Unsoundnesses and Blemishes of Horses: Head, Body, Respiratory Tract and
Department of Animal Sciences, University of
Any defect that affects serviceability is considered an unsoundness. A defect
that detracts from appearance but does not impair serviceability is considered a
HeadBlindness seriously affects the usefulness of a horse. It is
usually characterized by cloudiness of the cornea or complete change of color to
white. Pale blue, watery eyes may indicate periodic ophthalmia (moon blindness),
which is due in part to a Vitamin B deficiency. Watery eyes may appear in
Vitamin A deficiency. These conditions are not common to horses on pasture.
Poll evil is an acquired unsoundness resulting from a
bruise or persistent irritation in the region of the poll. Its cause is Brucella
abortus, the same organism that causes Bang's in cattle. Early symptoms are
swelling and that the animal may become "touchy" around the head and ears when
being bridled. Severe inflammation, eruption and bad scars may result if the
horse is neglected.
Parrot mouth is a rather common hereditary defect where the
lower jaw is too short and the upper and lower incisor teeth do not meet
Monkey mouth, or undershot jaw, is the opposite and is less common
than parrot mouth. Both conditions may interfere with grazing.
Fistula is an inflammation of the withers affecting this
region in much the same way as poll evil affects the poll. It may be present on
one or both sides of the withers. It should be treated early; otherwise the
disease can linger on, resulting in severe infection and occasionally a
"crestfallen" condition of the neck immediately in front of the withers.
Sweeney is an atrophy or decrease in the size of a muscle
or group of muscles. It is most common to the shoulder muscles extending from
the withers downward about two-thirds of the distance to the point of the
shoulder. Sweeney is not very common to light horses. It may be associated with
lameness from another source in the same limb.
Knocked-down hip. A fracture of the external angle of the hip bone
(ilium) results in a lowering of the point of the hip. It can be identified best
by standing directly behind the horse. Hurrying through narrow doors, crowding
in trailers, falling, and injury from other causes may be responsible.
Usefulness is seldom impaired, but appearance is greatly affected.
Scars may appear on any part of the body. Attention is usually
directed to them because of the presence of white hairs. Working stock horses
with scars are not discriminated against very much, but gaited and parade horses
are seriously faulted.
Hernias may appear on any portion of the abdomen, but are
more common near the umbilicus. They are seldom serious enough to cause an
unsoundness, although some are.
Feet and legsFor a discussion of unsoundnesses and blemishes of the
feet and legs, see Unsoundnesses and Blemishes of Horses: Feet and Legs.
Respiration (wind)Any permanent abnormality in the respiration process
is a serious unsoundness.
Roaring (whistling). A paralysis or partial paralysis of the nerves
that control the muscles of the vocal cords may result in a roaring or whistling
sound when air is inhaled into the lungs. The condition is seldom apparent when
the horse is at rest, but it becomes obvious upon exertion. Roaring may be
limited to one nostril and can be determined by plugging each nostril
Heaving is caused by a loss of elasticity in the lungs, resulting from
a breakdown of the walls of a portion of the air cells. The condition is
characterized by an apparent extra contraction of the flank muscles during
expiration. The expiration process can be seen, and often heard, to proceed
normally to about two-thirds of completion, where it is stopped. The flank and
lower rib muscles contract briefly, then expiration continues to completion.
Dusty hay and/or atmosphere, severe exertion of horses out of condition, and
respiratory infections are common causes of the disease.
Stable vices that affect usefulnessVices 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.
Wind sucking. A wind-sucking horse identifies an object on
which it can press its upper front teeth while pulling backward and sucking air
into the stomach, usually accompanied by a prolonged grunting sound. The habit
is practiced while eating, thus causing loss of food. Confirmed wind-suckers
will identify an object in pasture on which to suck wind, and will practice the
habit when tied with bridle or halter as the opportunity is presented.
Cribbing (crib biting). Crib-biting horses grasp an object (feed box
edge or manger) between their teeth and apply pressure, gradually gnawing the
object away if it is not metal. Wind sucking and crib biting are usually
associated, although a horse may practice one without the other. Crib biting
wears away the teeth to a point of decreased efficiency when grazing. Both
habits may be partially prevented and sometimes stopped by a wide strap fitted
sufficiently close about the throat to compress the larynx when pressure is
borne on the front teeth. Normal swallowing is not impaired. Use care in placing
the strap. It should be loose enough to prevent choking and tight enough to be
Weaving is a rhythmical shifting of the weight from one front foot to
the other. It is not a common vice, but when carried to extremes it renders a
horse almost useless. Its cause is obscure, but its occurrence is correlated
with enforced idleness in confined quarters. Some horse owners condemn vertical
bars that can be seen through, and others consider chain halter shanks that
rattle when moved, as predisposing causes.
Stall walking is uncommon but reduces condition and induces fatigue.
Kicking. Occasionally horses will learn to destroy partitions or doors
in stalls by kicking. Some kick only at feeding time, thus giving vent to their
impatience. They usually do not kick outside the stall. Padding the stall has
been known to stop some kickers.
Biting. Stallions often acquire the habit of nipping at the attendant
for want of something to do. Gentle horses can be encouraged to nip when too
much pressure is applied in grooming or during cinching the saddle girth. Many
show horses learn to bite in self defense when agitated by pokes from
well-wishers as they rest in their stalls on the show circuit. Removing the
cause will usually correct the condition.
Tail rubbing starts by agitation from parasites and continues from
habit. Parasite control and tail boards prevent it.
Halter pulling develops when a horse attains confidence that it is
stronger than the rigging that secures it. Young horses in training will not
gain such confidence when secured by strong halter equipment tied to stationary
objects. Bridles should not be used in tying young horses.
The habit may be broken in early stages by a slip noose around the flank,
with the rope shank passing between the forelegs, through the halter ring, and
by being fastened securely. Pain experienced from hard backward pulling is
usually given consideration before tightening a halter shank afterward. A second
rather successful method is to pass the halter rope through a tie ring in the
stall and fasten it to a hobble placed on a fore pastern.
Examining horses for soundnessIt 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
Whenever possible, examine the horse in its stall under natural conditions.
Note the manner of tying ó 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
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.
Determine age according to the MU publication
Determining Age of Horses By Their Teeth.
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.
Copyright 2000 University of Missouri. Published by University Extension, University of Missouri-Columbia.
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