The Healthy Equine

The human component in having a healthy equine

To qualify as truly healthy, an equine needs to be more than physically well;  the truly healthy equine must also have a good temperament and be mentally stable without stereotypies that threaten a wholesome relationship between owner and horse.

In the first chapter of Anna Sewell's novel, Black Beauty, the equine mother admonishes her son, "I hope you will grow up gentle and good, and never learn bad ways; do your work with a good will."

Later Black Beauty is warned "There are a great many kinds of men; there are good and thoughtful men; but there are bad, cruel men; there are a great many foolish men, vain, ignorant and careless, who never trouble themselves to think; but I will say, do your best, whatever it is, and keep up your good name."

In the human/equine relationship, recognizing a healthy horse and keeping that horse healthy and sound is a key responsibility. That said, a healthy person with a positive, thoughtful temperament who is gentle, good and well versed in good horsemanship will most likely bring out the healthy traits in any equine.

Recognizing the healthy horse

A novice equine observer looks at a horse from the perspective of color, size and attractiveness: the majestic black stallion with flaring nostrils, the golden palomino with a flowing mane, the paint with a dramatic pattern of patches.

The savvy equine observer looks at a horse from a far different and more complex perspective including the following attributes that reveal a truly healthy equine:

  • Conformation
  • Soundness
  • Temperament
  • Manners
  • Movement
  • Physical Ability
  • Training
  • Age
  • Size

Equine conformation

Conformation relates to how various angles and parts of the horse's body harmonize with the rest of the body.  Standards have been established for most breeds, and although the standards are based upon aesthetic considerations, they also take into account the horse's working purposes.  Horses of any breed that do not have good conformation are more susceptible to injuries, and bone and joint diseases.

Since there is no perfect horse, matters of conformation are somewhat relative to the purpose of owning the horse.  The way a horse is built will determine how the horse moves.  This is extremely important to a person who is into competitions of any kind.

Equines with glaring or fatal flaws in conformation, can serve a good purpose, but because of the susceptibility to injuries and disease, they cannot be considered healthy.

When looking for a healthy conformation in an equine, observe the horse from all angles beginning with the feet and legs.  The forearms and thighs of the horse should be well-muscled with large and flat knee joints.  The cannon bone should be relatively short and thick, and the tendons that run behind the cannon bone should form a straight line from the back of the knee to the fetlock joint and should be separated from the back of the cannon bone. 

The hocks should be identical with the inside of the hocks being wide.   The pasterns should be long and the horse's feet should slope gently forward as a continuation of the pastern.  The hoof should be hard, smooth and free from dryness or ridges.  The frog should be solft and rubbery.

When the horse is standing still all four feet should be planted squarely beneath the body and the toes should not turn in or out. 

Going back to the over-all conformation of the horse, the topline should have a fairly straight line from the poll of the head to the dock of the tail, and the underline on a well built horse will be fairly horizontal with the topline.

The head should be in proportion to the neck; not too heavy or too light.  The neck should be muscular and flexible.  A long neck often indicates a smooth stride, while a short neck may indicate a shorter, choppier stride.  The neck should not be overly arched or concave.

The horse's withers should be well-defined, and the back should dip slightly toward the back quarters.  The hind quarters should appear round, level, wide and muscular and should be symmetrical when seen from behind.

As part of the over-all package of conformation, a healthy equine will have healthy skin that serves as a strong barrier against bacteria and foreign agents while giving form to the body and insulating the horse against extremes of heat and cold.  Over the skin, is the hair coat.  The coat of a horse in good health is smooth, fine, and glossy.  Depending on the breed, the mane will be full and luxurious.  The tail will be relaxed and flow in coordination with the horse's movements. 

Soundness - The functional horse

Soundness is another term used to judge the physical attributes of a horse and is applied to the composition of the musculoskeletal system.  When an equine is "sound," all the bones and joints are in correct alignment and function efficiently together giving the horse the presence and power to do the work or serve the purpose for which the horse is intended. 

For example, when looking for a broodmare, a breeding unsoundness would prevent the mare from having a foal.  On the other hand, looked at from a riding perspective, that same mare may be a great riding horse and would be considered sound for that purpose.

Temperament - The well mannered horse

 For many people, temperament is the primary concern in choice of an equine.  A horse of good temperament is tuned into the environment in a positive way and interacts well with other animals and people.  A horse with a good temperament is cooperative, alert and ready to work, and also has a calm demeanor. 

