What We Do

The Life Cycle of the Horse and Basic Equine Care

NB! Below are general guidelines for horse owners and they are just that – guidelines! They are not intended to replace regular visits to an equine vet nor are they intended as a substitute for medical expertise; if you have a question or concerns about your animal’s health, always consult your vet.


Typically, a horse will have a life span of 20 plus years and may have several owners over the course of his life.  Some will find owners who will love, cherish and respect them, while sadly, others will fall victim to those who abuse, neglect, abandon and mistreat them. 

Also given the size and strength of a horse, owners often don’t realise just how much care and attention is required to ensure their healthy existence. Some people even think it’s ok to stick them in a field and underestimate the safety and welfare aspects involved in owning such a majestic creature; therefore the horse is sometimes handled and dealt with in an inappropriate manner.

Here at the DSPCA, we are working hard to make sure the above doesn’t happen.

We are attempting to tackle this problem in two ways!

One of those ways is the launch of our National Horse Amnesty Programme – contact number is 01-4994747.  Please contact us at this dedicated number in complete confidence if you own a horse and wish to discuss your situation regarding the animal’s welfare.  We will provide support to you, the owner, to hold onto the animal while endeavoring to find an appropriate homing opportunity, or take in the horse, find a suitable foster home for the animal if the owner is under temporary pressure but feels he/she will be able to take ownership at some later stage etc.,

The second way is through our education programmes. We provide free equine specific care programmes.  Contact Miriam at 01-4994710 for more information regarding this education service.


A horse’s life cycle can be broken down into four phases.  Birth, adolescence, adulthood and old age.

BIRTH – FOAL -Horses are born following a gestational period of 11 months and for the next year of their lives are called Foals.  In this first year the horse grows quickly and will reach ninety per cent of his adult height and eighty per cent of his adult weight.  

YEARLING - The Yearling has almost grown into his long legs and his body frame has filled out by this stage.  With each growth spurt, his hind is often two or three inches taller than his withers – that’s the curved part right below his neck.

TWO YEAR OLD HORSE -At this stage, the horse will have reached his adult height and weight and in most cases growth plates (epiphyses) which are located in the bones of the legs will have closed and the horse can now be jockeyed or ridden.

ADULT HORSE - At age four the horse will have reached adulthood. Female horses are now referred to as Mares and Males as Stallions or Geldings. A Stallion is a male horse who has not been gelded or neutered.  A Gelding refers to a castrated/neutered horse or donkey or mule, etc., The term neutered or castrated means the Male horse cannot mate and reproduce. However, spaying in a Mare is rarely carried out.  Spaying occurs when the ovaries in the Mare or female horse have been removed.

A GERIATRIC HORSE - A horse will begin to show signs of aging in their late teens or early twenties. Their backs will begin to sag and they may develop age-related disorders such as kidney or liver trouble.  If left in the wild or unattended, these conditions contribute to the rapid deterioration of the animal and often result in death.  However, with proper love, care and veterinary attention, horses can live well into their thirties.

Let’s take a look at the condition called Mange!

First of all what is Mange? Mange is an extremely itchy condition caused by tiny insects called mites.  These mites live on the surface of the skin or in tunnels just beneath the skin.  The female mites lay eggs in burrows beneath scabs and the eggs hatch after about four days.  Mites reach maturity very quickly and live for one or two weeks.  So you see, the entire cycle takes about 15 to 20 days and if a horse suffers from chronic mange, the life cycle of the mites continuously repeats itself, infecting the poor animal on a continuous loop.  Unless the horse is treated he will have absolutely no relief and will be in a dreadful state of distress.

What types of mange mites affect the horse?

Chorioptic Mite: This causes foot and leg mange.  It’s found below the hocks and knees of the animal and affects breeds with heavy leg hair or feathers.  The mites live on the surface of the skin and produce scabby, crusty patches and hair loss.  Horses that are affected by this usually stamp the ground and bite their legs in an attempt to get some relief.  Since this mite can survive the extreme temperatures of a cold winter it’s vital the stables and pastures be treated for this mite as well as infected animals. 

