environment, so I realize I need to tolerate—to a degree—the inconveniences of living with wildlife. For me the hassles of deterring mice from my tack room are balanced by the excitement of hearing barn owls call at night or the joy of glimpsing a fox sprint across our pasture at dawn. But if I end up with a committed unwanted visitor, I now know more about my options so I can keep my horses disease-free and my facilities in good shape.


Alayne Renée Blickle, a lifelong equestrian and reining competitor, is the creator/director of Horses for Clean Water, an award-winning, nationally acclaimed environmental education program for horse owners. Well known for her enthusiastic, down-to-earth approaches, Alayne is an educator and photojournalist who has worked with horse and livestock owners since 1990 teaching manure composting, pasture management, mud and dust control, water conservation, chemical use reduction, firewise controls and wildlife enhancement. She teaches and travels North America and writes for horse publications. Alayne and her husband raise and train their reining horses at their eco-sensitive guest ranch, Sweet Pepper Ranch, in sunny Nampa, Idaho. She also authors the Smart Horse Keeping blog.


Hoof-Care Triage

Horse Hoof-Care Triage

You may have seen those Internet memes going around—the humorous takeoffs on the stiff-upper-lipped British expression “KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON.” Well, it’s hard to keep calm when you arrive at the barn to find your horse three-legged lame or with some foreign object spearing the sole of his foot. But as a farrier and an equine surgeon caution, it’s important to temper the impulse to Do. Something. Now!—at least sometimes. Here, our sources offer triage advice for the hoof-related emergencies they encounter most frequently.

But First, One That’s Not as Bad as It Looks

A chunk of hoof missing or a crack resembling the Grand Canyon looks awful, but the damage might be mostly cosmetic, says Patrick Reilly, chief of farrier services at the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center, in Kennett Square.

“The questions to ask yourself are: Is there blood? What is the horse’s comfort level?” says Reilly. “If there’s no blood and the horse is not showing signs of discomfort, then definitely call your farrier, but it’s probably not an emergency.”

You don’t want the hoof condition to deteriorate further in the meantime, however, so Reilly recommends cleaning the foot and keeping it covered until the farrier arrives. (Try a hoof-wrap “bootie” or that old standby—some sort of gauze/diaper/self-adhesive wrap/duct-tape combo.) Keep your horse quiet, out of mischief, and out of wet, yucky, wrap-sucking footing.

One caveat here, from Reilly’s New Bolton Center colleague, staff surgeon David Levine, DVM, Dipl. ACVS: “People can focus so much on the obvious injury that they forget to check for other problems. In this case, what happened to cause the horse to rip off a piece of his foot so badly? Did he get a leg caught in something?” The horse could have sustained injuries ­elsewhere—so if any signs of pain or lameness crop up, have your vet check him over.

Puncture Wounds

If there’s a sharp, sturdy object lying around, chances are it’s going to find its way into some hapless horse’s foot. Horses pull their own shoes all or part way off and can step on the nails or other pieces of debris—stray screws, roofing nails, even pieces of wood.

If the object has penetrated the sole of the foot, the horse will be very lame, Reilly says. “If you see the nailhead, your first instinct is to pull it out, but you’re better leaving it in place unless doing so is going to drive the nail in further and make the injury worse,” he advises.

The problem with removing the offending object is twofold. First, removing the object means the veterinarian—yes, you must call the vet in addition to the farrier, Reilly says—won’t be able to use radiographs (X rays) to see which internal structures are affected. Second, when the object is removed, the puncture site seals itself (and any introduced bacteria) off and, as a result, Levine says, “the structures underneath can slowly fester.” It’s especially ominous when the object has penetrated the posterior part of the foot—from frog to heels—because that’s where the navicular bone and bursa, coffin bone and joint, and digital flexor tendon sheath reside, he says. Serious damage, infection, or both in those structures can spell surgery, a career’s end, or even a horse’s demise.

Horseshoeing nails generally aren’t the culprit in serious infections, says Reilly, who points out that farrier nails “aren’t usually long enough to get into the navicular bone or other at-risk structures.”

