Guide to horse health

Please note that these guides do not constitute legal advice and any information provided in the guides should not be construed as legal advice or legal interpretation. We do not accept any liability for any loss caused by your reliance on this guide.

How to check a horse’s health before you buy it

Horse passport – it’s a legal requirement

Does the horse have a passport – a ‘book’?

All horses at the very least should have a basic identification document or ‘white book’ as it is illegal not to possess this. Certain breed types with their breeding lineage fully recorded with sire and dam names etc, (eg. Irish Draught, Irish Sport Horse, Connemara Pony, Wetherbys Ireland for TBs) will have specific studbook passports (see for more information and pricing).

If the horse does not possess a ‘book’ you’ll have to pay for one as well as a unique microchip inserted by a vet. The horse’s new ‘book’ will exclude it from the food chain in the future. It will enable you to give it certain medicines, like the pain killer, ‘bute’ commonly given for lameness. Depending on the intended use of the animal this newly acquired passport might reduce the horse’s value if you intend selling it on.

Vaccinations  - ask about them and check the passport for them


This is easily prevented but can be very difficult to treat and is often fatal in horses.

Check how many ‘jabs’ the horse has been given and what’s the date of the most recent?

You need to know if the horse now needs to have a full course (two anti-tetanus vaccines (4 to 6 weeks apart followed by a booster after a year) or just needs a booster sometime in the future (recommended every year and in some high level competition every six months).

‘Anti-tet’ (TAT) is only a short-term measure to ward off the disease and not the same as an anti-tetanus vaccine.


This is especially important if you intend to compete – because the Turf Club and FEI and some events (like the RDS Dublin Horse Show) won’t let you enter and compete without the horse’s ‘flu vaccinations being up to date.

Ask how many ‘jabs’ and when was the most recent? It’s a similar course to tetanus but not identical and more complicated as different equestrian sports bodies have subtle differences! Essentially it’s two injections 4-6 weeks apart, another after 6 months and thereafter annually – but best to check with a vet for your needs.

There is a combined Equine Influenza and Tetanus vaccination, which is the most common and convenient method of prevention.

Herpes virus

This is important if buying a pregnant mare – introducing an infected mare into your broodmare group may cause abortions. Vaccines are given in the fifth, seventh and ninth month of pregnancy.

Other common vaccinations

Other vaccinations to ask about are the Strangles vaccine – given into the upper lip.

Check that these vaccinations are recorded in a passport accompanied by a vet’s signature. If there’s no veterinary signature and stamp don’t presume that the details are accurate or true, and entries will be of no use if you intend to compete or show – the Turf Club (horseracing), Showjumping Ireland, Eventing Ireland and FEI etc. will insist on proper veterinary signing of entries in the passport.


  • It is de-wormed – how regularly, how recently, and with what product? It is important that you rotate types of wormers eg. Fenbendazole, Ivermectin will treat different types and stages of parasites in horses. If you intend keeping the horse at livery the yard might have a de-worming policy – check before purchase.
  • Has it ever/recently been tested to check for worms? Most commonly this is via a dung sample (which a veterinarian will send away for sampling) and anything over approximately 200 worm eggs per gram means a treatment is needed.
  • Common signs that a horse may have a parasite burden are poor condition, a dull and lifeless coat or an enlarged abdomen area. A horse can look well but could also be infected. Make sure you worm them thoroughly upon purchase if they have not been treated. Seek veterinary attention if in any doubt. A five-day course of Fenbendazole (Fenben10) followed by an ivermectin-based paste is a good treatment.

Disease history

Is there a history of any particular disease that might affect its suitability for you?

