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10 Common Horse Health Problems, Illnesses & Diseases (Vet Answer)


May 17, 2023
Female vet checking horse teeth


Female vet checking horse teeth
Dr. Chantal Villeneuve Photo

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It can seem like horses are constantly creating new ways to injure themselves and get sick. Believe it or not, though, there are some problems that are more common than others, no matter how creative they get.

Here we will briefly look at some of the more common health problems so that you can get better at spotting problems early. Getting a vet involved earlier rather than later is almost always better and can, in fact, mean the difference between life and death.

So, in no particular order, read on to learn more about health problems in horses.


The 10 Horse Health Problems, Illnesses & Diseases

1. Colic

Colic can be a life-threatening problem and needs immediate veterinary treatment. If you suspect colic, be prepared for a few long days of monitoring and nursing. Signs of colic include:

  • Pawing and stomping abnormally
  • Looking back and/or biting flank
  • Sweating (for no apparent reason)
  • Kicking at the belly
  • Rolling excessively
  • Inappetence
  • Depressed
  • Not pooping

There are many types of colic, and your vet will be trying to sort out which one your horse has by performing a physical exam, a rectal exam, ultra-sounding the belly, and any other test they think might give them some clue. Colic can be just a transitory belly ache. However, without treatment, a belly ache can turn into more severe forms of colic.

Horse Rolling Sick colic horse
Image Credit: Tanja Esser, Shutterstock

The most severe forms of colic occur when there is a blockage in the digestive tract. Blockages need to be relieved as fast as possible, either with medication or surgery.

2. Hoof Abscess

Hoof abscesses are when a pocket of inflammation and bacterial infection forms in the hard yet sensitive hoof. A horse with an abscess can look like they have a broken leg, and they can be severely lame.

An abscess can start as any little nidus in the foot that allows bacteria, discharge, and blood to pool and pocket in the hoof. Without treatment, they can grow larger and larger until a significant portion of the hoof is infected and rotten.

A hoof with an abscess
Image Credit: Chelle129, Shutterstock

The pocket of inflammation needs to have the pressure relieved, usually by cutting it open. But if it is too deep, cutting it open can be very painful and tricky. Work with your veterinarian and farrier to treat and prevent abscesses. Signs of an abscess can include:

  • Lameness
  • Heat in the foot
  • Pulse in fetlock

3. Degenerative Joint Disease

Degenerative joint disease is common in horses and includes all the stages of arthritis. Arthritis is inflammation of the joints. It is usually a chronic problem; long-term inflammation causes changes to the cartilage and bones within the joint. There are numerous ways these changes can manifest, and the amount of lameness that results in is usually dependent on each individual horse.

There are many, many types of treatment for arthritis. The best way to evaluate each one is to discuss them with your vet, as each has its own advantages and disadvantages.

horse accident struggling to stand
Image Credit: anjajuli, Shutterstock

Signs of degenerative joint disease include:

  • Lameness
  • Fluctuating, waxing-waning lameness
  • Chronic lameness
  • Stiffness in gait
  • Struggling to stand up
  • Stiffness in the back or neck

In horses, degenerative joint disease tends to be a problem when it affects their lower limbs, but they can also get it in their back and neck.

4. Dental Problems

Horse teeth are different from human, dog, or cat teeth. Horse teeth grow continuously throughout their life. As a result, they have slightly different dental problems than we are used to thinking about, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have them.

The most common problem with horse teeth is a result of irregular wear. Because horse teeth grow continuously, they grind against each other and wear each other down to the appropriate length—that’s what’s supposed to happen.

When a horse’s teeth are worn down irregularly, they can get spikes and spurs on the corners of their otherwise flat teeth that jab into their cheeks and tongue and hurt. The arcade of teeth can also abnormally grow into a wave or steps, so there is no longer an even chewing surface.

Horse Dental treatment
Image Credit: Chelle129, Shutterstock

Horses need dentists too. Getting a vet or a dentist to check your teeth every 6–12 months is the best way to prevent and treat dental problems. Signs of dental problems include:

  • Sudden changes holding the bit
  • Dropping feed
  • Reluctance to chew
  • Weight loss
  • No apparent signs

5. Equine Metabolic Syndrome

Becoming not only more common but better understood, equine metabolic syndrome (EMS) is a complex disorder where the metabolism is abnormal. The most important thing to know about this condition is that it often leads to laminitis (to be discussed later).

In EMS, insulin, carbohydrates, or blood sugars are not regulated normally, and fatty tissue is increased, particularly in the neck and above the tail.

The first-place treatment starts with diet and exercise by reducing high carbohydrate foods, such as reducing free-ranging grazing and increasing exercise safely, as much as the horse can handle (especially if they have laminitis). Certain types of EMS may need medication to further help hormonal regulation.

