Ponies can't tell us when they are feeling ill, so it's important that we can spot when they are feeling under the weather and act on it quickly. The best way to do this is to get to know how they look and behave when they are healthy, and you'll soon notice the signs of any problems!
Also, do some research about different health problems that are common amongst horses and ponies and have a read through the information below on different health problems.
Signs of good health
The best time to check a pony over is just before you feed them their breakfast. You want to check that they're gut is gurgling and rumbling and producing a fair amount of gas — any strange noises or no noise at all isn't so normal.
Check that he is moving easily, and he isn't stiff or lame. There should be no strange lumps or bumps and no heat in his legs. It's quite normal for ponies to rest a back leg when they are relaxing. Make sure he's able to stretch his neck to get to his food easily.
Always make sure he is drinking properly by checking his water bucket — this may be harder to monitor if he's turned out in a field with other ponies. Your pony is likely to drink more when he's hot, and less if he's feeding on spring grass which contains lots of water. Ponies can get very dehydrated if they're hot or have been working hard. A good way of checking that he's not dehydrated is by pulling some loose skin away from his shoulder for a few seconds — if he's hydrated his skin should flatten immediately.
Your pony should be interested in his surroundings, and be calm and alert. Look at his ears — if they are pricked and flicking backwards and forwards to you this means he's tuned into what's going on around him. When he's relaxed they may point sideways. Your pony's eyes should be bright and clear, with no discharge, redness or swelling, and he shouldn't be rubbing them or blinking a lot.
Check your pony's droppings — you should notice a consistent pattern in his toilet cycle over a 24 hour period. You'll get to know what his droppings tend to look like, and how many he'll produce over this time. Ponies on spring grass will produce green, looser droppings than a stabled pony, which is darker and more fibrous. Urine should be clear yellow or slightly cloudy.
Ponies love to eat, so maintaining a healthy appetite is always a good sign. If he's feeling under the weather he won't want his feed. If he doesn't want his food, always check that it hasn't gone bad or musty — just in case he's telling you the food is no good.
Do a check of the membranes found inside the eyelids and around the gums. These bits of skin should be pale pink, and any bright pink or white colouring indicates problems. Be very careful and gentle when you carry out this check, as your pony will not appreciate you poking him in the eye!
Ponies breathe very quietly, so any gasping, puffing, coughing or rasping sounds are not normal and mean he's not well. There may be some water discharge from his nostrils, however as long as this isn't thick, yellow or green it's OK. Blood is also a sign of problems.
When your pony is standing still and relaxed there should be no signs of sweating. Always check between the front legs and below the elbows to see that he's not sweating. If he's been stood out in the sun then he will probably sweat - especially after he's worked hard. He shouldn't paw the ground either, and if you've just washed him off he should shake and roll — if he doesn't, he could have tummy ache. On cold days, check your pony is warm enough by holding his head collar and feeling the base of an ear — this should be warm to touch.
Your pony's skin and coat should look healthy, and his summer coat should be fine and glossy and shouldn't be dull or standing on end. During the winter they will puff their coat up a bit to keep warm. Check for swellings, sores, wounds, rashes or fly bites. The skin shouldn't be scruffy and it should be loose over his ribs, not tight. Check that he hasn't been rubbing or scratching anywhere.
Healthy ponies need regular vaccinations — flu every six months, tetanus once every two years and possibly strangles. His teeth need checking by a vet or equine dental technician every six months to a year. He'll need regular worming and attention from a farrier. Check the fit of his tack, especially if he tends to pile on the pounds in the spring.
Common illness in ponies
Colic can be a serious problem to horses and ponies. It is caused when there is an imbalance in the digestive system, these causes include a blockage, a build up of gas, changes in the acidity levels of the digestive system and resulting damage after a worm infestation.
The signs of colic can be very varied and can be nothing more than your pony seeming off colour. This is why it is recommended that you get to know your pony well. Colic can make sufferers very ill, very quickly so it's important to call a vet immediately. Ponies can be given painkillers to help them recover from this.
Laminitis is a painful condition which causes the sensitive tissues in the hooves to swell and eventually weaken. It can lead to permanent changes within the pony's hooves, and if changes start to take place it is called 'chronic'. There are many things that can cause Laminitis, such as:
- Eating too much fast-growing grass
- Severe illness, like diarrhoea or colic
- Cushing's disease
- Equine metabolic syndrome
- Trauma — working too fast or for too long on hard surfaces
Too much food seems to be the most common cause of laminitis. Avoid letting your pony graze during high-risk periods and don't let him eat too much at all other times. Grass sometimes stores large amounts of energy, in the form of easily digestible sugars. When this happens, grass can be dangerous for ponies to eat. Fructans, a carbohydrate the plant makes from sugar, can cause laminitis.
