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Just like with humans, even those who receive excellent care can become ill. Our role as caretakers is to try to limit risk through prevention and be able to recognize the symptoms of common ailments when they do occur so that appropriate treatment can be given. Let’s take a look at some of the most common horse ailments along with their symptoms.


Abdominal pain in horses is referred to as colic. Colic results from a wide range of digestive issues that can vary in seriousness. Most forms of colic fall into one of two categories, spasmodic or impact. The spasmodic form is pain that is the result of excess gas as it stretches the intestines. Impact colic is pain that can result when there is a build-up of feed or an obstruction in the intestinal tract. The feed can build up in the digestive tract if it is overly coarse or dry. 

Possible signs of colic are when a horse bites or attempts to kick at their belly or flank and trying to lie down and roll around. The horse may also appear anxious, seem to be playing in their water without actually drinking any, and attempt to urinate or defecate without results. An elevated pulse can also accompany colic. If you notice these signs, it is essential to seek veterinary care.


Laminitis is an inflammation of the tissue in a horse’s hoof that attaches the coffin bone to the hoof wall. It can be a severe condition which if not caught early, can lead to euthanasia. It generally affects the front hooves but can affect the back feet as well. 

Symptoms a horse may exhibit with laminitis are rocking or leaning to relieve pressure on the affected feet, lying down with an unwillingness to get up an increase in the digital pulse of the lower limb, and lameness. 


Botulism in horses is usually the result of one of three things: wet or dry spoiled hay, hay that has been contaminated by the carcass of an animal, or the result of a wound. Untreated, botulism can kill a horse or require it to be euthanized. Immediate veterinary care is necessary as the treatment is generally an antiserum. 

Signs of botulism include muscle weakness or tremors, particularly in the face, tongue, and eyelids — swelling of the face or muzzle, difficulty swallowing, or trouble holding its head up. 


Thrush is an infection that can cause a horse to go lame. It affects the frog of the hoof and the grooves on either side of the frog. Thrush was formerly thought to be the result of a dirty, wet environment. However, it is now believed that certain factors such as abnormalities in hoof shape, improper trimming, lack of exercise, and poor diet and circulation can allow the infection to occur. Once diagnosed, it can be corrected to prevent a recurrence of the infection.

Signs of thrush include a thick, smelly, black discharge from the frog of the hoof; however, the horse may exhibit no apparent discomfort other than when the frog or heel is touched. The frog itself may appear misshapen and have soft spots. 

West Nile Virus

Transmitted primarily by various types of mosquitoes, West Nile Virus can cause inflammation of the brain and spinal cord also referred to as encephalomyelitis. Horses that are affected by West Nile Virus can develop meningitis as well. Horses can and should be vaccinated against West Nile Virus. Efforts can also be made to limit stagnant water where horses are being kept as it creates an optimal breeding ground for mosquitoes.

Signs a horse may have contracted the West Nile Virus are struggling to swallow, pressing its head against objects, fever, and uncoordinated movements as a result of impaired vision and weak or paralyzed hind legs. The horse may exhibit extreme sensitivity to stimuli such as lighting or sound.