Taking your horse's vital signs

Your Horse’s Vital Signs: Part 1 of 2

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It’s essential that every horse owner knows their horse’s normal vital signs; that is their healthy resting temperature, heart rate and respiration (breathing) rate.

As prey animals, horses can be very good at hiding signs of illness to avoid attracting unwanted attention, so checking your horse’s vital signs regularly will allow you to know what is normal and can help you to spot early on when something is wrong. 

If your horse becomes ill or injured, it can be helpful to quickly take their vital signs before calling your veterinarian to get a better idea of how ill your horse might be, and ensure accurate and prompt treatment, if required. 

Veterinarians assess the physiological parameters (vital signs included) of horses frequently to assist in the diagnosis and management of disease. However, not every horse will fall within the ‘normal range’, so it is important to know what is normal for your horse.

 A stethoscope is not essential; all you need is a watch that counts seconds, and a thermometer. 

Heart rate

Normal heart rate in an adult horse is 32-48 beats per minute (although this figure could be as low as 25 in a racing fit Thoroughbred and as high as 55 in a pony). You can use a stethoscope to listen to the heart low down on the left side of your horse, just behind the elbow in the girth area.

Each ‘lub-dub’ of the heart is one beat. If a stethoscope is not handy, you can take the pulse from the submandibular artery, which runs under the bottom side of the jaw bone beneath the cheek. If you use your fingers to gently press against it, you will feel the artery pulsing.

Take the pulse for 15 seconds then multiply that number by four to determine heart rate in beats per minute. The pulse can also be felt either side of the fetlock (digital artery), and can be useful when checking for lameness in the foot or signs of laminitis as the pulse may feel stronger than usual.

The heart rate will be increased if your horse is excited or nervous, or has recently exercised. However, a consistently elevated heart rate indicates your horse is sick or in pain.

Respiratory rate

Normal respiratory rate is 10-24 breaths per minute. Measure the respiratory rate by watching or feeling your horse’s flank move in and out (each inhale and exhale is one breath).

You could also use a stethoscope to listen to the breaths as the air travels across the trachea (windpipe) when your horse inhales and exhales. This should sound clear – any rasping or wheezing noises indicate a problem.

A normal horse at rest has quiet, steady breathing. Increased respiratory rate or increased effort (laboured breathing) indicates a problem. Take note if your horse is coughing frequently, and remember coughing in foals is abnormal and should be investigated.

Temperature

Normal temperature for adult horses should be between 37.0-38.5°C.

Take your horse’s temperature by using a thermometer dipped in a small amount of lubricant (e.g. mineral oil, petroleum jelly or liquid soap) and insert it gently up the rectum.

Make sure you hold the thermometer in place or clip a string attached to the thermometer to the tail. Your horse should be appropriately restrained while you do this, preferably with someone holding them.

A digital thermometer from the pharmacy that beeps when the reading is complete is safe, cheap and ideal for this job. The more regularly this is done, the better your horse will cope with the procedure. It helps to get them used to temperature checking regularly starting when they are still young.

Once you’ve finished, clean the thermometer to reduce the risk of spreading illness. Higher than normal readings are likely to be associated with inflammation or infection, and you should isolate your horse and call your veterinarian. Temperature can also be transiently higher than normal with exercise and over-heating.

Mucus membranes

The mucous membranes are the lining of your horse’s eyelids, their gums and the inside of their nostrils. Your horse’s gums should be moist and pink. Normal capillary refill time (the time it takes for capillaries in the gums to return to pink after being pressed with a finger) should be two seconds or less.

If the gums appear very pale, bright red, purple, greyish blue or yellow, call your veterinarian immediately for advice. Remember, dry or ‘tacky’ gums could be an indication of dehydration.

Gut sounds

Listen to your horse’s gut sounds by placing your ear or a stethoscope against both sides of the abdomen, behind the last rib, both high and low. A healthy horse’s gut sounds should be gurgling, with gas-like rumbles and tinkling fluid sounds. Prolonged silence indicates an abnormality and could be an indication of colic.

Attitude

Your horse should have a bright and alert demeanour. He should be interested in his surroundings and seem comfortable. A good appetite is also normal for a healthy horse. If a horse is disinterested in food, it could be an indicator there might be a problem and potentially an early sign of colic. A horse that is sick or painful may appear dull or listless. Other signs of pain include rolling, pawing and rapid respiration.

