As a horse owner it is easy to think that we need to understand every possible disease and disorder that could possibly affect our horses. Whilst it is great to understand more about conditions such as colic, strangles and laminitis it is vital that owners know ‘normal’ for their own horse. Vets spend several years understanding what is 'normal' for horses, before covering all the many diseases and conditions that can affect horses.
There are a several key vital signs that an owner can assess and record, which will help highlight a problem with your horse much sooner. Monitoring these will also provide your vet with some very helpful information in the event of your horse being unwell. So with that in mind here are seven vital signs that every horse owner should be monitoring with their horse.
1. Respiratory Rates
This vital sign should be measured first, as it is most easily affected by the environment, and any changes on the yard will cause the respiratory rate to increase.
You can simply watch the abdomen/flank area of the horse, and look for the rise and fall with each breath. One breath is made up of an inhalation and an exhalation, so ensure that you aren't counting both parts otherwise the rate will be too high. In colder weather you might be able to 'see' your horse's breath in the air. It is easiest if you measure the number of breaths for thirty seconds and then multiply this by two to give you the number of breaths per minute. As with all vital signs it is also sensible to measure the respiration rate at the same time of day for three days and then take an average recording.
It is also important to consider the breathing effort, as well as the number of breaths per minute, as this will give a really good indicator of your horse's respiratory health. If your horse is suffering from equine asthma (the umbrella term for horses with breathing difficulties) the intercostal muscles (between the ribs) will be working hard with each inhalation. In some horses you can spot a 'heave line', where these muscles become over developed. This occurs over time, and a heave line is certainly demonstrating that something is not right with your horse's respiratory system, and it would be sensible to have a chat with your vet about this.
Measuring rectal temperature is possibly one of the easiest vital signs to establish, but many owners have never taken their horse’s temperature. On the Horse First Aid Courses that I run across the UK we ask owners to put their hands up if they have a thermometer in their Horse First Aid Kits, and lots of owners do indeed have one, but far less have ever used it.
To take your horse’s temperature you don’t need a special equine thermometer, you can simply purchase a human one from a local supermarket or chemist. Unless your horse is a known kicker most horses don’t really object. Have someone else to hold your horse, and work your way along the horse, just as if you were about to groom the hindquarters or back legs. Then standing to one side, not directly behind the horse, lift your horse's tail and insert the thermometer. Try and angle the thermometer to one side so that it is touching the wall of the rectum, otherwise you might be measuring the temperature of the any awaiting droppings. Wait until the thermometer ‘beeps’, remove, note the reading and clean it ready for next time.
Temperature readings can alter throughout the day, so to assess ‘normal’ for your horse it would be sensible to monitor twice a day for several days and take an average reading. A normal temperature is between 37.5 and 38.5 degrees, and a slight increase in temperature can be an early indicator of the onset of many diseases such as Strangles, Equine Flu and Pneumonia.
3. Heart rate or pulse
The horse’s heart rate is much slower than a human, with a range of 20-40 beats per minute considered as normal by the vets that I work with. Textbooks will often list a ‘normal’ heart rate of 36-42 bpm but working with a wide variety of vets it seems that this range may actually be slightly wider in practice.
You can assess heart rate with a stethoscope, on the left hand side of the horse applying gentle pressure just behind the elbow. The horse's heart makes a 'Lub dub' sound, and there are two parts to the heart beat like a human. If you record a higher than expected heart rate for your horse it might be that you have counted both parts; the ‘lub' and the 'dub'. Using a stethoscope can be quite difficult to get the hang of at first, so it might be helpful to ask your vet to show you how to do this next time they visit the yard for routine work.
You can also measure your horse’s pulse, and the easiest way to do this is via the facial artery on the horse's cheek. The facial artery runs over the jaw bone at the bottom of the muscled part of the horse's cheek, the space where the noseband and throat lash sits.
This artery feels spongy and 'tube like' and can be pressed easily. Simply apply gentle pressure with your first two fingers to measure the pulse rate, remember not to use your thumb (otherwise you are assessing your own pulse) and not to press too hard.
Recording the number of beats for 30 seconds, and then multiplying by two will give you a reading for one minute, and again it would be sensible to repeat this over several days and take an average reading.
4. Mucus membranes
Examining your horse's mucus membranes, such as the gums, nostrils and eyelids can reveal a lot about how well blood is circulating in your horse. The gums are easiest to look at, and are a useful way of providing a quick snapshot of your horse's health. In a healthy horse the gums are moist and a pale pink colour. A horse who is unwell may have dry or tacky gums, and the colour can differ from a very pale pink or grey colour, or they might be bright red or brick red colour.
5. Capillary Refill Time
As well as assessing the colour of the gums owners can assess capillary refill time, which can also indicate circulation health. To assess capillary refill time press a thumb or finger against the horse’s gum for two seconds. A white mark will appear, and this mark should return to a healthy pink colour within one or two seconds after you remove your finger.
6. Faecal output
Although not classed as a true vital sign monitoring the number and consistency of the droppings that your horse produces is a very useful way of knowing ‘normal’ for your horse. Horse owners spend a fair amount of time picking up droppings, and you probably make a mental assessment of your horse’s poo each time you muck out or poo pick a field without even realising it. If you noticed less droppings in your horse's stable one morning this should certainly be noted, as reduced faecal output can be an early sign of colic. Take a few minutes to consider any other changes from ‘normal’, did the horse eat all his feed and hay overnight? Was his demeanor the same? Did he have any facial injuries? All these could be signs of colic, but some of these more subtle signs can be easily missed. Likewise a change in consistency should be noted, dry hard droppings can be a sign of impaction colic, and similarly if your horse has diarrhoea it is important to try and establish a cause of this.
As a horse owner you probably know your horse better than anyone else, and a change of behaviour can be an indicator of pain, or a sign of your horse being unwell. Horses often mask signs of pain, but minor changes in behaviour can indicate pain or discomfort. Horses normally behaves very consistently when it comes to feed time and being turned out in the field, if you have an lively horse who is suddenly very quiet to lead, or a greedy horse who isn’t interested in his breakfast one morning these are changes worth noting.
In summary you are the expert on your own horse, and monitoring these seven vital signs can really help you keep your horse as healthy as possible. Noting a change in normal and seeking veterinary advice is very likely to improve the prognosis and outcome of an illness or injury, and with many conditions (such as colic), time is certainly of the essence.
About the author
Nicola Kinnard-Comedie owns and runs NKC Equestrian Training, a training company providing Online and One day Horse First Aid Courses across the UK, together with qualified vets. These courses and workshops are designed for horse owners to update their knowledge on preventative health care, wounds, colic and infectious diseases. As with with human first aid recommendations for Horse First Aid change over the years, and these courses are the perfect opportunity to ask the vet lots of questions and enjoy a relaxed day of training, or you can learn at your own pace with the online course.