Until help arrives, restrict your horse’s activity and keep him as comfortable as possible—preferably in a clean, deeply bedded stall, Levine says. If you’ve decided that it’s best to leave the penetrating object in the foot, protect the sole from further trauma if you can. Reilly recalls a case in which one clever owner taped a block of wood to the bottom of the horse’s foot to prevent the nail from wiggling loose and causing additional damage.

Three-Legged Lameness

Let’s say there’s no nail or other obvious culprit, but your horse refuses to bear weight on one foot. What’s going on? “When there’s a sudden non-weight-bearing lameness, usually just in one foot, it’s usually a fracture or an abscess,” says Reilly, both of which warrant summoning both the veterinarian and the farrier. (But “if your horse got new shoes today and he’s non-weight-bearing tomorrow, start with the farrier,” he adds. The farrier may have “quicked” the horse with an ill-placed nail.)

An abscess, Reilly explains, is an infection within the hoof that can be caused by dirt or debris working up through areas of the foot. “It can be a bruise—a pocket of blood and serum that gets infected,” he says. “The body mounts an inflammatory response, and there’s nowhere for the pressure to go. It’s very painful.”

The infection itself can be in or between the laminae (the layers of sensitive tissue connecting the coffin bone to the hoof wall), Reilly says. Either way, the pain is excruciating—like having an infection underneath your fingernail.

Treating an abscess usually involves opening the affected area, allowing the pus and gunk to drain (which relieves the pressure and, therefore, the pain), soaking the foot to draw out the any remaining infection, keeping the foot clean and covered, and administering oral or topical antibiotics. Abscess resolution is time-consuming, but Reilly and Levine would rather see such a case than a ­fracture.

A coffin-bone fracture is not uncommon and can be career-ending, according to Reilly—and that’s why it’s important to get the veterinarian out to assess the lameness. Unless there’s fairly obvious sole bruising, you won’t know what you’re dealing with until the veterinarian assesses radiographs, which will reveal fractures and some abscesses.

Before your health-care team arrives, get your horse into a clean, deeply bedded stall or restrict his movement somehow, Reilly advises. Don’t soak the foot, as “it could make diagnosis harder,” he says.


Levine finishes by describing ­laminitis—inflammation of the hoof’s laminae. He simply sighs about the dreaded disease.

“It’s bad,” he says.

Unlike an abscess or a fracture, laminitis typically appears gradually, and it usually affects pairs of feet or even all four. Reilly and Levine rattle off the possible warning signs: stiffness and hesitation to walk, weight shifting, an exaggerated or otherwise abnormal gait, “pointing” a foot (standing with one foot extended forward so it bears less weight), a “sawhorse” stance, standing “like an elephant on a ball” (with all four feet abnormally close), or more time than usual spent lying down.

In a suspected case of laminitis, early intervention is key, he says. This is another scenario in which you want to summon both the veterinarian and the farrier.

While you’re waiting for help to arrive, “start cryotherapy ASAP,” Reilly advises. Put bags of ice on your horse’s feet; stand him in cold creek water; do whatever you can to try to draw heat and inflammation out of the feet. Restricting your horse’s movement likely won’t be a problem inasmuch as he’s reluctant to move in the first place, but get him on soft footing to make him as comfortable as possible.

If Levine sees a horse for suspected laminitis, he wants to hear about recent changes or issues that might have affected the horse. So if you’ve changed feed recently, increased or decreased pasture access, or if your horse has suffered any illness or injury, let your veterinarian know.

“Teamwork between the vet and the farrier is especially important in cases of laminitis,” Levine adds. “It’s helpful for the farrier to see the radiographs” to assess sole thickness and the position of the coffin bone before undertaking any mechanical pain-relief measures, such as corrective trimming and shoeing, he says.

Take-Home Message

Sure, almost anyone can spot a dead-lame horse, but sometimes signs are more subtle. You know your horse better than anyone; if something seems out of the ordinary, get it checked—you don’t want to take any chances with your horse’s feet.

Get a good, teamwork-oriented farrier and veterinarian on your horse-care team well in advance of any emergencies. This is useful not only for practical reasons (not every practitioner makes emergency calls for nonclients) but also for establishing some benchmark data, which can prove useful for comparison in the face of a crisis.