  • Sweet-itch – an allergic reaction to the female midge bite which affects the hair and skin and is not easily identified in winter-time but is a nightmare in the summer months – look for hair loss and damage, skin irritation and rubbing of the mane and base of tail. This condition is very difficult to treat.
  • Laminitis – a crippling lameness, particularly seen in small fat ponies and cobs – check for overgrown, deformed hooves with prominent lines parallel to the ground surface and a ‘pottery’ way of moving. If very bad they will look like they are literally walking on embers.
  • Ringworm - a fungal skin disease that will spread if not treated – look for hair loss often in a classic circular or oval pattern the size of a €2 coin.
  • Strangles – a highly contagious infection of the throat area – check between the horse’s jaws for lumps and discomfort, possibly a sticky discharge.
  • COPD - an allergic condition affecting a horse’s lungs causing coughing and poor exercise tolerance – be especially wary if the horse is kept outside and you intend to keep it indoors on straw and hay.
  • Whistler/roarer – affecting its capacity to gallop – you’ll need to listen carefully (and know what to listen to!) during fast exercise. If a horse is ‘gone in the wind’ this renders them almost worthless especially in competition so make sure to have a veterinary examination before purchasing where breathing will be assessed.
  • Previous surgery – e.g. for colic or lameness. Scars are easily missed especially under a full winter coat.
  • Sarcoids – these are skin tumours often found first in the groin area; potentially both difficult and expensive to treat.
  • Mud rash or rain scald – if a horse has been wintered out of doors they commonly are affected by rain scald along their back and are prone to mud rash if they have white socks. Their skin will be sensitive and there may be small scabs formed under the hair. It is easily treated with anti-bacterial oil-based ointments, Chino Unction or baby oil.


When if ever were its teeth last rasped? Especially important with older horses.

Does it have ‘wolf teeth’? Unlike us, a horse’s molar (cheek) teeth grow in a continuous fashion so if they’re not worn down during feeding/grazing we have to rasp off the sharp edges - to keep the horse’s mouth comfortable. Sharp edges and the presence of Wolf Teeth (tiny teeth just in front of the first upper cheek teeth) interfere with the bit and make ridden exercise more of a pain for the horse and rider!


Is it shod? How recently?

Or if not, when were its feet last rasped or pared by a farrier?

Are they in good condition – remember – ‘No hoof, no horse’.


Is it very old or very young (and thus needs special care like shelter, rugs and more frequent de-worming or dental case)?

An experienced horse person can tell a horse’s age by looking at it’s teeth but it’s DOB will be recorded in its passport.

    1. Under two? A yearling or a weaned foal? Unbroken or unhandled? Most horses are broken in at three or four years old.
    2. Over fifteen? Horses live up to 25 plus and smaller ponies can live to 30 and beyond but they will be unable for very hard work after about 18 years of age and would just be suitable as happy hackers or equine companions after that.  

Has it ever/recently been vetted (for purchase or insurance)? If so is the vet cert available for inspection?

A vet cert can provide useful information guiding your decisions on purchase/insurance and on having the animal (re)vetted for your specific purposes. Read the list of findings a vet has made, note when they were dated and consider how relevant they are to how you would keep this horse and what you intend using it for. 

If male, is it gelded? If a female, could it be in-foal? Any history of having had a foal before?

Never buy a stallion unknowing and without full intent! Keeping them has unintended consequences and gelding them costs time (out of action) and money. Young jack donkeys can be purchased especially cheaply but some vets don’t really welcome the job of castrating them – they tend to bleed alot!

Equally, pregnancy leads to consequences too – are you prepared to have a vet examine for pregnancy? Can you take the risk there are twins (which in most mares lead to an abortion)? Do you want a foal – of unknown parentage?

On the other hand, if you’re looking to buy an animal (male or female) for breeding purposes you’ll want to enquire into its breeding history – teenage maiden mares don’t make good breeding candidates.

  • Is it used to (and happy to) being kept in company and/or alone?

Like humans, horses have individual characters – some are more solitary but most are social in nature and happiest kept in groups. Some however can be excessively ‘clingy’ and resent either being moved from the group or being left behind by the others. Examine the horse’s current home environment, compare it with its new intended home and ask how it might fare with the change(s). Some horses can be particularly troublesome (kicking, biting, squealing) if they want to be the new herd leader in a group, be attentive to the new horse’s behaviour with others and ask questions before buying.

What type/breed is it? Hardy or Thoroughbred (TB) type? Clipped or normally rugged in the winter?

A hairy cob might winter out well with natural shelter and a round feeder of hay but a TB needs to be rugged up and kept an eye on, extra feeding and general pampering in comparison. Look for white legs and consider how they’ll look covered in mud in winter and are more prone to mud rash; look at body condition and think how it’ll look after a few months of winter feeding (too thin?) or spring grass (obese?). Even a very hardy native breed will need to be looked after if living out and it must be remembered that there is a lot of time involved in the care of a horse, pony or donkey. This should not be taken for granted.

These are a number of key areas to look out for before you purchase your new horse. As with any purchase make sure you ask plenty of relevant questions and seek the advice of someone in the know or bring an experience horse person with you before you decide.