Nostrils

The nostrils should be free of discharge or have only a small volume of clear discharge. Alert your veterinarian if you notice a greenish, yellow or white ‘snotty’ discharge, or bleeding. This could indicate an infection of the respiratory tract or dental disease.

Eyes

Healthy horse eyes are open, clear and bright, and free of discharge. Any changes could indicate pain, trauma or infection. It is important any eye problems are investigated promptly as the delicate structures of the eye can be left irreversibly damaged if not treated.

Hydration

Normal horses drink at least 20 litres of water a day, and this will increase with exercise and in hot weather. Your horse should always have access to clean, fresh water. A well-hydrated horse will pass the skin tent test. To do this, pinch their neck skin and release – the skin should snap back to normal in one second. Any longer indicates dehydration. If your horse appears dehydrated, won’t drink, and seems dull or uncomfortable, call your veterinarian for advice.

Skin and coat

A glowing coat is a sign of good health. When grooming your horse, look for any bumps, scabs, dry skin or areas they have been rubbing. A long, curly coat that isn’t shed in the Summer months is pathognomonic for Equine Pars Pituitary Intermedia Dysfunction (Equine Cushing’s Disease) and should be investigated by your veterinarian.

Body condition score

Check your horse’s body condition by visually and manually assessing the fat covering their ribs, shoulder, withers, loin, tailhead and neck. Ideally, a healthy horse is about a 5 on the 1-9 scale (The Henneke System). Their ribs should be easily felt, but not visible.

Limbs

Your horse’s legs should be free of lumps or bumps. Any areas of heat or swelling over joints or tendons could indicate injury. When you’re grooming your horse, it is a good idea to check their legs over for any signs of heat, pain, swelling or cuts to the skin.

In addition, your horse’s hooves should be kept in good condition with regular visits from your farrier (every 4-6 weeks for most horses). Feet should be picked out and inspected daily. A healthy horse will have flowing, free movement, and will not show any signs of lameness or an irregular gait.

Common mistakes

  • Taking vital signs after exercise, transportation or on a nervous horse when pulse and respiration rates may be elevated.
  • Double-counting heartbeats when using a stethoscope. Remember, one lub-dub is one beat.
  • Not leaving the thermometer in long enough, resulting in a false low temperature reading. A digital thermometer will beep when the reading is ready, but glass thermometers need at least one minute for an accurate reading.
  • Not regularly practicing on your horse to know what is normal for them and, thus, not recognising problems or mistaking normal vital signs for problems.

Emergencies

When you encounter a condition that requires veterinary care, the most important thing is to remain calm.

Assess your horse’s condition to the best of your ability. If possible, take your horse’s vital signs, and be prepared to answer your veterinarian’s questions about your horse and their behaviour.

It is also a good idea to keep an emergency first aid kit. This can help you treat your horse while you wait for your veterinarian to arrive.

Basic first aid kit: 

  • Combine or gamgee roll,
  • Gauze swabs,
  • Crepe bandage,
  • Vet wrap bandage,
  • Sticky Elastoplast/Askinaplast bandage,
  • Non-stick dressing,
  • Hoof poultice,
  • Bandage scissors,
  • Digital rectal thermometer,
  • Surgical scrub, such as Iodine or Chlorhex,
  • Latex gloves,
  • Torch,
  • Phone number for your veterinarian, including their after hours number,
  • An up-to-date record of your horse’s vaccinations and medications.

Next month, we continue with a look at first aid for emergencies and injuries.

Dr Rachel O'Higgins
Dr Rachel O’Higgins, BVMS MRCVS

Dr Rachel O'Higgins graduated from the University of Glasgow. She worked in mixed practice in the UK before travelling to Egypt to work for ACE, providing free veterinary care to working horses and donkeys. She moved to Australia in 2010 to complete an internship in equine medicine and surgery in Victoria, she then spent six months in equine practice in South Australia before moving to New South Wales. Rachel has worked in the Hunter Valley for the last 5 years providing all aspects of veterinary care for Thoroughbred stud farms, performance horses and pleasure horses.

Rachel O’Higgins is a member of Equine Dental Vets.

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