Jennifer O. Bryant is editor-at-large of the U.S. DressageFederation’s magazine, USDF Connection. An independent writer and editor, Bryant contributes to many equestrianpublications, has edited numerous books, and authored Olympic Equestrian. More information about Jennifer can be found on her site, www.jenniferbryant.net.

Horse Hoof Care Essentials at Hand

What’s in your horse’s hoof-care box? Here are the items that hoof care professionals recommend you keep on hand.


Horse Hoof Care Essentials

Items you should find in any well-stocked hoof-care box

Deb Simone goes through the same hoof-care routine before every ride on her Trakehner-Hanoverian cross mare, Lovey: She uses a hoof pick to remove debris from the mare’s feet, and then she applies hardener to each hoof wall. Simone believes this simple ritual is critical to keeping Lovey’s hooves free of cracks, splits, and the infection-causing microbes that love to set up shop within them. She also believes this ounce of prevention is cheaper than the added veterinarian and farrier visits that become necessary if Lovey’s feet are neglected. 

“I’ve had so much trouble with her feet in the past, I just try to pay attention to them,” Simone says. 

But even she admits that her cache of hoof-care tools is probably lacking.

“The hoof hardener and the pick are about all I have,” she says. “I know there must be other things I should have on hand.”

In fact, most horse owners do not have a kit specifically dedicated to hoof care, says Dave Farley, CF, immediate past president of the American Association of Professional Farriers, who shoes sport horses around Coshocton, Ohio. 

“In the old days, everyone had a hoof box, but now most people don’t,” Farley says. “Fortunately, people are getting back to at least having (a community hoof box) in their (boarding) barns, and that’s good for the horse.”

That’s because regular hoof care is key to a horse’s general health, says Tracy Turner, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVS, of the Minnesota-based practice Turner Equine Sports Medicine and Surgery. His research focuses on the connection between performance and equine podiatry.

“If you’re a jumper you land on it; if you’re a racehorse it propels you,” says Turner of hooves. “There are 100 cliches, but it’s true: No foot, no horse.”

Fortunately, keeping a horse’s feet clean and in good condition is not complicated, he says. All it takes is some time, know-how, and a well-stocked hoof-care box. Here’s what Turner, Farley, and other professionals recommend owners keep in it.

The Essential Ingredients

A hoof pick

Available from just about any tack or farm supply store, a serviceable hoof pick can be had for between $1.99 and $3.99; higher-end ones run as much as $20. Hoof picks are intended to do just that: pick or remove all manner of debris, including sand, pebbles, and even bits of wood or glass, that horses pick up roaming pastures, navigating trails, or performing in arenas. Though using a hoof pick seems like a no-brainer, some horse owners don’t know how to use one properly, says Jeannean Mercuri, New York-based professional trimmer and member of the American Hoof ­Association.

Mercuri says most owners use a hoof pick to knock out loose clumps of manure and dirt that accumulate in a horse’s hoof. But there’s much more to it than that, she says.

“People usually don’t go deep enough when cleaning,” Mercuri says. “You want to get everything—sand, small stones—out of that hoof.”

She also warns against spending too little on this simple but indispensable device. That’s because cheaper picks are made of softer-quality metal, rendering them impractical for everyday use.

Horse Hoof Care Essentials

“As a result, people use the pick, and the metal bends, and they think, ‘Oh no! I’ve pressed too hard,’ when that’s probably not the case.”

Similarly, Farley recommends avoiding cheap plastic-handled hoof picks that come with an attached brush.

“I would rather see a quality hoof pick with a handle, period,” he says. “Besides, the really cheap ones wear out really fast.”

A hoof brush

Another simple but critical tool in the hoof-care box—a hoof brush—helps sweep away debris loosened or missed by the hoof pick. These brushes are composed of stiff synthetic PVC bristles. In addition to cleaning the horse’s hoof, careful brushing gives owners a chance to examine the animal’s feet from heel to toe, says Farley.