Psoroptic Mite: Also called the tail mite - produces lumps and patches of hair loss over the area between the ears main and tail; known as the poll.  The mites live in colonies on the surface of the skin and spread quickly.  These mites are not transferable to humans.  They can be identified through skin scrapings. 

Sarcoptic Mite: This is the cause of scabies burrowing underneath the horse’s skin on his head, ears, neck, chest, flank and abdomen.  Small red bumps appear around the burrows and as the horse rubs, paws and bites the skin to relieve the irritation, the resulting trauma produces further skin injury and weeping sores, loss of hair and thickening of the skin.  Secondary bacterial infection is common and only complicates matters.  This mite is highly contagious and spreads by direct contact, and/or by sharing tack and grooming tools.

Demodectic Mange: This mite lives in the sebaceous glands and hair follicles of the horse.  It appears as patchy hair loss and crusting in small masses.  Lesions are usually on the face, neck, shoulders and forelimbs. It varies from Sarcoptic mange because there is no chronic itching.

How do you prevent Mites? Daily grooming is very important in detecting mite infestations early and in preventing the spread to other horses.  If you suspect your animal has mites, contact a vet immediately to discuss his treatment.  Regularly clean and disinfect stalls, tack and grooming tools to prevent chronic mange.

Let’s Take a Look at Tapeworms in Horses.

Tapeworms have a great life.  Imagine being on a continuous holiday at a five star resort where you had nothing to do but lie in the sun and order copious amounts of food and cocktails.  Well, that’s what it’s like being a tapeworm. Tapeworms spend their entire adult lives in warm environments safe from predation. Yep, they live a stress free life in a horse’s intestine.

The outward signs of tapeworms are frequent but mild colic, mild diarrhea and unthriftiness – this means a failure to thrive, as in, the horse’s failure to thrive. This is usually easy to miss due to it being linked to other conditions however if a horse is continuously feeling ‘off,’ or has a dull coat, is losing weight or is not gaining weight, has frequent colic and your vet has checked for other conditions, then tapeworm may be the cause of his distress.

The Life Cycle of the Tapeworm.

Tapeworms typically don’t pose a major threat to horses and so there isn’t an awful lot of research carried out on them.  An adult tapeworm consists of a head that attaches to the intestinal wall with a set of suckers and a segmented body. Each segment contains a complete set of reproductive organs that can produce eggs independently. As the worm grows, the lower segments separate and their eggs are carried off in the passing stream of digesting food on their way out of the horse’s body. Once settled into the ground, the manure is broken down with the help of oribatid mites and the mites ingest the eggs which go on to develop into larvae inside their bodies.  If the larvae carrying mites crawl up onto the grass and are eaten by a grazing horse, the tapeworm larvae will settle into a new host.

Are Tapeworms Harmful?

It’s not certain how much harm tapeworms cause inside a horse’s gut.  They usually cause inflammation of the intestinal walls and will probably never steal enough of your horse’s nutrition to seriously affect his health.

A British study published in 1998 found that horses with tapeworms were twenty two per cent more likely to experience spasmodic colic and eighty one per cent more likely to experience an impaction colic at the ileocecal valve. This is the valve at the small end of the intestine. This can also cause ulcerations of the intestine, leading to peritonitis. Tapeworms can contribute to a thickening of the intestinal wall.

Research has been able to connect the presence of tapeworms with increased prevalence of these conditions, they don’t know exactly how the worms cause the problems, if, in fact, they even do.  Horses can develop these types of colics without worms and many can carry the tapeworms all their lives and display none of these signs.

The Risks: How does a Horse get Tapeworms?

A horse gets a tapeworm by ingesting oribatid mites that carry tapeworm larvae. Oribatids are a super family of mites that live in different eco systems all over the Earth and play a vital role in recycling organic wastes. They do this by eating organic matter, excreting it and mixing it up within the soil.

Because the mites usually live in green grass it is likely that horses on pasture are more at risk of encountering tapeworms than those kept stabled and fed only hay and grain.

