Protect horses from pain, suffering, injury, disease

Guidance on the health and welfare of your horse - including information on illness, breeding and transport.

Illness and horses

Everyone responsible for the supervision of horses should be able to recognise signs of ill health and have a basic knowledge of equine first aid. It is also important that owners/keepers ask a vet to diagnose or treat any illness, injury or disease.

Owners/keepers should have a vet’s contact details easily available, including out of hours information to allow you to contact a vet quickly should an emergency occur. The horse’s passport should be readily accessible; if it is not, some treatments may not be available.

Signs of poor health and horses

Owners and keepers of horses should be able to recognise the normal behaviour of their horses and recognise the signs that suggest poor health. These include:

  • change in appetite or drinking habits. (In donkeys, loss of appetite can be life threatening in a very short period of time so veterinary advice should be sought immediately)
  • change in droppings or signs of diarrhoea
  • change in demeanour or behaviour
  • change in weight (either increase or decrease)
  • change in coat/foot condition
  • any signs of pain or discomfort, including reluctance to move, pawing at the ground, rolling, increased rate of respiration and sweating
  • reluctance to stand or inability to stand
  • any sign of injury or lameness, including puncture wounds
  • any signs of disease, such as fluids leaking from the eye/ear/nose, congestion of membranes/conjunctiva, or difficulty coughing or breathing

Any change in your horse’s behaviour should alert you to the possibility that it might be ill. If you think that there is anything wrong with your horse, contact your veterinary practice.

When a horse becomes unwell, the cause of this deterioration should be identified and immediate remedial action taken. Veterinary advice should be obtained if the horse appears to be ill or in pain and the cause is not clear or if initial first aid treatment is not effective.

In the case of foot problems, advice should be obtained in the first instance from a Vet who may, if necessary, recommend a farrier to assist. Advice from the vet or farrier should be followed diligently.

Routine healthcare for horses

A parasite control programme should be put in place on advice from a vet or other suitably qualified person. This may include the use of wormers, and suitable faecal worm egg counts. Careful pasture management including the rotation of grazing and dung collection is an important part of an effective parasite control programme.

There should be adequate control of infectious and contagious disease by a programme agreed with a vet, which will include suitable hygiene and isolation procedures and vaccination.

Isolation of horses

When a new horse enters premises, the horse should be isolated before being introduced to the rest of the herd. As a minimum, this should mean that the new horse is not turned out with other horses, and is stabled in a quiet, separate part of the yard.

The horse should not be allowed direct contact with other horses during this period. Separate equipment should be used to groom and care for the new horse. This period of isolation allows the horse to develop any clinical signs of disease that may be incubating at the time of arrival and protects the other horses in the yard from becoming infected.

The period of isolation and any testing for infectious diseases should be determined in consultation with your vet.

If a horse on any premises is ill with an infectious disease, your vet should be consulted as to what measures are needed to prevent the disease spreading to other animals.

In general, measures should be taken to isolate affected animals, prevent sharing of equipment between different horses, wash hands and possibly change clothes between caring for healthy and suspect animals. Disinfectant footbaths between stables should always be refreshed.

Vaccinations and horses

In general, all horses should be vaccinated against tetanus as horses are very susceptible to this condition. Horses can also be vaccinated against infectious diseases such as equine herpes virus (respiratory and abortion form only) and equine influenza. You should discuss with your vet what vaccinations are most suitable for your horse as this will depend on its age and use.

In-foal mares are at risk from infection with equine herpes virus which can cause abortion. Equine herpes virus is common in young horses so pregnant mares should be separated from young horses.

Teeth should be inspected by a vet or trained equine dental technician at least once a year, and rasped or treated in some other way if necessary. Horses with worn or abnormal teeth are unable to chew their food properly which leads to poor digestion and they may experience dental pain.

Owners and keepers should look out for signs of this problem, such as:

  • half-chewed food dropping out of the mouth
  • poor condition and lack of energy
  • abnormal mouth movements when ridden

Older horses and health

Older horses may require special dental requirements and may need to have their teeth checked more than once a year. Every horse owner/keeper should have some understanding of the care of a horse’s feet and the need to treat lameness quickly and effectively.


Hooves should be trimmed regularly by a good farrier and attention should be paid to their growth and balance. A horse should not be expected to work at a level above that which the hooves are capable of, whether shod or unshod. If horses are used unshod they will need to be carefully managed, and receive regular hoof care which ensures their use on difficult surfaces does not cause them to become sore and lame.

In the main, horses ridden or driven on roads or hard, rough surfaces will need to be regularly shod by an able farrier. Loose shoes should receive prompt attention and hooves should be trimmed or re-shod as advised by the farrier, which should usually be every four to eight weeks. The frequency of hoof trimming will depend on various factors including health, nutrition, age and type of work.


Flies can cause a great deal of irritation to horses, particularly during the summer, and can introduce infection to wounds so a suitable treatment from a vet should be used.

Midges can also be a source of irritation during the spring and summer and can cause sweet itch (an allergic skin condition). Consideration should be given to preventative fly and midge control. Measures could include the use of fly repellents, fly rugs or masks and for horses sensitive to fly or midge bites, the use of stabling at dawn and dusk when flies and particularly midges are most active. If used, fly rugs or masks should be properly fitted to avoid rubbing and slipping.

Breeding horses

If you decide to breed from your mare, there are a number of considerations to be taken into account. You should always consider age, conformation and temperament to decide if the mare is suitable for breeding. In addition, mares have special requirements during pregnancy, foaling and the post-foaling period.

Caring for a young foal can be expensive and requires a large investment of your time. You should consider whether you are prepared for this and can make sure of a good future for the foal before breeding your mare.

Tack and harness

Tack and harness should be correctly fitted, preferably by a qualified saddler or harness fitter. Regular checks should be carried out to make sure that the fit of tack and harness has not changed through routine use or change in body condition.

Equipment should be regularly cleaned and maintained in good order to make sure of comfort, safety and effectiveness.

Boots and bandages, if used should be suitable for the purpose, correctly fitted to avoid discomfort or injury and only left on for the minimum time necessary.

Transporting horses

Transporting horses and ponies should always be as safe and stress free as possible and in line with rules about animal welfare during transport.

For transporting horses only use a vehicle which:

  • is safe
  • in good working order
  • has a suitable floor
  • provides suitable support and space for the horses in transit

Horses should not be transported unless they are in a good state of health (unless they are travelling for veterinary treatment). Water, feed and rest should be offered to horses at suitable intervals and should be suitable in quality and quantity to the horses being transported. The transport of foals should be considered carefully to safeguard the welfare of both foal and mare.

Care for old or ill horses

As horses become older their needs may become greater and they may need increased supervision and additional veterinary care. When a horse reaches the end of its active working life, or is very elderly, consideration should be given to whether the horse can be provided with a good quality of life in retirement. Owners have a responsibility to make sure that they or whoever is entrusted with the care of such a horse is aware of the horses' needs.


A horse's welfare must always be the owner's concern. Owners should should allow a vet or a qualified, experienced and equipped person to humanely destroy a horse when:

  • it is significantly suffering, has not responded to treatment for a serious injury or condition involving significant pain
  • has a disease or injury from which there is no prospect of recovery and for which no treatment is available
  • it is in such a condition that it would be inhumane to keep it alive, the animal should be humanely destroyed without delay by a vet or a suitably qualified, experienced and equipped person

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