“After you use the pick to clean every part of the sole and every side of the hoof, brush the sides of the frog and then brush the sole so that you can see all the debris that might be in the hoof,” he says. “Work forward from the (heel) bulb.”

Likewise, Farley advises owners to invest in a quality free-standing hoof brush.

“If you get a good one, you’re only going to have to buy one,” he says.

In any case, a thorough hoof cleaning is well worth the time it takes to do it. “It keeps the hoof clean, and it gives you a chance to examine the hoof and find things before they become big issues,” Turner says. “You don’t have to make a science project out of it, just do it ­regularly.”

Horse Hoof Care Essentials

The Extras

A rasp

Farriers use a rasp to finish and smooth the edges of a horse’s hoof. For them, the tool is indispensable, but you should include it in your hoof-care box, too, says Lori McBride, CJF, a farrier based in Louisville, Ohio.

“You should ask your farrier if he or she has an old one you can have,” McBride says. “It’s probably too old and worn for his or her use, but it’s just fine in case you have to file away a piece of hoof or file down a crack in the hoof that is bigger than it appears—just like filing your nails.”

A crease nail puller

Basically a long-handled pair of pliers, this tool allows owners to remove individual nails from the “crease,” or the groove in which the nail sits in the shoe. Once you’ve removed the nails you can remove the shoe itself.

“It’s good to have one on hand in case a horse comes in with a shoe that’s twisted or damaged and the farrier visit is about a day away,” McBride says. “You can find an inexpensive one for about $25.”

You can also use this tool to remove “hot,” or painful, nails.

Horse Hoof Care Essentials

Topical hoof hardener

Brushed directly onto the horn, which makes up the hoof wall, this liquid is available under many names. The substance is intended with regular use to protect the hoof against weakness created by moisture from urine or wet ground and to fortify the hoof against cracking. Most simply, hoof hardeners are designed to balance moisture content and might help prevent shoes from coming loose or abscesses from developing.

Thrush treatment

When they do appear, cracks and splits create the perfect habitat for the microbes that cause thrush (a bacterial infection that occurs in the frog tissue) and other equine foot infections. This is one reason every hoof-care box should contain an antithrush product or mild antiseptic such as povidone-iodine (Betadine). 

“Get a good thrush product that is not corrosive and will not eat away at healthy tissue,” Mercuri says.

Poultice sheets

Easy-to-apply poultices such as Animalintex help draw out inflammation and infection and are commonly used to treat issues such as foot bruises and encourage hoof abscesses to drain.

A hoof-soaking boot or bucket

These can make soaking abscessed feet or applying treatment for conditions such as white line disease easier.

Horse Hoof Care Essentials

Self-adhesive flexible bandage and duct tape

Tucked someplace in the barn is at least one roll of the strong, stretchy, gauzy material you can use to bandage wounds, hold medicinal or liniment poultices in place, or wrap a foot that has lost a shoe until the farrier arrives (Vetrap or Co-Flex are some examples). 

Duct tape has a million uses around the farm, but it is most useful in a hoof-care box to help wrap a foot that has lost a shoe or is healing from an abscess.

“I like duct tape because it stays on; Vetrap is not as durable,” Turner says, which is why many horse owners use a combination of the two when wrapping a foot.

Gauze pads

Whether for dressing a wound or applying a poultice, every hoof-care box should include a stack of 3-by-3-inch or larger nonstick gauze bandages or dressings such as Telfa pads, says McBride. Some people use disposable diapers as an alternative, she says.

Horse Hoof Care Essentials

Hoof knife

A sharp hoof knife (or scissors or a single-edge razor blade) comes in handy to cut gauze pads, Vetrap, or duct tape to the desired size.

Mercuri says she always keeps a pair of sharp kitchen shears, for instance, on hand to remove a piece of frog that might be hanging from a hoof.

A clean towel

Farley suggests also including an absorbent towel in your hoof-care box. After you clean and brush the horse’s hoof completely, use a towel to dry it thoroughly before applying any hoof hardener or other treatment, he says.

“Pick up the foot, wrap it in the towel, and really cradle it for a minute,” he says, to soak up surface moisture. “It will make the treatment more effective.”