Judging Your Horse’s Age by his Teeth.

So, how do you know how old your horse is?  The body of a horse reveals its age in many ways. An older horse’s skin is less pliable and drier than that of a younger horse and his jawbone will be thinner and sharper, his ribs will be spaced farther apart and his eyes will be deeper in his sockets.  However, if you wish to choose a slightly more reliable way of determining your animal’s age, then check the appearance of his front teeth. However, this is not always accurate.

Below is an example:

In the horse’s tooth, the cement lined enamel cup on the biting surface of each incisor wears away in early maturity.

Yellow or brown dental stars appear between the ages of eight and ten as the upper portion of the tooth is worn away. These stars start out as thick dark lines in the center of the tooth then change to star like ovals at around 13 years and become round at approximately 15 years.  In older horses the occlusal surface is worn smooth and is pattern less.

As the horse gets older the shape of the incisors’ occlusal surfaces alters from narrow oval to roundish or even triangular, eventually it becomes longer from front to back than from side to side.

The profile of the upper and lower arcades progresses from upright in young horses to a forward slant in the older ones.

Grooming Your Horse. Some Guidelines.

Having the correct grooming tools is essential. So, here’s what you need to know in order to select the best tools for your grooming kit.

A Currycomb. Retractable combs which release trapped dirt when the handle is twisted are more expensive so look for a comb that’s firm enough to do the job but soft enough that it will not injure the horse’s skin.

A rubber or plastic currycomb is essential to any grooming kit and several different designs are available.  All designs help loosen the hair and dirt while massaging the skin and stimulating oil production.  When selecting a currycomb, the teeth are the key issue.  If too soft you won’t get the proper dirt busting, skin massaging action; if they are too hard you can cause discomfort for the horse or even break his skin providing an opening for infections.

Dandy Brushes: Brushes with comfort grips are more expensive so focus on the diameter of the bristles because this will tell you the size of the dirt particles the brush will remove most effectively. These brushes have oblong handles and stiff large diameter bristles are the essentials in a grooming kit.  Hard brushes with large, coarse bristles are for removing dried dirt and heavy mud. When purchasing one of these brushes consider the type of dirt you horse will collect.  If he’s in an area where there’s caked on mud then go for a firm brush with large bristles. If mud is not a problem, go for a medium hard brush. 

Allergies – A Simple Guide.

Sometimes you discover your horse has had an allergic reaction and the cause and cure are simple. For example, he may have a reaction to a particular substance or shampoo that’s been in contact with his skin.  You discontinue use and the reaction disappears – simple.

However it’s not always that straight forward.  Sometimes allergic reactions can be chronic and potentially debilitating.  When they occur for whatever reason, the horse’s immune system becomes hyper sensitized and sometimes their immune reaction gets out of control.  An over abundance of anti bodies are produced which stimulate the release of a flood of prostaglandis, histamines and other substances.  Once a horse has a reaction to a substance, then each subsequent exposure tends to increase the severity of the body’s response.

Usually the signs are usually noticeable on the horse’s skin and respiratory system.  An allergic reaction in the skin is called atopic dermatitis and usually causes itching and recurring hives. 

Other signs could include patchy hair loss, bumps and crusting.  However, when allergies affect the horse’s respiratory system, (heaves), the result is technically known as recurrent airway obstruction or RAO. Initially heaves may produce nasal discharge, a mild cough and slight exercise intolerance; as the condition gets worse, the horse will usually cough frequently and deeply and breathing may become laboured even if he is standing still.

Typical triggers to allergic reactions are:

Insect bites

Hypersensitivity to saliva from insect bites.

 A form of this allergy is sweet itch aka summer itch and the horse displays a reaction to biting midges.  Other biting insects including horseflies, mites and fleas also trigger allergic reactions in horses.

Signs: Itchiness, hair loss in patches, inflamed or scabby skin. Bites are mostly seen on the horses face, base of the tail, at the root of the mane or on the belly.

