What you see. The starting point for addressing any equine health related issue is your observation.


Depressed, Dull, Sick or Lethargic


Horses are usually very active and alert animals. When a horse seems depressed, there is often an underlying reason. Keep in mind that "depressed" may mean a variety of things - sleepy or drowsy seeming, head hanging, lip hanging, usually not eating. A horse may uncharacteristically stand in a corner, not interested in you, other horses or in the environment.

I want to mention donkeys here too, because they express pain and illness quite differently than horses do. Donkeys in pain tend not to be as expressive, more stoic. Like horses, sick or painful donkeys don't eat. A few specific behaviors that ill or painful donkeys exhibit include closing the eyes for long periods, appearing to doze on their feet, and lowering their heads. Mules tend to be somewhere in the middle in terms of how they express pain and illness.

In hot weather, a warm winter afternoon, or at times during the middle of the day, healthy horses may simply stand quietly with their head hanging down, as normal behavior.

Depression, dullness or sickness (a/k/a "ain't doing right" - ADR) is a very common complaint that can result from a huge variety of underlying causes. Illnesses can cause pain or affect body systems, and can result in behavioral changes.

Taken alone, depression is usually too broad a sign to help your vet narrow down the problem. However, depression or lethargy in horses is often accompanied by other abnormalities that, taken together, assist your vet in choosing appropriate diagnostics, reaching a diagnosis, and suggesting treatment options. By being an astute observer of your horse, you may notice additional signs that help determine the need for veterinary intervention.

  • Code Red

    Call Your Vet Immediately, Even Outside Business Hours
    • If the horse has no appetite and is obviously depressed.
    • If you notice other signs of abdominal pain (colic).
    • If the results of the Whole Horse Exam (WHE) in the resting horse indicate fever (Temp>101F/38.3C), or heart rate greater than 48 BPM.
  • Code Orange

    Call Your Vet at Their First Available Office Hours
You also might be observing
Very Common
Less Common
more observations

your role


What To Do

If you notice that your horse (or other equine) is depressed or lethargic, that is a good starting point for additional observation. Take some time to carefully watch them and assess the environment for any other clues. Offer feed and judge response. Hand walking straight and to both small circles is another good way to evaluate attitude and movement. Assess your equine's general health using the Whole Horse Exam (WHE), and share your findings and concerns with your vet.

your vet's role

Your vet will usually start with a careful history, and then will carefully examine the horse, looking for signs that give clues to the nature of illness. Depending upon those findings, they may suggest blood work or other diagnostics to help better understand the nature of the problem.
Questions Your Vet Might Ask:
  • Does the horse seem to have a normal appetite?
  • Have you changed your horse's feed or management lately?
  • When did you first notice this?
  • Do you notice other signs?
  • Do you notice signs of abdominal pain (colic)?
  • Has the horse been in contact with new horses recently?
  • Has the horse been lying down?
  • What are the results of the Whole Horse Exam (WHE)?
  • Do you notice a cough?
  • Do you notice any swelling or lameness?
  • How much manure has the horse passed over the last 24 hours?
  • What does the horse's manure look like?

Diagnoses Your Vet May Consider

The cause of the problem. These are conditions or ailments that are the cause of the observations you make.

Very Common
Less Common
more diagnoses

Author: Doug Thal DVM Dipl. ABVP