Roundworms. Tapeworms. Large and small strongyles. For most people, the very thought of parasitic worms wriggling around in our intestines is downright nauseating, and we wouldn’t want for a companion animal to have to endure it, either.
Unfortunately, even though horses are blissfully unaware that these kinds of creatures exist, they’re definitely not immune to becoming an unwitting host for parasites.
A horse doesn’t have to be 100% parasite-free in order to be healthy. Exposure to a small amount of parasites is relatively normal, and those nasty bugs can actually help them develop a robust immune system. If the infestation is severe, though, it can cause serious health problems.
Colic, malnutrition, immune system failure, and internal organ damage have all been linked to worm infestations, and these conditions can be fatal if the horse doesn’t receive proper treatment.
Like with many other health problems, the best way to deal with intestinal parasites is to prevent them from infecting your horse in the first place. Here are a few tips for reducing your horse’s risk of becoming a worm’s new home:
Mind your Manure
Having to deal with manure is one of the more unpleasant aspects of horse ownership. Scooping poop is gross enough when you own a dog or cat, but their droppings are considerably smaller than the piles left by horses! However, the next time you’re dreading a trek out into the pasture to search for equine “Meadow Muffins,” remember that cleaning up manure is a good way to keep your horse parasite-free.
Remove manure from your horse’s grazing grounds at least twice a week, and if you’re planning to compost the stuff, do not just spread it around haphazardly. Instead, let it dry out and cook in a place where the horse can’t get to it. If you can’t consistently clean up manure twice a week (which may be the case if you have multiple acres of land to care for), then at least make a point to mow and harrow the pasture on a regular basis. Doing this will help break up the piles, which in turn exposes them to air and dries them out—making the poop inhospitable to parasites.
And one more thing: keep manure—and all other kinds of grime—away from your horse’s water supply, whether that supply is outdoors or in horse’s stall! All animals need access to fresh water in order to be healthy, and horses are no different. Water contaminated with worm eggs or larvae, though, can wreak havoc on the animal’s internal organs.
Share the Space
Interestingly enough, the kinds of intestinal parasites that affect horses often can’t thrive in the guts of cows and sheep. Take advantage of this phenomenon by rotating the pastures where your animals graze. By switching things up and letting the cows and/or sheep graze in what’s normally horse territory, you can interrupt the life cycles of the equine parasites, stopping them in their tracks.
Also on the subject of shared space: try to limit the number of horses per acre on your land. Horses forced to stay in close contact with one another are more likely to contract each other’s parasites, so be sure that everyone in the pasture has sufficient “elbow room.” And keep the grass in good shape, too! When a pasture becomes worn-down, parasites can thrive, and horses are more likely to accidentally ingest them. Combat this by rotating your horse’s grazing grounds regularly; this will prevent overgrazing and keep both your horse and the land healthy.
Consistency is Key
How, exactly, you choose to keep your horse worm-free is a matter of personal preference; some people just use dewormers regularly as a preventative measure, while other folks keep an eye on fecal egg counts made by their veterinarian and only deworm when the horse needs it. Regardless of which technique you opt for, every horse on your land needs to use the same system. Regularly deworming a few of the horses while leaving the others alone until they start to have issues is often ineffective; the animals protected on a cycle can still spread parasites to the ones who are only treated as-need. On a related note, if there’s a new addition to your herd, make sure that the newbie receives deworming treatment before he or she is introduced to the rest of your horses.
Always be on the lookout for signs of gut parasites in your horse. Common symptoms include:
- A dull, rough, or patchy coat
- A potbellied appearance (i.e., the horse is thin enough that her ribs are visible, but she still possess a round belly).
- Lethargy and weakness.
- Poor appetite.
- Sores in the mouth
- Unexplained weight loss, especially in younger horses.
If you notice your horse displaying any of these symptoms, call an equine vet. Horses, being prey animals, usually have a knack for hiding any signs of illness or pain. While this is a great technique for surviving in the wild, it also means that a human’s first clue that their horse is sick may not reveal itself until something is seriously wrong. If intestinal parasites really are to blame for your horse’s condition, your vet will be able to diagnose the problem, and—more importantly—come up with a treatment plan to get him back on his feet.
Chances are, you won’t be able to completely protect your horse from parasites, especially over the course of his entire life. The little pests are tenacious, and they’re so tiny that your horse can swallow some worm larvae with a mouthful of grass and not even notice that he picked up a stowaway—a stowaway, mind you, that can multiply until it creates a major, potentially life-threatening condition. The best thing you can do for your horse is to be proactive about his health, and as with companion animals of all shapes and sizes, this means feeding him high-quality food, cleaning up his messes, and monitoring his body and behavior for signs of illness. If you learn what constitutes “normal” behavior for your horse, you’ll know when something’s wrong…and when it’s time to call the vet!