Rick Factors are: Individual sensitivity to saliva but some breeds are more susceptible.

Treatment: Usually hydrocortisone, leave in conditioner, topical steroids – but all must be prescribed by a qualified veterinary surgeon and you must always consult with your vet regarding any information relating to your horse. Remember prevention is better than cure; stop the fly/insect from landing in the first place. 

Also you should adjust your turnout schedule.  Stable your horse during the hours when flies/insects don’t bother him and are at their least active.  Install mesh screens to keep these insects out of the stables. Apply repellant but remember, ask your equine vet’s advice first.

Airborne Agents

Moulds, pollen, dust, etc.,

Usually environmental allergies produce respiratory or skin reactions and most horses will experience one or the other but not both at the one time.  Skin reactions usually occur around the face, body or legs and can be itchy.  The signs can persist all year round or be seasonal. 

Respiratory allergies usually produce nasal drainage, laboured breathing and a cough. Other non specific signs can be runny eyes, head shaking and a general feeling of the animal not being well.

Risk Factors: Usually a horse that is already sensitized to an allergen may be more likely to develop allergies to others. Heaves is more likely to appear in horses older than nine years.

Treatment: Usually skin tests to be carried out by a qualified equine vet. Remember, always consult your vet.

Contact Allergies

To be honest, nearly everything you put on a horse has the potential to give him allergies. This goes for saddles, shampoos, sprays etc.,

Signs: Contact allergies produce signs of atopic dermatitis. Lesions will appear on or near where the allergen has been applied.

Risk Factors; A horse is more likely to develop an allergy if his close relatives have developed them or are hyper sensitive.

Treatment: Identify the source and discontinue use. If your horse’s problem continues despite changing and using/trying multiple products, seek your vet’s advice.  You could also try new products only on a very small part of the horse’s body initially and if the skin there looks normal following a 24 hour period then it could be safe to assume the product is ok to use on other areas of the animal’s body. However, contact the vet for advice.


Foot or Hoof? Foot refers to the hoof and all its internal structures including bones and sensitive structures. Hoof is the hard outside covering of the foot including the wall, the sole and the frog. The hoof has no blood supply or nerves.

Cleaning the Hoof: Using a hoof pick is the most important tool in your grooming kit.  Always clean your horse’s hooves before and after riding/jockeying him.  Horses kept in stalls or confined areas need their hooves picked out daily in order to prevent thrush.  Horses on pasture need their hooves cleaned regularly.

Trimming the Hoof: Ok, your toenails grow don’t they; well so do your horses hooves and must be trimmed every six to eight weeks and this means bringing in a farrier.  A farrier is a trained expert experienced in hoof trimming in order to make sure the hoof is balanced to the horse’s own natural way of going – otherwise he will end up lame.

Shoeing a Horse: For horses that are working on hard ground they will need to be shod.  Consult your farrier and/or veterinary expert for advice. Shoes must be reset every six to eight weeks.  Leaving this too long can cause hoof damage.  If the shoe becomes loose without coming off, this can injure your horse.  Never, ever pull off a loose shoe yourself – consult a farrier first.

Likely Problems Are:

Corns and Bruised Sole: Caused by constant repeated pressure to a part of the foot.  Poor shoeing or shoes left on too long are the common causes of this problem. Horses will bruise if a single, traumatic blow to the foot is received – stepping on a piece of gravel for example.  Also if the sole and the frog have been paired too thin in trimming, bruising can occur. If the corn and bruise have not developed into an abscess removing the cause is usually the most effective treatment.  However, if your horse bruises easily; he may require protective shoes and pads.

Thrush and Canker: Thrush is an infection of the frog.  Canker is hoof rot, and an infection of the entire foot. There will be a foul smell and a discharge and both are caused by keeping the horse in wet, dirty, conditions.

Cracks: A crack will develop in the hoof wall, usually at the bottom and go up.  If the crack is deep and it bleeds, infection is highly likely to develop. Cracks are usually the result of dry/thin walls or improper trimming.