At times, a horse may be tired, worn out, depressed or sickly in spite of the best care.  A horse with a healthy temperament will continue to evidence calm, receptive behavior under stressful conditions.  The ears will not be pinned and the tail will not swish or wring.  The eyes will have a minimal amount of white around the edges and will not show uneasiness with what is going on in the area.

A horse with a good temperament will not be prone to engaging in stereotypical behaviors such as stall walking and cribbing that evidence not only an unhealthy state of mind, but also may be detrimental to the equines physical and dental health.

Putting it all together


The horse's manners as it interacts with other animals and with humans may give evidence of a well-balanced personality or indicate behaviors that are unhealthy and may lead to conflict and possible injury with habits such as biting, rearing, or kicking.  Horses, like people, have their unique quirks and habits, but a healthy horse's interactions will not be threatening or disturbing to animals or people.

The posture of the well-mannered equine will be relaxed, the eyes will be calm and soft with minimal white showing around the edges, and the tail will be relaxed and held comfortably.


In general, movement is related to conformation and soundness.  A healthy horse with a properly aligned body will move without the stiffness, crookedness or interference evidenced by an unhealthy horse.  A horse with a healthy musculoskeletal system will have synchronized movements and will be able to focus on the rider or trainer rather than physical aches or pains associated with poor conformation, lack of soundness, injury or ill health.

Physical Ability

The physical ability of a horse has much to do with breed, training, nutrition, experience, and age.  Certain breeds of horses are adept in competition circles.  Other breeds make better work horses.  When looking at the physical ability of a horse, it is important to evaluate the health of the horse as it relates to the purpose for which the horse is intended.

Basically, a horse's physical ability is dependent upon the state of the horse's health.  A healthy horse will approach exercise and work with vigor and alertness and will be responsive to cues from the trainer or rider.  Any horse that is sound mentally and physically will perform well in most instances. 

A horse that is lame, has a chronic illness, is uncomfortable physically because of parasites or allergies, or has a bad attitude is not a healthy horse and will not be able to work or exercise to the degree of a healthy horse.


A solid training foundation leads to a horse that is sound in mind and body.  A horse whose training has been rushed, or a horse that has been ill-treated during training will have both physical and mental problems.  These physical and mental issues will affect how the horse reacts to exercise, work, and new training experiences, as well as how the horse reacts to new owners, trainers, and riders.  

Simlar to people, horses are healthiest when they live a well-rounded existence with a life outside the arena or stall.  A horse that has been treated well during training with be responsive to new experiences and new training procedures.  Horses appreciate a pat on the shoulder, a treat for a job well done and a bit of praise.  If a horse's experience has been all work with little play, and without affection or reward, both temperament and manners may have been affected.


With good nutrition and treatment, equines may live well into their 30's.  As horses age, their bodies and bodily systems change.   They become more prone to colic, dental problems, cataracts, and the pain of arthritis and other debilitating conditions because of general wear and tear.

However, many older horses are healthy, and while they may not be star athletes, they make good trail horses and are often docile and patient with inexperienced or younger riders.  They can be delightful pasture ornaments and provide good companionship for those who are less active.  In fact, a healthy older horse will have all the positive attributes of a younger horse, but perhaps not to the same degree.  


Although size would appear to have little to do with the health of the equine.  With most breeds of equine, a standard as to size has been established with fine, healthy horses on both sides of the "ideal" size.  However, size is important in that it affects the usefulness of the horse for its intended purpose and may be an indication of inherent health problems if the horse is too fat or too lean, or if it has chronic health problems that have prevented full growth and development. 

With any breed, it is important to consider the body score of the equine as it relates to good health.  A malnourished, underweight horse, with ribs and bone structure clearly showing, is not a healthy equine, nor is an overweight horse with bulges of fat along the back, around the tail, and in other inappropriate places.  In addition, a horse that has stunted growth because of disease, genetics, or poor nutrition cannot be considered a healthy horse.

Although books could be written about the healthy equine, these eight qualities will help you evaluate any horse as to whether or not it meets the criteria of a healthy horse and by so doing shows that it has "The Right Stuff."

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About the Author

EquiMed Staff

EquiMed staff writers team up to provide articles that require periodic updates based on evolving methods of equine healthcare. Compendia articles, core healthcare topics and more are written and updated as a group effort. Our review process includes an important veterinarian review, helping to assure the content is consistent with the latest understanding from a medical professional.