Tuesdays with Tony
Checking Vital Signs
In my recent column about colic, I talked about taking your horse’s vital signs as a good way to help your vet manage an emergency. Today I’ll go over how exactly I want you to do that, because it’s YOUR horse, right? So, you really should know how. I’ve enlisted some help to show you exactly what I’m talking about, so make sure you look at the pictures and watch the videos.
First of all, go buy an inexpensive stethoscope. You can get one for as little as $20! Amazon, CVS, Walmart, they’re not hard to find. Sure, my doc probably uses a fancier one to hear all the subtle things, but a basic one will let you count the heartbeats just fine. Then practice ahead of time, don’t wait for an emergency to happen. Put the stethoscope ear buds in your ears so they point forward. Listen for the heartbeat on the left side, just behind your horse’s elbow, about where the girth rests. It’s helpful to have him stand with his left leg forward a bit so you can push the stethoscope forward under the muscle and get good contact with his chest. Try pressing more or less firmly until you can hear the heart clearly.
A horse’s normal heart rate is around 26-46 beats per minute (much slower than yours). Since it’s so slow, you will probably be able to hear both heart sounds. It will sound like “lub-DUB”. Be careful that you don’t accidently count double – “lub-DUB” just counts as one beat. Set your stopwatch for 15 seconds and count the beats in that time. Then multiply by 4 to get his actual heartrate. For example, if I listen for 15 seconds and hear “lub-DUB” 10 times, I multiply 10×4 and his heartrate is 40 beats per minute.
There are places you can feel the pulse with your fingers to count the heart rate, but these are usually trickier to master than just listening with a stethoscope. When my doc comes out to vaccinate your horse, or whatever, you can ask her to show you the technique for listening to the heart or feeling the pulse.
Counting your horse’s breaths can be done in a couple of different ways. You can listen with your stethoscope, but it’s usually just easier to look at his flanks moving in and out. If he’s breathing hard, you can watch his nostrils flare, but if he’s breathing normally this might be harder to see. Remember that inhale + exhale = one breath. Count for 30 seconds and then multiply the number of breaths by 2 to get the respiratory rate. The normal respiratory rate of a horse at rest is 12-20 breaths per minute.
Gut sounds are what you will hear when your horse’s intestines are moving normally to push food through. A normal horse has active rumbles all over his belly, and you shouldn’t have to listen for much longer than 15 seconds to hear some. Your horse’s gut sounds can be heard on both sides of his belly, high and low, in front of his hips. Again, practice ahead of time to get used to his normal.
Digital pulses are a good indicator of the amount of inflammation in your horse’s feet. My doc’s favorite place to feel them is at the fetlock (your horse’s “ankle”). Using your thumb and middle finger, feel on either side at the widest part of the fetlock, towards the back. You will often feel a “squishy” area that is the artery and vein on either side – that’s the right spot. Use light pressure and feel for the pulse. It’s usually a light movement against your fingers and may be a little hard to find at first. Get to know what it feels like in a normal horse so you can tell if it’s more prominent than usual. My doc says if there is inflammation in the foot, the pulse will feel stronger than usual. She calls it a “bounding digital pulse”. It’s kind of like the throbbing feeling you would get if you hit your thumb with a hammer.
Get yourself a plastic digital thermometer like my docs use. They’re quick and easy to use. Keep it just for your horse’s use of course! To take his temperature, it’s safest to have someone holding him for you in case he objects to it. If your horse strongly objects or you just don’t feel safe, it’s okay to give this one a pass.
Stand close to your horse’s hindquarters on one side, not right behind him. I know you might feel safer to stand farther away, but actually you’re usually safer if you’re right up against his side. Gently move his tail up a little and to the side, then slowly insert the thermometer into his anus a couple of inches, almost up to where the digital display is. Press the thermometer’s button to turn it on. It will beep again when it has finished reading the temperature. A normal horse’s temperature is between 98.5-100.5 Fahrenheit. Take your horse’s temperature on different days to see what his normal temperature usually runs.
Take a look at the gums above your horse’s upper teeth. They should be pink or pale pink. Any colors besides that are a problem, so call my doc. They should be moist to the touch and not dry or “tacky”, which can be signs of dehydration. Next, press your finger onto the gum firmly. The pressure should be firm enough that when you lift your finger away, you see a white spot where your finger was. Count the number of seconds it takes for the spot to fill back in with color. In a normal horse, it should be less than 2 seconds. If it’s longer than that, it could indicate shock or dehydration.
Being able to take good care of your horse’s health is a critical part of good horsemanship. Practice taking your horse’s vital signs frequently, so that it’s second nature by the time you really need to do it. I guarantee that my doc will be happy to show you her technique when she’s next at your barn. There’s few things the docs at Springhill Equine like more than helping to educate owners on good care for their horses!
Until next week,
P.S. If you want to learn more, you should really check out the Podcast the humans do. They are way more energetic than this cat, and they actually talk for thirty or forty-five minutes sometimes to teach you things. It’s really good stuff. And Patrons of the podcast get even more: their own Facebook group with videos, and they can ask questions about their horses, and all kinds of good stuff. Sometimes I feel like they’re trying to show me up, but it’s more than I’m willing to worry about this close to nap time. Anyway, you can find all the details here on the Podcast Page of my website.
Tuesdays with Tony is the official blog of Tony the Clinic Cat at Springhill Equine Veterinary Clinic in Newberry, Florida. If you liked this blog, please subscribe below, and share it with your friends on social media! For more information, please call us at (352) 472-1620, visit our website at SpringhillEquine.com, or follow us on Facebook!