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The Sound of Hoofbeats

It’s a saying all veterinarians know: “When you hear the sound of hoof beats, don’t look for zebras.” In other words, unless you happen to be on the plains of Africa, if you hear hoof beats, they are most likely coming from horses and not zebras. Consider the ordinary before the exotic.

Here is an example of horses vs. zebras. A good part of my day is spent looking at lame horses. If an owner walks a horse out of its stall and the animal is hippity hoppity lame in one front leg, I am not thinking that this horse has laminitis or navicular disease. It could be, “zebras”, one of those, but most likely, since it’s just one foot and he is acutely lame the chances are “horses” that he has a foot abscess. I never assume that it can’t be a zebra, and so I start at the shoulder and quickly run my hand down the entire leg, missing no joints or muscle bundles on the way. That will take less than a minute, and it’s an important minute, but I’m still betting “horses” and will concentrate on the foot, looking carefully for an abscess. As I move to the foot my exam slows down and I check the pulse in both digital arteries, use my hoof testers to see exactly where he is sore to pressure, and use my hoof knife to try to find that abscess. It’s just a question of asking what is most likely, and then concentrating on that

What does all this mean to you as a horse owner? Here is something you may have experienced. You come out to the barn to feed up and notice that your favorite mare doesn’t greet you as usual. She stands in the back of the stall with her head down, looking depressed. You see that she hasn’t touched the hay you put out last night. So, you are hearing the sound of hoofbeats. How are you going to investigate? In this case the hoof beats are saying: perhaps colic, maybe a fever. It’s time to check both her temperature and her gut sounds. Then maybe check her membranes and listen to her heart.

Same mare, same depression and you might start looking for the zebras. “Well maybe she is depressed because I yelled at her last night when she was chewing the stall door. Or maybe she is upset at the pony next door. I’ll just wait a couple of days and see if she gets over it. Not a good idea. Go with the most likely thing and check it out.

Around 800 years ago there was a Franciscan Friar named William of Ockham (also spelled Occam) who stated that the simplest, most sensible answer is most often the correct one. Another way of saying this is that if you have two theories to explain your observation, go with the least complicated one, the one that makes the most sense. In medicine we look for the fewest possible causes that will account for all the symptoms. This has become known as Occam’s razor. The razor part refers to trimming away the unnecessary and focusing on the most likely. Are we ever absolutely, positively sure what is bothering a horse? Not often, but if we think of all the possible causes and then pick the most likely, the treatment for that cause is most apt to help.

I took my truck to the garage the other day to see Ted. When I arrived he was talking to a customer of his who said: “I’m not a mechanic, but….” I wish I had a dime for everyone who has ever said to me, “Well, I’m not a veterinarian, but……” Just because you aren’t a vet doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t ponder what is going on with your animals. Check out all the symptoms you are seeing and come up with your own possible explanation that makes sense. If you are totally ignorant on how to take a temperature, listen for gut sounds, or determine what an abnormal foot pulse feels like, ask your veterinarian to show you these things! Vets love informed clients. My conversation with a client who has educated herself on horses’ health is far different from my conversation with a horse owner who has not.

I’m sure you know the saying, “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” I saw a client’s horse the other day who had a markedly swollen front leg. The owner had been on line, looked up swollen legs, and came across the term Elephantiasis, and wondered if that might be the problem. Actually that is a problem in people in tropical countries which is caused by a parasitic worm. It happens to be responsive to ivermectin, which is one of our horse wormers, but my client’s idea of giving this horse a dose of wormer would have been a total waste of money and of no benefit. Hearing the sound of hoof beats, the owner went to his information source and found .…right, a whole herd of zebras thundering by.

What is the take home? First, when your horse has something wrong, don’t panic. Think about what your vet would want to know. For example, if your horse is off feed, take the temperature, check his pulse, and listen for gut sounds. Gather as much information as you can in a calm collected way, and then call your vet. Assuming the worst or jumping to crazy conclusions (zebras) is not good for your own mental health and does your horse no good at all.


Dr. Jefferson is the founding veterinarian of Maine Equine Associates. He can be reached at His previous articles that have appeared in the The Horse’s Maine are archived on that site.

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