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Four Health Issues Found in Draft Horses

Donna Campbell Smith is an author, freelance writer, and photographer. She has an AAS degree in equine tech and is a certified instructor.

Draft horses can be susceptible to certain health issues

Draft horses can be susceptible to certain health issues

Draft Horse Health Problems

Draft horses are magnificent animals, and their popularity is on the rise. What some new draft horse owners might not know is that both purebreds and draft crossbreds, such as the sport horse, are susceptible to certain health issues not so common in light horse breeds. Being aware and following specialized management programs can help prevent diseases like azoturia, shivers, grease heel, and junctional epidermolysis bullosa.

1. Junctional Epidermolysis Bullosa

Junctional Epidermolysis Bullosa (JEB) is an incurable disease that is caused by a mutated gene found in 30 to 35 percent of Belgian Draft horses. In this condition, the horse lacks the skin protein Laminin-5. The fatal disease causes foals to die within a week after they are born.

Layers of skin are unable to stick to each other, and patches of hair and skin begin to rub off at pressure points, spreading to bigger and bigger patches. The hooves will also slough off, and ulcers form in the mouth and on the tongue. As soon as it is known to have JEB, a foal should be euthanized, as this is an agonizing disease.

In 2002, researchers found where the gene site of the mutation was located. Now a DNA test can determine if breeding stock are carriers. If a mare and stallion are both carriers, they should not be mated.

2. Azoturia

Azoturia, also known as Monday Morning Disease, is a metabolic disorder common in draft horses. It usually occurs after the horse has had time off and then is put back to work. The horse exhibits symptoms of:

  • heavy sweating
  • nervous behavior
  • rapid pulse
  • muscle stiffness, especially in the hindquarters, soon after beginning work
  • severe pain and muscle spasms
  • dark urine, the result of red pigment from the muscle cells that are released into the bloodstream as the muscle fibers break down

If the horse is forced to continue work, the symptoms worsen, and the horse collapses. The horse can die from kidney failure because the kidneys cannot filter the enzymes being released into the bloodstream from the muscles.

Some researchers believe the cause of azoturia may be linked to Equine Polysaccharide Storage Myopathy (EPSM), which is a metabolic condition found in many draft horses where the muscle builds up glycogen and glycogen-related compounds rather than using them for energy.

Dr. Elizabeth A. Valentine writes in her article, “EPSM—Muscle Diseases in Draft Horses,” that scientists don't yet understand what puts the draft horse over the edge into massive muscle injury, but studies of muscle from horses with signs of Monday morning disease show that EPSM is a common underlying condition.

A low carbohydrate diet is the best preventive measure for preventing EPSM. In the past, various drugs, including steroids, muscle relaxants, and minerals were used to treat the horse once it had an episode. The EPSM diet has shown to be very effective in preventing further episodes when started in the early stages of the disease. Exercise is also important to the recovery of draft horses suffering azoturia. They should not be in a tie stall, but preferably be outside where they can move around.

3. Shivers

Shivers, or shivering, is a neuromuscular condition found most prevalently in draft horses and draft crosses. It is easy to diagnose due to the unique symptoms. The symptoms are sudden jerking or trembling of the hindquarters, in which the leg flexes toward the horse’s belly, and the tail lifts and trembles in a pumping motion while the horse is backing. The horse cannot back up because the hind legs get stuck in an upward, flexed position.

For years veterinarians felt there was a connection between shivers and EPMS, but the 2007 Morris Animal Foundation’s Equine Research Report states equine polysaccharide storage myopathy does not cause shivers, although both diseases are common in draft horses and warmbloods. There is speculation that shivers are inherited, can be a result of neural lesions left from infectious diseases like flu or strangles, or perhaps it can be caused by trauma.

Treatment is limited to massage, acupuncture, and exercise. Adequate vitamin E and the mineral selenium in the diet seem to be important in controlling episodes. Unfortunately, shivering is usually a chronic disease that progressively gets worse if the horse continues to be worked.

Draft horses with long feathers are prone to grease heel.

Draft horses with long feathers are prone to grease heel.

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4. Grease Heel

Grease heel, or scratches, also called mud fever, is a type of dermatitis on the back of the pastern. This is a less serious disease than the other ones mentioned, but it can be persistent with draft horse breeds that have a lot of feathering. It is most often found in the hind legs. It is believed that the long hair on the back of the pastern coupled with constant moisture and poor hygiene are the causes. Symptoms are inflammation and oozing fluid that becomes crusty and scabby. By the time it is noticed it has usually been there a while.

Treatment includes cutting away all the long hair, then washing the area with warm water and mild soap, and scrubbing to remove the scabs. A good home remedy for mild cases is to cover the affected area with a salve made of one part Neosporin, one part cortisone cream and two parts zinc oxide (baby diaper ointment). Keep the horse in a dry and clean environment. In advanced cases, the vet will usually prescribe an antibiotic-corticosteroid ointment or even give the horse antibiotic injections. If left untreated, it will spread around the coronet band to the front of the foot.

Arm Yourself With Knowledge

To solve these draft horse health issues, collect as much knowledge as possible so you can give your draft horse the best care. It is important to be a responsible breeder, choosing only healthy mares and stallions. Even if you do not own a horse, you can help by donating to research institutes like the Morris Foundation and universities with equine research programs.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

© 2008 Donna Campbell Smith


chris on March 15, 2015:

i have a draft mare and is having problems with her front legs i am going to shave hers legs to treat the sores what do you think on what to put on them thanks chris

Donna Campbell Smith (author) from Central North Carolina on May 08, 2012:

Glad to help. My book, The Book of Draft Horses, also has a lot of good info for new horse owners.

EllenG on January 30, 2012:

What about CPL? I have a 13 year old Clyde who is suffering from it - we keep feather clipped, wash it at minimum once a week and treat it with a combination of lotrimin, vagisil and cortizone cream.

thisspice from Asheville, NC on August 06, 2011:

EPSM has recently also been found to be very common in stock breed horses such as quarter horses, paints, and appaloosas. A muscle biopsy can now be done to verify the presence of EPSM or also known as PSSM. Great article!

Craig on November 01, 2010:

We have had very good results by feeding our Percheron a low carbohydrate diet. We have also added some fat to his diet. He wouldn't even canter when we got him but now he loves to run. He's a very athletic horse. ( for a draft horse ).

Donna Campbell Smith (author) from Central North Carolina on August 25, 2009:

If you mean the one for grease heal, my vet recommended it and I have used it for years. I also have used just the baby diaper ointment in mild cases.

Crystal on August 25, 2009:

Has anyone tried the home remedy yet? Any vets reading that would be against trying that home remedy?

caoshub from Portugal on May 28, 2009:

Hi. Good post :) I like painting and drawing very much, and I LOVE horses :) I am a lusitano horse breeder, but we also breed halflingers and sorraias. please visit the website:

salenanewport from Oxfordshire, UK on January 26, 2009:

Very good article. I have a shire cross and am always interested to gather knowledge and information.

I've been very lucky so far to avoid the issues that you raise, although each winter I live in fear of mud fever. Once it takes hold it's a devil to shift. My Jack has never had it, but I worked at a yard that was constantly plagued.

I have a blog at if you'd care to have a look.

Donna Campbell Smith (author) from Central North Carolina on December 02, 2008:

Hey, Ellie! Great to see you here. You should join up and write some hubs!

Ellie on December 01, 2008:

Very interesting and informative article. Carry on...

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