Sometimes you just have a sense that your horse isn’t happy or that something isn’t quite right with her. Other times, your horse is clearly in distress or her injury obvious. For all of these situations and everything in between, it’s important for you to be able to evaluate your horse’s condition.
Remember, a seemingly minor injury or what could be shrugged off as just a bad day might hide a serious health problem. I always remind myself: The horse is talking to you, if you’ll just listen.
Your ability to examine your horse will help you decide whether you should contact your vet. If you do call your vet, you’ll be able to give her hard information.
To hear what your horse is telling you, you should be able to measure or evaluate your horse’s:
General Appearance. Is the horse standing normally? Is she lame? Are there any obvious wounds or injuries?
Temperature. An adult horse’s normal body temperature is 99 to 101.5ºF. I recommend a digital thermometer, which will read your horse’s temperature quickly and beep when it’s done. Remember to hold onto the thermometer or it may disappear into your horse’s rectum.
Heart Rate. An adult horse’s resting heart rate is about 28 to 44 beats per minute.
You can take your horse’s pulse by placing your fingers on the bottom of the jaw below the cheek muscles where a large artery crosses the bone.
You can also use a stethoscope. I recommend buying a better stethoscope than the ones you’ll find at the local drug store.
Place the diaphragm of the stethoscope on the left side of your horse’s chest just behind the elbow. You may not hear the heartbeat right away. Move the diaphragm around a little. Keep listening; eventually you’ll hear the lub-dub of your horse’s heart. Each lub-dub is one beat. Count the beats for fifteen seconds and multiply by four.
Respiration Rate. An adult horse’s resting respiration rate is about 8 to 16 breaths per minute. Watch your horse’s side and count each breath. It may be faster on hot, humid days, but should not be higher than the heart rate.
Fast, shallow breaths with flared nostrils are signs that your horse is in pain.
Mucus Membranes. The mucus membranes include the lining of your horse’s eyelids, the inside of her nostrils, and her gums.
Lift your horse’s upper lip. Are her gums a light pink? Perfect. Or are they blue, gray, white, yellow, or a deep red? These colors are signs of trouble. They may indicate shock or liver problems.
Also check her eyes and nostrils for any discharge.
Capillary Refill. Lift your horse’s upper lip and press a finger into the front of the gum. When you take your finger away, you should see a white spot. In a healthy horse, the spot should return to pink within two seconds. This indicates that your horse is well hydrated. A slow refill may be a sign of dehydration or shock.
Pinch Test. This tests your horse’s hydration. Pinch the skin on your horse’s neck or shoulder. In a well-hydrated horse, the pinched skin will bounce back to normal almost immediately.
Gut Sounds. Using a stethoscope, listen to both sides of your horse’s abdomen. You should hear plenty of gurgles, growls, and drips. Your horse’s gut should not be quiet.
Digital Pulses. These pulses are found at or below the fetlock joint. Most of the time, the digital pulses are difficult to find. If you find them immediately, and they’re strong, there’s a problem. A strong pulse in one leg might be an abscess or stone bruise. Strong pulses in more than one leg are more serious.
Hoof Temperature. In my experience, this is a bit iffy. The warmth of a hoof will vary depending on the time of day and season. Check the hooves by laying the palm of your hand across the front of the hoof, then the sides, and then the heal bulbs. What you’re really looking for is any temperature disparity between the different areas of the hoof as well as between the four hooves. On a hot summer day that can be difficult to judge so I sometimes use a chef’s infrared thermometer.
For the health and safety of our horses, we all need to be able to conduct a basic examination of them.
In addition, there is some normal variation in the temperature, heart rate, and respiration rate. For instance, my mare usually has a temperature slightly below normal. I also had a horse at my farm that panted on very hot days. After discussions with the vet and owner, we realized that was normal for her. You should practice examining your horse so you can learn what’s normal for your horse.
When a problem arises, your horse will be accustomed to you looking her over, you won’t add to her stress, and you’ll be able to evaluate her quickly and efficiently. You’ll be able to hear what your horse is telling you.
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