Vet examining horse
Image Credit: mariait, Shutterstock

Each horse needs a different diet. Generic dietary recommendations (i.e., the guidelines on grain bags) are often too broadly extrapolated to be relevant for your horse. Some horses are just thriftier and better ‘keepers’ than others, and these are often the horses that develop EMS. So, individualize your horse’s food to their individual needs. Signs of EMS include:

  • Fatty neck and/or above tail
  • Obesity
  • Laminitis, or a history of
  • Failure to lose weight

6. Laminitis

Laminitis is a debilitating disease that can permanently harm a horse. All horses are susceptible to it, especially if they are overweight, have a high carbohydrate diet, are sick, and/or are lame on another leg. Horses with laminitis are severely lame, along with other signs all related to the pain.

person holdin up a horse's hoof
Image Credit: Barbara Olsen , Pexels

Laminitis can happen suddenly and improve, or it can become a permanent change. If you suspect laminitis, call your vet immediately, if anything so that your poor horse can, at least, get some pain relief. There are several signs indicating laminitis:

  • Lameness
  • Refusing to walk and/or a ‘laminitis’ walk
  • Inappetence
  • Standing rocked back off their front legs—distinct ‘laminitis’ stance
  • Heat in the hoof
  • A pulse at the fetlock
  • Depressed
  • Trembling
  • Severe pain

A horse’s hoof is similar to our fingernails, just much thicker and more complex, and it is directly attached to the last bone in the horse’s leg. The inside of the hoof, the wall that is inside the body, is directly attached to the last bone of the foot.

In laminitis, the inside wall of the hoof shears away from the bone so that the bone is loose and presses down through the bottom of the foot. In X-rays, you can see the last bone of the foot is out of line with the others, and the tip is pointing down into the soft tissue of the sole.

7. Dermatophilosis

Dermatophilosis is a skin infection that happens in horses when they are chronically wet and do not shed their coat thoroughly. It usually forms along the back and the lower legs where water accumulates and does not dry easily.

Dermatophilus is the bacteria that infects the skin. Usually, it is a mild infection that just causes the hair to fall out in clumps, and once the horse is thoroughly groomed and dried off, their own immune system clears up the infection.

However, if the horse is not groomed, is continually exposed to the wet, or is immuno-compromised, it can turn into a more severe infection that needs medication and more intensive husbandry changes. It can also turn into a chronic, never-ending problem in damp areas.

Horse with Dermatophilosis  Sick horse
Image Credit: Nihat Boy, Shutterstock

As long as your horse is groomed and dry, you usually do not have to worry about it being contagious. However, if it is present in one horse, since most of the others are exposed to the same conditions, they may also have it. Signs of mild dermatophilosis include:

  • Matted hair
  • Shedding in clumps

More severe skin infections will show the following:

  • Redness and heat
  • Discharge
  • Pain

8. Ulcers

A stomach ulcer is when the inner layer of the stomach, called the mucosa, develops a sore or an ulcer. The acid in the stomach irritates and erodes the stomach wall. Ulcers can be very small or get so large and eroded that they wear through the entire stomach wall and burst it open—which can be deadly in horses but is luckily rare. Adults and foals are susceptible.

The size of the stomach ulcers is not correlated with how much they hurt your horse. Some horses tolerate ulcers better than others.

Stomach ulcers are treated with a combination of medication and diet. And they are diagnosed with an endoscopic evaluation, where a tiny camera at the end of a hose is threaded down the horse’s nose and throat to see inside the stomach.

Thin sick horse
Image Credit: aeiddam0853578919, Shutterstock

Signs of stomach ulcers in your horse are hard to pinpoint but can include:

  • Change in performance
  • Inappetence—can wax and wain
  • Possible weight loss
  • Changes in personality

9. Tendon or Ligament Problems

Tendon and ligament injuries are very common in horses and cause many problems. The horse’s lower leg does not have much muscle to injure, but it does have a lot of tendons and ligaments that can get strained, sprained, torn, or otherwise get injured and inflamed.

Veterinarian examining horse leg tendons. Selective focus on hoof
Image Credit: Brastock, Shutterstock

Identifying which tendon and where exactly the pain is coming from is the first step in treating any lameness. Localizing the problem to the exact tendon or ligament can be a long and involved process. Almost as long and involved as healing them. Some signs of tendon and ligament problems include:

  • Sudden, acute lameness
  • Heat
  • Swelling

10. Strangles

Strangles is not as common as it could be because of vaccinations and their requirements in community events. This highly contagious infectious disease is caused by the bacteria Streptococcus equi equi. The most famous sign of infection is caused when the bacteria invade the lymph nodes under the jaw and cause them to abscess and eventually rupture.

vet and horse_Shutterstock_lgctr
Image Credit: lgctr, Shutterstock

You cannot get strangled from your horse, but other horses can easily get it. So strict isolation and control measures are needed in an outbreak. The following are some signs of strangles:

  • Nasal discharge
  • Depressed
  • Inappetence
  • Swelling under the chin and throat
  • Pain in the throat/neck
  • Abscessed lymph nodes
  • Fever
  • Increased or labored breathing

Strangles can spread quickly between horses, and they can get very sick, but they are not likely to die from it unless severe complications arise. Contact your vet and boarding facility immediately if you suspect strangles. Honestly, just contact your vet anytime your horse is not eating or depressed. divider-horse


Horses can bring a lot of joy and love. And while they can be a lot of work, making sure they live a healthy, pain-free life is the most rewarding part.

Having a close relationship with your vet, farrier, dentist, acupuncturist, chiropractor, and boarding manager is the best way to ensure they are living their best lives. But in all seriousness, regularly check in with your vet and farrier. Taking care of a horse is a team effort.

Featured Image Credit: wavebreakmedia, Shutterstock

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