Feed good quality grass hay. Around 1.5 per cent of bodyweight should be fed to laminitics as hay, with about 0.5 per cent of alfalfa. Give your pony a vitamin and mineral supplement to make sure they are not lacking in essential nutrients in their low calorie diet. There are several all-in-one feeds available for laminitics. Look for the Laminitis Trust seal of approval. If you're not sure, then ask a qualified equine nutritionist.
This is common in overweight, under-exercised ponies. Controlling your pony's diet and exercising him are the key ways to control this disease.
This is common in old ponies, signs include a shaggy coat, and often drinking and urinating more. Some drug therapies do work for this disease.
Horses and ponies can be affected by parasitic worms, such as roundworm, redworm, threadworm, pinworm, lungworm and tapeworm. To help manage parasitic worms you should do the following things:
- Worm count. A worm count is conducted on a horse or pony's droppings to work out which and how many worms they are carrying in their gut.
- Consult a vet or worm advisor. From the results of the worm count, the vet can advise a suitable worming programme and give anti-worming drugs based on your pony's weight. It's as important for people not to over-worm as to under-worm. Using anti-worming drugs when they are not needed can increase drug resistance.
- Follow an anti-worming programme. Anti-worming drugs are only active for a certain amount of time, so they have to be re-administered. Horses and ponies that are grazing together also need to be wormed at the same time.
- Manage pasture. As horses and ponies pass on worms through their droppings, regular poo-picking is a must to break the worm cycle. If this isn't possible, then pasture should be rotated and grazed by other animals, like cows and sheep, as they won't be susceptible to exactly the same species of parasitic worms as horses and ponies.
There are quite a few leg problems which can occur in ponies. When they do, they will need to be treated by a vet. Get to know the structure of your pony's leg and understand how the leg should function normally. You will soon start to notice a change in the appearance of your pony's leg, or a change in the way they walk. Here is a list of some of the common leg problems:
- Bog Spavins
- Jack Spavins
- Capped Hocks
- Shin splints or Bucket shins
- Bowed tendons
- Capped knees
All of these can cause pain and discomfort for your pony, so if you see any swellings, wounds, lumps and bumps, limping, or any signs of lameness, contact your equine vet immediately and get the problem seen to straight away.
Ponies teeth will continuously grow until they reach the age of about about 25-30 years old. Their teeth will naturally be filed down by the grass and hay that they eat. The grass and hay is naturally abrasive, so require some grinding from the horse which will help keep those teeth nice and trim. You must check their teeth regularly though, and get them checked annually by an equine dentist.
Keep an eye out for any abnormalities around your horses mouth, such as swellings, and check that he's eating as he normally would, chewing properly and not starting to drop any food or take longer to eat. Other signs to look out for are excessive dribbling when eating, coarse droppings, head tucking or head tossing, not wanting to have his face muzzled or handled, and irritation when put into a dropped noseband.
Providing your pony gets his annual check ups with the equine dentist, major problems can be prevented. Always carry out your own regular checks and don't let any problems persist, get them checked immediately.
Sweet itch is most often an allergenic reaction to the bite of midges and some species of flies, which occur in almost every country in the world. Midges are small, only a couple of millimetres in length.
When a pony is injected with something foreign like midge saliva, its immune system responds by making antibodies. Allergies occur when the immune system makes a mistake and mounts an anti-parasite to the wrong thing. This results in ulceration and thickening of the skin, causing your pony intense itching and discomfort.
There is currently no cure for sweet itch, however there are many ways in which you can help prevent it. First of all, make sure your pony is sprayed with natural insect repellent, such as garlic, tea tree and eucalyptus. Midges love dank, humid environments so avoid putting your pony in a wet, boggy field that's near water or close to hedgerows and trees. Ponies living on the side of a windy hill, away from woodlands, ditches and ponds are less likely to be affected by sweet itch than those who graze on lowland pasture.
In your pony's stable, put up midge screens, spray insect repellent and close windows. Make sure you always get rid of rotting vegetation such as leaves, straw, hay, standing water and clear up droppings. You can also use specially made sweet itch rugs or barriers which your pony can wear. This acts as a barrier which prevents the tiny midges from biting. A proper sweet itch rug should prevent midges getting in around the legs, tail and belly of your pony.
Treatments for sweet itch are available, so consult your vet and they should recommend the right kind of treatment for your pony. This should help ease the itching and stop your pony from scratching and making the condition worse.
What you need to know about pony health
All ponies in the herd need access to all the essential necessities like water, food and shelter. If you have a very bossy pony, make sure there's more than one water bucket and more than one pile of hay for everyone to eat. Equally, when the grass is growing quickly, you need to make sure the herd can be safely grazed on limited pasture — a small, grass-bare paddock could easily lead to fighting. Always remain calm around your pony, they can feel frightened very easily so making sure they are in a calming environment is most important.