The list of additional hoof-box contents is seemingly endless. Work with your farrier and veterinarian to craft one that’s practical for you and your horse’s needs.

Take-Home Message

Whatever you put in your hoof-care kit, Turner believes the benefits of routine attention to a horse’s feet go far beyond what’s in the box.

First of all, when you pick up your horse’s feet on a regular basis, you’re training him to do it for you, for the veterinarian, and for the farrier, Turner says. It will make hoof procedures much easier when they’re needed, which is not the time to train.

Regular hoof care has even more subtle benefits. “It does so much for the horse, for his mind, and for his body, and it helps horses and owners bond,” says Turner.


Pat Raia is a veteran journalist who enjoys covering equine welfare, industry, and news. In her spare time, she enjoys riding her Tennessee Walking Horse, Sonny.

New Way to Evaluate Horse Heart Function

Scientists recently tested a noninvasive, wireless, wearable device that allows veterinarians to monitor heart function, sounds and murmurs, and more while the horse remains free to move around his normal surroundings.

If you have to restrain a horse every time you want to evaluate his cardiac function, you’re probably not getting a realistic view of how his heart works when he’s in motion. Yet, a heart’s electrical function is the only continuously measurable variable in moving horses, which can leave out critical information related to the heart’s mechanical functions. So Swiss researchers recently validated a system that detects and records electrical and mechanical cardiac data simultaneously, while horses are free to move about as they please.

“This new monitor is a completely noninvasive, wireless, wearable device that allows continuous monitoring of the heart’s electrical and mechanical functions, heart sounds and murmurs, body position, physical activity, and respiratory effort,” said Colin Schwarzwald, DVM, PhD, an equine internist and cardiology specialist in the University of Zurich Vetsuisse Faculty Equine Department, in Switzerland.

“During recordings, horses can freely move and do not have to be restrained in any way,” he said. “This allows long-term monitoring in a natural environment, to study normal cardiac physiology but also to monitor cardiac function in horses with heart disease.”

Originally developed for human medicine, the monitor registers electrical and sound data continuously for up to several days. The researchers wanted to see whether they could adapt this device for use on equine patients, so they found a safe way to attach it to a modified surcingle. Then, they collected data on 123 healthy, unclipped horses 10 hours a day for several days in summer and fall as the animals moved freely.

The scientists ran into a few technical difficulties, such as the device moving out of place, switching off by itself, or falling off the surcingle. However, for the most part, the tests were successful. The monitor allowed scientists to pick up and record nonstop electric and mechanical heart data from these horses during their daily routines.

What’s more, the data collection was easy, the team said. The recorded information passed from the device over Wi-Fi to a computer to be processed, where it provided a history that could be analyzed later by a skilled professional.

“Recordings can be easily obtained without prior expertise, and subsequent analyses can be done remotely by trained experts,” Schwarzwald said.

The technology complements the remote noninvasive electroencephalogram that allows researchers to record brain activity in free-moving horses. Both devices make it possible to carry out important clinical tests on horses without having to restrain them. Restraint can affect readings and compromise long-term welfare, he said.

The two tools might work in a complementary way, Schwarzwald added. “Brain injury can influence heart function; stress would influence both activity of brain and heart (and could potentially be detected and quantified with appropriate monitoring of brain and heart function); and clinical monitoring during sedation or general anesthesia might be facilitated and improved with combined use of these technologies,” he said.

The team conducted the current study to make sure the device worked on horses, but further research will focus on the monitor’s ability to help diagnose and monitor horses with cardiac disease, Schwarzwald said. In the meantime, it’s showing promise in helping clinicians pick up critical data about their equine patients’ heart function.

“While there is still room for improvement and development with respect to device attachment and consistent recording quality, acoustic cardiography has potential to provide added value over conventional diagnostic tools such as echocardiography, systemic blood pressure measurements, or cardiac catheterization,” the researchers stated.

The device should become available to clinicians after further field testing is completed, Schwarzwald said.

The study, “Assessment of systolic and diastolic function in clinically healthy horses using ambulatory acoustic cardiography,” was published in the Equine Veterinary Journal.


