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Know your horse's vital signs

Mane Points

Whether trying to get a handle on a Hanoverian or take stock of a Shetland, there are basic guidelines to evaluating a horse's health status that every owner should understand. Your veterinarian needs help in keeping your horse healthy. A knowledgeable and observant owner who is alert to early problems is better than any wonder drug.

There are several important parameters that can be used to keep tabs on a horse's medical condition, but the most basic are T.P.R. -- temperature, pulse and respiration.

By learning how to evaluate these three prime signs, along with mucous membrane color and gut sounds, you will have a good idea of the health status of your horse, and will be able to deal with minor medical problems before they become serious.


How to measure

The best way to take the horse's temperature is rectally. Keep a plastic digital thermometer in your medical kit. They are safe, easy to use, inexpensive and available at most pharmacies. It's operated by then pressing a button to turn it on. Simply lubricate with petroleum jelly and insert the thermometer into the horse's rectum.

It may take one to three minutes for an accurate reading, although many digital thermometers take readings quickly and beep when they are done. Simply read the digital display for the horse's temperature.

(Editors note: So you don't lose the thermometer in your horse, put yarn and an alligator clip on the handle end. When the thermometer is inserted, fasten the alligator clip to tail hairs, thus securing it!)

Understanding the information

Normal body temperature runs 99.8-101.3 F, but environmental factors can affect the readings.

Horses tend to have higher temperatures in warm weather. Exercise, stress or excitement will raise temperature as well.

This is why it's important to take your horse's temperature many times and in many different situations so you will know what the norm is.

Temperatures over 102 are usually related to some type of disease. Bacterial infections, such as respiratory colds and infected cuts usually generate temperatures in the 102.5-103.5 range.

Viral infections cause either early subnormal temperatures (similar to chills one feels with a viral cold) to very elevated temperatures, 104.5-105.5.

Occasionally, infections will cause biphasic fevers that show a normal temperature in the morning, but will spike a high temperature in the afternoon. When you are concerned about possible illness, record the horse's temperature twice a day and look for patterns and changes.

The Pulse

How to measure

The pulse in the horse can be taken from an area under the jaw, from beneath the tail at its bone, or from an area on the side of the horse's foot. (If you can't find the pulse, your veterinarian will be happy to show you.) Simply placing your hand on the left side of your horse's chest under the elbow will allow you to feel the beat of the heart.

Since most horses will not stand still enough to count heartbeats for a full minute, count for 15 seconds and multiply by four.

Understanding the information

The pulse measures the rate and strength of the heartbeat. A normal resting horse has a heart rate of 38-40 beats per minute.

Maximum heart rates can exceed 180 beats per minute, but a rate above 80 should be considered serious in most non-exercising horses. Heart rates that stay above 60 in a horse that is calm can be a sign of trouble.

Exercise, stress, fear, pain and excitement will elevate the horse's heart rate. Infection will cause an increased rate as will traumatic cuts, kicks, fractures and so forth.

The most common cause of elevated heart rate is colic or intestinal pain. Such pain can cause mild to severe elevations, and the degree of increase can be a sign of the severity of the colic pain.

The intensity or force of the pulse is sometimes an indicator of other problems in the horse. A weak or soft pulse means the heart is not pumping forcefully and may indicate heart disease.

A hard, forceful pulse can be felt in a horse that has been exercising and is pumping a lot of blood to carry oxygen to working muscles.

This forceful pulse can also be felt as a reaction by the body to some drugs, toxins or some disease conditions. Knowing your horse's normal heart rate and pulse quality allows you to make comparisons in order to evaluate situations and judge your horse's response.

Textbooks on conditioning the sport horse will also make mention of the rate of return, after exercise, to a normal heart rate. This statistic is the single most effective indicator of fitness in horses. Being able to simply take your horse's heart rate allows you to evaluate and monitor training and fitness in your equine athlete.


How to measure

The horse should spend roughly equal time breathing in and breathing out. Respiration can be counted by watching the horse's nostrils, watching the horse's torso at the end of the rib cage, or by listening to the trachea (windpipe, in he neck).

The medical term, auscultation, (literally translated "putting an ear to the part) is what the veterinarian does when listening to your horse's body with a stethoscope. You can put an ear on your horse's neck and hear the air moving through the windpipe or lungs. (Do this only on a calm horse, exercising special caution if your horse is sick and, perhaps, less tolerant.)

As with the heart rate, count for 15 seconds and multiply by four.

Understanding the information

A normal horse at rest breathes eight to 10 times per minute.

High respiratory rates indicate pain, excitement, elevated temperature (which you can now check and confirm) and a wide variety of possible infections.

Thick mucous in the windpipe from a head cold will increase respiration and make it harder for your horse to breathe in -- just as when you have a stuffy nose. Allergies and heaves make it hard for horses to breathe out, which can be easily heard.

If you learn how to measure the T.P.R. of your horse and become accustomed to its normal gum color and gut sounds, you will have a better idea of its basic health status.

Much more importantly, you will more likely be aware when something is not normal and will seek early help from your veterinarian.

By being able to tell your veterinarian these simple but crucial parameters during an emergency (often when you have to give information over the phone), you will get more accurate and appropriate treatment for your horse.

©Southern States Cooperative, Inc., Reprinted from Mane Points, with permission of Southern States Cooperative, Inc.