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Stabling a sick horse

August 10, 2007

Having to keep a horse confined while it gets well can be a daunting task. Neil Clarkson lays out a few strategies.

It's an unpleasant prospect for both horse and owner. The vet has visited and orders your horse into a stable while it overcomes injury or illness. It could be a two weeks, a month, even longer.

For a horse used to life in a paddock, it can be a real challenge. The owner, too, may well struggle to maintain their own sanity, let alone that of their horse.

It is unfortunate that animals used to wide open spaces occasionally need confinement while problems are rectified. For the horse, it means a radical change to its daily routines, not only in terms of behaviour, but also diet.

By applying a few strategies, you can minimise stress on both horse and owner.

Proper feed is essential to your horse's wellbeing during confinement. Your horse's complaint may have specific feed requirements. Your vet should discuss these with you. If not, the aim is to give your horse the daily protein it needs, as well as the bulk needed in its diet so that he doesn't feel hungry.

Great care is needed in changing a horse's daily feed routine, with colic an ever-present threat. Where possible, try to change the feed regime gradually.

Good quality meadow hay is a great option. It's unlikely to provide an excess of protein, and will give the horse the bulk it needs in its diet. If your horse has been in work and getting a lot of energy from grain, you will need to cut back the grain (and therefore protein) which you can safely replace with hay.

Feeding excess protein runs the risk of colic or laminitis, so, provided you have an abundance of quality meadow hay, grain should be fed only sparingly, if at all.

Let your horse eat as much meadow hay as he wants. Aside from keeping him entertained, the bulk will aid digestion and, provided the quality is good, it is a great maintenance feed. If it is a growing horse, or a pregnant or lactating mare, its protein requirements are likely to be higher. This can be addressed with lucerne hay, or a grain-based commercial feed. But again, it remains critical that the diet doesn't become too rich in protein or colic and founder issues may arise.

If hay is unavailable, or the quality of available hay is poor, you may have little choice but to opt for more concentrated feeds. If this is the case, ensure you keep the fibre levels up in your horse's diet. Opt for either a low-protein, high fibre sweet feed or use dampened bran to replace a portion of your horse's regular grain - say, one third or thereabouts.

Processed sugar beet, lucerne hay, and even boiled barley are good nutritious feeds that don't pack quite the same punch as high-energy grains.

Monitor your horse's droppings to ensure they're not too sloppy or too dry. Bran can be a laxative so if the dung is loose you may need to reduce the quantity. If the droppings appear dry, start adding a little vegetable oil to the diet.

If you suspect your horse is simply not drinking enough water, a little salt added to it may encourage him to drink more.

Horses that take a dislike to any of your offerings may change their tune once you start adding a little molasses to the mix. It can also prove useful for masking the taste of any bitter-tasting medicine your vet may have prescribed.

As well as keeping your stabled horse clean, grooming is an excellent way for you to spend time together and help pass the time for a sick horse.
A very sick horse may need all the encouragement he can get to eat. If the horse will eat them, go for carrots, apples, even freshly cut grass if that is what it takes.

Your vet should be able to provide good advice on a feeding regime, depending upon the condition of the animal and its needs during confinement.

It's important to establish a regular feeding routine. Hopefully, meadow hay will be available at all times. Other foods should be given as regularly as you reasonably can. Several smaller meals will be much better, and safer, than one big daily nosh-up.

A sick horse will be much like a normal human patient. Any distractions that help pass the day will be great, but it needn't include anything too stressful like a badly behaved horse in an adjoining stall making a racket all day.

Get a strategy in place for feeding any medications. If the medicine is taken by mouth, the method of administering you adopt may depend upon its palatability. It can easily be mixed in with their feed but you need to ensure the horse is eating its entire meal and not wasting it on the stable floor. If it proves so unpalatable that your horse will refuse his meal, you may have little choice but to use a syringe (minus the needle, of course) to squirt it in his mouth.

Even this has its risks, with the horse possibly getting annoyed and the obvious risk of wastage.

Some people report success in mixing the medication with peanut butter, which is likely to stick inside their mouth until they clean it up and swallow it.

Repeated injections are never fun - for horse or owner. Your vet should show you how to inject safely and properly. Make sure they explain this thoroughly: some injections will only be effective if put directly into the muscle, while others are best directly under the skin. Get advice on several injection sites, as a horse will quickly get sick of you picking on one spot.

A horse being confined for a long time deserves the best stall. The larger the better. Dust must be kept to a minimum and breathing urine fumes all days will do his health no good. It therefore needs to be well ventilated and all dung and urine dealt with regularly throughout the day to minimise the smell. When sorting the ventilation, ensure your sick horse doesn't have to stand in a cold draft all day.

A regularly cleaned stall will reduce the fly problem and keep your horse in a more pleasing environment. Wounds and dressings are also likely to stay cleaner.

If the stable provides a good outlook, all the better. The most interesting vista you can give him is not spectacular views down the valley, but simply other horses. Even watching your day-to-day stable activities will keep him amused for at least part of the day.

If confined for a lengthy period of time, your horse may come to view the stable as a prison. It's your job to break up the monotony!

A stable blanket may make your horse more comfortable, particularly during colder months.

A sick horse may well spend more time lying down than normal. The bedding you choose is important. A layer of straw is ideal, but it must be thick enough to provide good cushioning underfoot. Change soiled bedding regularly.

Some people have two stalls in operation for sick horses, moving the animal from one to the other to make clean-ups and maintenance easier.

No matter how thick the bedding, there is a real risk of a stabled horse developing capped hocks or other friction wounds. This is because a horse is likely to paw at its bedding, creating low spots. It doesn't appear to matter what base material is used. Sores are still likely to develop, and they are notoriously difficult to control.

Neoprene hock boots are a good option, but you must install an absorbent layer beneath them otherwise the horse will sweat and irritation will result. They need to be removed very regularly for inspection and the inside layer should be changed.

Pay the horse plenty of attention. Keep him clean and well groomed. If possible, make this part of his daily routine to help him pass the hours. Pay careful attention to his hooves, which can begin to dry out and develop fungal problems.

Clean them out daily and apply a nourishing hoof oil to keep them in good condition.

Dressings will need to be changed regularly. Your vet should leave instructions on how often this should be done, and how to keep them in place.

Another threat is laminitis, either through too much load bearing on the horse's good legs or inactivity. A diet too rich in protein will increase the risk.

Pay careful attention to your horse's habits, appearance and behaviour. Has he grown grumpier and, if so, why? Is there new swelling in his legs or joints? Monitor overall condition. If your horse changes his behaviour, try to figure out why. Is he sore? Bored? It could be, of course, that he is feeling better.

A record of your horse's resting pulse and respiration rate at the time of confinement will give you something to compare to if you suspect other health problems are developing.

Keep a written record in the stables of medication, feed, and other essentials in case a returning vet asks for information.

As the horse improves, carefully supervised sessions outside the stall will be desirable. The vet should give you some guidance. It is essential the horse be kept under control at all times. The last thing you want is him galloping off to aggravate an injury you have been carefully tending for a month.

If your horse gets free, make no mistake: they'll be taking to their scrapers and possibly undo all your good work.

Your horse may well come to consider his stall the equine equivalent of Colditz prison, especially when he starts to feel better. Be ever watchful of break-out attempts when you head into the stall for your daily tasks.

Is there a risk of him jumping over the stall door? If so, provide additional security.

Long periods of confinement will not be fun for owner or horse. There is no way around this.

You will have to forgive your horse its impatience, and have it yourself by the bucketload!



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