Christa Lesté-Lasserre is a freelance writer based in France. A native of Dallas, Texas, Lesté-Lasserre grew up riding Quarter Horses, Appaloosas, and Shetland Ponies. She holds a master’s degree in English, specializing in creative writing, from the University of Mississippi in Oxford and earned a bachelor’s in journalism and creative writing with a minor in sciences from Baylor University in Waco, Texas. She currently keeps her two Trakehners at home near Paris. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.


Choosing Salt and Mineral Blocks for Horses

Choosing between plain white salt blocks, red mineralized blocks, rock salt on ropes, and more can be challenging. Our nutritionist offers advice on the best way to supplement salt in your horse’s diet.

Q. I have been researching different types of salt and mineral blocks available for horses. I’m trying to determine if one kind is better than another, but there are quite a few different types! Is there one type I should choose over the others?

A. There are a large number of different types of salt and mineral blocks available at feed stores. Here in California, I most commonly see plain white salt blocks, red mineralized salt blocks, and rock salt on a rope. However, in certain parts of the country, other salt blocks that contain supplemental selenium, cobalt, or sulfur are common, as well.

Despite being visually quite different and having names that suggest significantly different nutritional compositions, all these salt sources have the similarity that they are all predominantly sodium chloride—more than 92% sodium chloride, based on the analysis I found.

Many people rely on the brown trace mineralized blocks as a trace mineral supplement to their horse’s forage. However, the amounts of key trace minerals such as zinc and copper are likely not being consumed at high enough quantities to ensure the horse’s needs are being met or the diet’s trace mineral profile is well balanced.

The assumption with trace mineral blocks is that your horse will consume their daily sodium needs from the block and, at the same time, consume the other minerals. While they are of course consuming trace minerals from these blocks as they consume the salt it may not be enough to meet their needs.

For example, a 1,100-pound horse has a daily maintenance sodium requirement of just under 10 grams of sodium, which can be met by consuming about an ounce of sodium chloride salt. Based on one commercially available trace mineralized block, if your horse consumed an ounce (28.3 grams) of salt he would also consume 100 mg of zinc and 8.5 mg of copper. This will most likely not be enough to meet the shortfall remaining after consuming 1.5 to 2% of body weight as hay or pasture. Natural rock salt often contains even lower amounts of essential trace minerals.

Because these forms of salt are often more expensive than plain white blocks and do not ensure adequate trace mineral nutrition, my preference is to save money and just buy the plain white salt block.

Of course, the other issue is that not all horses will consume an ounce of salt from a block each day despite the fact that they do have a desire to consume sodium. This results in an even lower trace mineral intake. Many times I go in stalls and the salt block is in the corner covered with bedding, dust, and possibly manure. Clearly they are not being licked on a daily basis.

While the rock salt and trace mineralized salt might not fully meet your horse’s nutritional needs, some horses appear to prefer their taste, preferentially consuming them over a plain white salt block. In this case the extra expense might be worthwhile and the trace minerals that are consumed are unlikely going to negatively impact the overall diet if you are providing other source of trace minerals in the ration.

My preference is to give loose salt in their feed at a rate of 1 tablespoon per 500 pounds of body weight, along with additional salt block access. This way I know they are consuming their maintenance sodium requirement and have additional sat available should they desire.

To insure trace mineral needs are met I find feeding a ration balancing feed or supplement that is designed to provide those nutrients that might be missing or deficient in a forage based diet to be more successful than relying on a trace mineralized salt block.

About The Author


Clair Thunes, PhD, is an equine nutritionist who owns Summit Equine Nutrition, based in Gilbert, Arizona. She works as a consultant with owners/trainers and veterinarians across the United States and globally to take the guesswork out of feeding horses and provides services to select companies. As a nutritionist she works with all equids, from WEG competitors to Miniature donkeys and everything in between. Born in England, she earned her undergraduate degree at Edinburgh University, in Scotland, and her master’s and doctorate in nutrition at the University of California, Davis. Growing up, she competed in a wide array of disciplines and was an active member of the U.K. Pony Club. Today, she serves as the district commissioner for the Salt River Pony Club.