The Magazine June 2017

How to check your horse’s vital signs

Posted 18th September 2017

Checking your horse’s vital signs regularly will help you establish a benchmark for monitoring his health.

Horse's-vital-signs

Navigating your horse’s health can be seem like a bit of a minefield – what’s a major concern? What’s not? When should you call the vet?

Knowing what’s normal for your horse means you can spot a change and seek professional help if needed, before it becomes a major issue. Check his vital signs once a week and keep a record of them, then check them again if his behaviour changes or he seems under the weather.

Respiratory rate

Why? Your horse’s respiratory system is a well-oiled machine, allowing for maximum output with minimum effort – essential for hard work, fastwork and jumping. Laboured breathing or a very high respiratory rate is a clear indicator of a problem in the lungs or a pain response. 

What? A healthy respiratory rate is very slow, as your horse’s lung capacity is much greater than that of a person. At rest, he should take 10–20 breaths per minute, but this rate increases when he’s working hard or when he’s investigating an object by smelling it.

How? Observe your horse’s ribcage and belly, and count his respirations by the movement of his sides. Alternatively, hold your hand near his nostrils to feel the breaths. Count the number of breaths over 30 seconds, then multiply by two. An inhalation and exhalation count as one breath.

Temperature

Why? Just as in humans, a high temperature can indicate illness or infection.

What? A healthy adult horse should have a temperature of 37.2–38.3°C – taking it regularly will help you establish what’s average for your horse. Keep in mind that temperature can be affected by hot weather or exercise,
so take it when your horse is at rest.

How? Your horse should be tied up or held throughout the process, and you should stand safely to the side. Use a small amount of petroleum jelly on the end of the thermometer as a lubricant and insert it into his rectum at a 45° angle so it touches the wall. Don’t remove it until it beeps. If using a mercury thermometer, shake it gently before inserting and leave it in for 60 seconds.

Heart rate

Why? A healthy horse at rest has a slower heart rate than a person. An increase in beats per minute can indicate fear, excitement, pain or illness – ordinarily, the higher the heart rate, the more severe the problem. A slower-than-average heart rate is only a concern if it’s not the norm for your horse, so it’s important to know what to expect when you take it.

What? Ordinarily, a resting horse will have a heart rate of 28–44 beats per minute. An extremely fit horse – for example, an upper-level eventer or a racehorse – will have an increased level of aerobic fitness and the capacity to circulate more blood with every heartbeat, meaning that his resting heart rate may be considerably lower. A heart rate of 20 may not be abnormal in this type of horse.

How? If you have a stethoscope, hold it just behind your horse’s left elbow and count how many heartbeats you hear in 15 seconds. Multiply this number by four to calculate the beats per minute

If you don’t have a stethoscope, you can take a reading from the mandibular artery. To do this, place your fingers under your horse’s jaw, in the space between his cheeks. Feel around the inside of his cheekbone until you find a large, rope-like structure – that’s the artery. Press down lightly until you can feel the pulse. Only take a pulse reading with your index or middle fingers – your thumb has its own pulse, which can be difficult to differentiate from. Count how many beats you feel over 15 seconds. 

Find out more ways to check your horse’s health in the November issue of Horse&Rider, on sale 21 September 2017.

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