How To Check Horse Health While Abroad

Don't ride abroad without checking the health of your horse


Many people are introduced to the magic of horseback riding on a holiday or vacation. There are millions of horses working in the tourism industry worldwide and most are very well, and even lovingly, looked after. However sometimes you may be offered a horse to ride that is in unacceptable health, or whose equipment is ill fitting or dangerous. It is important to check horse health before getting on.

Horse Condition
Make sure that all tack is well fitting and in good condition

Of course you may not be an expert on horses or riding and would naturally assume that the guide or horse owner knows best. They may, however, not be aware of the expectations you have of animal welfare and safety.

This is a brief guide to the basic elements of welfare and safety to consider before getting on a horse anywhere. It is simple, does not take a minute, and your extra interest will be much appreciated by good horse owners who may well be fascinated, or at least interested by your perspective.

  • Your safety
  • The welfare of the horse
  • Improvement of both the above where it falls short. Refer owners to local charities such as the Brooke Animal Hospital or local SPCA where training and veterinary advice is available
  • Reward good and careful owners with your business. This provides positive reinforcement that good animal welfare makes economic sense.
Horse Condition
Take time to check the condition of the horse offered to you on holiday

Horse Condition – What to look for:

Normal Demeanour and Behaviour
  • When a horse is comfortable it should stand quietly, be alert when given commands and respond willingly and quietly.
  • It is normal for a resting horse to take the weight off each back leg in turn, but resting a front leg is normally a sign of pain in that leg.
  • Horses normally lie down for only about 20 minutes each day to sleep and a horse lying down in a work situation is abnormal.
  • Extreme reluctance to move forward and/or abnormal/staggering/limping gaits or falling over are signs of trouble.
  • Other signs of discomfort are exaggerated to response pressure or pulling on equipment, rearing up, trying to run off. You should be able to pull the reins gently (as you would restrain a baby) and be able to put your full weight on the stirrup/s, saddle and back of the horse without signs of discomfort.
Horse Condition Considerations

 When is a horse too thin? Body scoring is the best and most impartial way to assess the condition of a horse. See the body scoring chart in the blog article Is My Horse Too Thin .  A body score of 2 to 4 is acceptable.

Grooming and cleanliness 

Of course it is preferable for the horse to be shiny and clean, but mud or dusty coats is not necessarily a a sign of bad health in horses as long as the dirt does not lead to wounds or skin diseases. Breaks in the skin and signs of inflammation (swelling, heat and pain) are not acceptable.


It is not necessary for horses to be shod, especially if they are working on a soft surface such as sandy ground. Limping on rough or stony ground is a sure sign shoes are needed. When shod, it is normal for a horse to have either only the two front feet shod or all four feet shod. Three shoes are a problem!

Horse Condition
Waiting for their horses…
  • No matter what the type saddles and bridles should:
  • Fit well and not cause injury or pain
  • Be strong and not break while in use
  • The bridle straps and bits should fit snugly but not tightly without leaving any rub marks or wounds on the skin or lips, the horse should be comfortable and respond to commands without showing signs of pain (throwing head, rearing up, trying to run away).
  • The saddle should be firmly secured under the belly with a strong strap (girth) – check this is in good condition, tight enough to hold your weight when getting on and not to slip back when riding uphill and does not cause rubbing or wounds. The weight of the saddle should rest on the large muscles on either side of the spine and not press on the backbone or spine of the horse.
  • The stirrups should be big enough for you to slide your foot out of freely but small enough to prevent your entire foot sliding through. The stirrup straps must be strong and undamaged so there is no danger of them breaking when you put your full weight on them.
Visible wounds

You should not ride horses with visible wounds under or around any equipment or straps i.e. the saddle and girth (strap holding the saddle on) or bridle. Ask to see the horse with the saddle removed before riding – some of the most distressing wounds for animals are caused by ill fitting equipment and are hidden under saddles or blankets. Any wounds causing stiffness, lameness or abnormal movement or discomfort should lead you to walk away.


Consider your own weight before riding a horse or donkey, and match your size to the size and strength of the animal. Do not ride with more than one person on the back of a horse or donkey

Horse Condition
Ready to ride
Horse-drawn transport

Do not overload a horse-drawn carriage – two people is sufficient (four for a carriage in Egypt). If the owner persuades you to overload the carriage, please walk away. You can always choose another horse or donkey that is in better condition.


Please do not undercut the prices but rather be prepared to pay more than the going rate for horses in good condition. If you see a horse in better condition than the others choose that one, and tell the owner why you chose him.


Do not whip, beat or ride an animal aggressively. If the owner is treating the animal badly – riding it hard, whipping – we urge you to refuse to use his animal, and tell him why


The above guidelines are very basic and by no means an exhaustive guide to horse welfare, rather they represent minimum standards. Should a horse or the equipment fall short, do not be persuaded to ride or use the animal for transport, instead explain why you will not use them and offer to put the owner in touch with a local charity such as the Brooke Animal Hospital or SPCA who can explain your point in more technical detail and offer practical help to resolve problems.

I hope that this article has been insightful and, even in a small way. helps to improve the lot of horses in tourism. Please remember that an 8 page leaflet ‘Tourism Horse Condition Check’ is available free of charge from Unicorn Trails offices.

Wishing you all happy and safe travels

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