Is my horse accident-prone or something worse?

Neurological issues, soreness or lameness may be behind a horse’s frequent stumbles, trips and minor mishaps.
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A grey horse with a read bandage on his knee eating hay.

Neurological or vision problems can make a horse seem "accident-prone." 

Question: My gelding is constantly hurting himself. He always seems to find a way to get injured. For instance, he cuts himself on random objects. I scan his environment constantly for potential problems, but it doesn’t help. The last thing he cut himself on was his salt-block holder. It’s not just cuts: He put his head through a board fence once to reach some grass and got spooked. He ended up pulling skin off his poll and had a sore neck for weeks. Once, in the trailer, he stepped on his own coronary band, which was a bloody mess. He cracked a tooth recently, maybe he was kicked or perhaps he was chewing rocks. There’s no way to know with him. My other horses hardly ever have these problems. Is there any explanation for why my guy might be so determined to destroy himself? Any tips for keeping him safe besides locking him up in a padded stall?

Jeff DeMarco
Bedford, Pennsylvania

Answer: The first thing I would suggest would be a good physical workup, including a focused neurologic exam by your veterinarian. If your horse is having difficulties with balance or is sore, this can alter his gait and may be a reason he is always running into objects in his environment. Your veterinarian can put him through a variety of tests to observe how he moves in hand and with a variety of challenges. This can rule out spine and nerve issues that could cause stumbling or awkward movements. Your horse may not be aware of where his limbs and body are in space, which could be a reason why he is prone to these injuries.

Lameness issues may also cause him to trip, fall or step on his own feet if his range of motion is altered by pain. A thorough exam on the ground, on a longe line and under saddle will help to identify musculoskeletal problems to target for therapy. If muscle stiffness or soft tissue problems are noted, massage or a chiropractic adjustment may provide additional benefit. Along those lines, acupuncture is a complementary treatment for many types of orthopedic issues.

It would also be a good idea to have your veterinarian check your horse’s vision. Limited sight in one or both eyes or disease-related eye inflammation may cause a horse to have difficulty navigating his surroundings.

If your horse is otherwise healthy, he may simply be very inquisitive, which can lead him into trouble out of boredom. You are already looking for ways to keep him safe, so maybe add in toys that will occupy his mind and provide a healthy source of entertainment. Options could include flavored salt toys that attach to the wall and spin, horse pacifiers and treat balls. A number of toys on the market can be filled with treats or even hay to keep him busy. However, I would avoid enrichment toys or hay nets that hang on a string because of the risk of entanglement.

A regular exercise program can help to keep him tired but happy and provide a healthy outlet for his excess energy. To reduce the chances that he will eat inappropriate objects, make sure he receives adequate amounts of good quality hay or turnout on pastures---with a ration balancer to ensure adequate vitamin and mineral intake. If you can space out his feedings to keep him occupied, this will also help to reduce boredom that may lead him into trouble.

Amelia S. Munsterman, DVM, MS, PhD
Associate Professor of Large Animal
Surgery and Emergency Medicine
Michigan State University
East Lansing, Michigan

Amelia S. Munsterman, DVM, MS, PhD, DACVS-LA, DACVECC, CVA, is an Associate Professor of Large Animal Surgery and Emergency Medicine at Michigan State University. She graduated from the University of Missouri-Columbia, College of Veterinary Medicine and completed both a residency in Large Animal Surgery and a master’s degree in biomedical sciences at Ohio State University. Munsterman received her doctorate in Large Animal Emergency and Critical Care at Auburn University. She is also certified in acupuncture and spinal manipulation with a master’s degree in Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine.

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