University of Missouri Extension

G2841, Reviewed October 1993

Unsoundnesses and Blemishes of Horses: Head, Body, Respiratory Tract and Stable Vices

Melvin Bradley
Department of Animal Sciences

Any defect that affects serviceability is considered an unsoundness. A defect that detracts from appearance but does not impair serviceability is considered a blemish.



Respiration (wind)

Any permanent abnormality in the respiration process is a serious unsoundness.

Stable vices that affect usefulness

Vices are habits acquired by some horses that are subjected to long periods of idleness. Hard work and freedom from close confinement are distinct preventives. Correct or prevent them early, before the habits become confirmed, if you expect a high degree of success.

Wind sucking, cribbing, weaving and stall walking horses are hard to keep in condition. And the latter two types are often fatigued when needed.

Examining horses for soundness

It is not easy to make an accurate diagnosis of a horse's soundness. Sometimes professional assistance is needed, and whenever possible the horse should be taken on a trial basis for use under conditions to which it will be subjected under new ownership. Some guarantees of soundness are useful. Most horse owners can increase their competence in identifying unsoundnesses and blemishes by practice and by using a system of inspection.

Whenever possible, examine the horse in its stall under natural conditions. Note the manner of tying — it may be a halter puller. If metal covers the manger or feed box, cribbing should be suspected. Look for signs of a strap around the throat latch. Note the arrangement of bedding. If the horse paws, bedding will be piled up near the back feet. Slight lameness may be detected by movement of bedding caused from pointing. Signs of kicking may be noted. Move the horse around and observe signs of slight founder, stiffness, crampiness and stable attitude.

Lead the horse from the stall and observe the eyes closely for normal dilation and color. Test eyesight further by leading it over obstacles, such as bales of hay, immediately after coming out of the stall into brighter light. Back the horse and observe hock action for string halt and crampiness. Stiff shoulders and/or stiff limbs are indicated by a stilted, sluggish stride.

Examine for lameness in motion. Lameness in a front limb is indicated by a nod of the head when weight is placed on the sound limb. The croup drops when weight is shifted from a lame hind limb to a sound one. Splint lameness usually gets worse with exercise, whereas spavin lameness may improve. The horse should be examined when cool, when warmed up, and when cooled off again, at both the walk and trot.

Soundness of wind should be checked under conditions of hard work. Be alert for roaring and heaves or the appearance of a discharge from the nose. Cocked ankles may appear after sharp exercise, and weak fetlocks and knees may tremble.

Make a general examination with the horse at rest. It should not point or shift its weight from one forelimb to the other. Stand directly in front of the horse and observe the eyes for signs of cloudiness, position of the ears for alertness, and scars or indentations indicating diseased teeth. Pay particular attention to the knees, cannons and hoof heads for irregularities.

Move to the side at an oblique angle and note strength of back and coupling, signs of body scars, and shape and cleanness of hocks, cannons, fetlocks and hoof heads. Look for capped hocks, elbows and leg set from a side view. Chin the horse at the withers for an estimation of height. Stand behind the horse and observe symmetry of hips, thighs, gaskins and hocks, and position of the feet. Move to the opposite side and the oblique angle previously described for final visual inspection before handling any part of the horse.

The wall of a good hoof is composed of dense horn of uniform color without any signs of cracks in it or rings around it. The slant of the toe should be about 45 degrees and should correspond with that of the pastern. The heels should be deep and reasonably wide. Pick up each foot and look at the bearing surface. The frog should be full and elastic and help bear weight. The bars should be large and straight. The sole should be arched and should not appear flat as in "dropped sole." Check for "hard heels" or sidebones, ringbone, corns, contracted feet and thrush. If the horse is shod, check for wear on the shoe from contraction and expansion of healthy heels.

Examine the hocks (with care for safety) for swellings, spavins, puffs, curbs or other irregularities, by feeling when necessary.

A thorough examination combined with a week's trial will identify almost any unsoundness or blemish.

Many horses serve faithfully for a lifetime without developing unsoundnesses, vices or bad manners. Such service can come to horse owners only through patience, knowledge and attention to details of the needs of the animal.

G2841 Unsoundness and Blemishes of Horses: Head, Body, Respiratory Tract and Stable Vices | University of Missouri Extension

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