Laminitis: This is a serious condition and we witness a lot of it in horses we rescue here at The DSPCA animal rescue shelter.  It’s an extremely painful inflammation of the horse’s foot and occurs in the front feet although we have seen it affect the hind feet as well. It can result in tissue damage and related complications.

In serious cases, permanent damage is done to the laminae and can result in the attachment of the coffin bone to the hoof and the wall breaks down.  The entire weight of the animal bears down on the coffin bone and if it is not attached to the hoof wall, the bone rotates downwards and can be pushed right through the sole to the ground beneath.

Symptoms? If the front two feet are affected, usually the animal will stand in the founder stance with hind legs up under the body carrying his weight and his front legs will usually be pushed forward with the weight on the heel.  He will be reluctant to walk and will usually pivot. If all four legs are affected, the animal will lie down for long periods of time and may even refuse to get up again. 

The horse may experience laboured breathing and his eyes will glaze over due to pain; his feet will feel hot and will have a pounding pulse. There may be a ring formation on the hoof or multiple ring formations and he will experience hoof separation due to sensitive laminae in the toe area. If left untrimmed, the hoof wall will overgrow and form a slipper foot.

Causes: There are many causes. Grazing on pasture that is too rich, especially if the animal is already overweight, eating a high content of lawn grass clippings, eating too much grain, drinking large amounts of water when overheated…all examples of causes. Others are: A mare can also retain her after birth, working on hard surfaces or standing for too long on hard surfaces or if the horse experiences colic.

Avoiding Laminitis: Don’t give excessive amounts of feed and keep your horse at a balanced weight.  Take horses off fields and onto dry lots if necessary.  Feed hay in the morning and turn horses out when the dew is off the grass. Keep grain in sealed containers and the door to the feed room locked.

Allow your horse unlimited access to fresh, clean water, except immediately following exercise when you must regulate the amount.

Pay attention to your horses breed and body type and be careful with horses with thick necks and be careful with ponies both are more prone to this condition.

My Horse has Laminitis, What do I do?  Call your vet.  He/she along with your help, will identify and remove the cause.  Treatment should be given to reduce swelling and a pain killer should be prescribed and the horse should be placed on a monitored eating programme.  X-rays may also be required.

Corrective and regular trimming by a farrier is necessary.

Chronic cases; if the horse is in considerable pain, it may require humane euthanasia.

Abscesses: An abscess is usually the case if your horse goes lame on one foot. It could be a corn, a bruise or a puncture wound. Your vet can prescribe treatment and may give the horse an anti tetanus vaccination.

I Have an Older Horse; how do I Care for Him?

As your horse grows older his health will deteriorate and his bodily functions become less efficient.  He may not be capable of grazing properly and with less fat to cover his body, he will have difficulty keeping warm.  His veterinary care is now more important than ever.

Shelter: He needs to be able to shelter from the elements; this means, wind, rain, snow and sun.

Dental Care: A horse chews his food in such a way it tends to wear down his teeth unevenly.  Most horses will require their teeth to be floated by a vet at least once a year in order to file down sharp points.  If the horse’s teeth aren’t floated regularly, the inside of his mouth may become cut, resulting in soreness and this means making eating difficult.

How Much and How Often Should I Feed my Horse?

A horse should have two to two and a half pounds of feed for every one hundred pounds of his body weight.  The amount also depends upon his breed, age and the amount of activity he’s involved in.  Also, in cold weather, a horse that lives outside requires more food to keep him warm.  In winter time, an older horse will lose condition quickly so feel under his coat and always check with your vet.

You should feed your horse little and often.  The more you can split meals into the day’s feed the better for your horse.  Keep this to a regular feeding pattern and a good rule of thumb is to feed two to three times daily.

Remember, horses have a social pecking order so the head horse or top horse will take more of the feed. It’s important to make sure that if you are feeding/caring for more than one horse, that every animal gets enough food and to make sure the older horses get a fair chance when it comes to doling out the feed.

For more information contact Miriam at miriam.kerins@dspca.ie


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