We’ve all probably heard the saying “some of my best friends never say a word to me”, and while the words warm our hearts, they also remind us of just that. When your horse is ill or just ‘off’, what better way to evaluate them than obtaining their vitals. This could be the first step in discovering a problem before it rears its ugly head – no pun intended, and can help you feel more confident in your decision to (or not to) involve the vet.
So what are the basic vitals, and how do we get them? First, don’t find yourself intimidated by trying to do something medical. This is a great starting point for any horse owner and also helps your veterinarian to gauge the severity of a situation when you call to explain your horse’s condition. Try to put yourself in their shoes – who takes priority when two different owners call and say
“Oh my gosh Dr. John, Big Ben ran into the fence and tore his leg open! This is definitely going to need stitches.” OR “Hi Dr. John, Angel just doesn’t seem to be acting right today. She’s been up and down and seems to be..well, I just can’t put my finger on it. Do you think you can swing by and take a look at her?”
Who would you see first if you got both phone calls? Now imagine Angel’s owner called and said this “Hi Dr. John, Angel just doesn’t seem to be acting right today. She’s been up and down all day. I took her vitals and her temp was 99, pulses were 80 and weak, capillary refill time was 3-4 seconds, respiratory rate is 30 and I can’t hear gut sounds.” With the change in behavior, rapid heart and respiratory rate and lack of gut sounds – which one sounds like the more serious emergency now? Remember your vet is triaging your horse OVER THE PHONE – the more concrete information you can give, the better. Had these two horses been in front of the vet, it would have been clear to him who was in need of immediate care.
With that being said, the basic vitals and normal ranges are
- (T) Temperature, your horse’s internal temperature
Adult 99-101 / Foal 99.5-102.1
- (P) Pulse, the heart rate per minute and strength of the pulse
Adult 28-44 beats per minute / Foal 80-100 beats per minute
- (R) Respiration, the breaths taken per minute and the quality of the breath
Adult 10-24 breaths per minute / Foal 20-40 breaths per minute
- (MM) Mucous Membranes, a description of the color and moisture of the gums
- (CRT) Capillary Refill Time, how quickly color returns to the gums when pressure is applied and released
- Gut Sounds, sounds on both sides of the barrel of the horse that denote movement in the gut
Gut sounds should be present on both sides of the horse
Now, just as every person is different, so is every horse. Vitals are a great tool when evaluating your horse’s condition, but they are merely a snapshot if you haven’t taken them when your horse is not ill. Factors such as age, athleticism and preexisting conditions can play into your horses ‘normal’, which is why we suggest obtaining a baseline for your horse. What’s a baseline? Well, think of it as a starting point. If you check your horse’s vitals under different stressors like a workout, or a particularly hot day, you’re going to find what their ‘normal’ is. For instance – I owned a horse that had a grade III heart murmur. Had I never listened to his heart, except for when he was ‘off’ I would have panicked when I heard the murmur and possibly missed the true cause for his behavior. Obtaining vitals should take no more than 4-6 minutes of your time. So let’s get started!
- Temperature, this should be taken rectally. Options for thermometers are old school glass or digital, I would suggest the latter so there is no question on results. If you feel confident in your ability and opt for glass, please be sure to purchase one with a string and clip so that it won’t be pushed out onto the ground (no, it won’t get ‘sucked in’). ALWAYS disinfect a thermometer before and after each use. A simple swab of alcohol will help stop the spread of disease, and let’s be frank – keep things clean. A digital thermometer will need to be held, but should read in less than a minute, while the glass thermometer can be inserted, clipped to a tail and checked in a few minutes. Once your thermometer has been properly disinfected, apply a generous amount of water based lubricant, this can help make things a little less intrusive if you catch my drift. Start by standing off to the side of your horse to avoid being kicked. Grasp the tail firmly, but don’t squeeze as this can be a sensitive area. Insert the thermometer into the rectum and wait or clip it to the tail (depending on the type your using). Once done, disinfect the thermometer and return it to its case.
- Pulse/Heart Rate, ideally you should use a stethoscope in addition to your hands as you can’t hear heart sounds without this nifty tool. You can purchase one online for around $3 – so there’s really no good reason not to have one. When listening with a stethoscope, place it just behind the elbow. You will hear two distinct sounds – “lub/dub” as the heart is pumping blood. Count only the “lub” for a period of 15 seconds and times the result by 4 to equal your beats per minute. If you don’t have a stethoscope, you can always place your hand over the heart and count using the same formula. When checking pulse quality – which tells how efficiently the heart it delivering blood to the body, you place two fingers behind the round cheek of the jaw at the facial artery or alongside the fetlocks (ankles) at the digital artery. Pulse quality can be described as strong (easy to find and feel), fair (slightly harder to find and feel), weak (difficult to find and feel), thready (think of feeling a straw as you’re trying to get the last a drink – pulses can sometimes feel thready in cases of anemia when the blood is thin), and bounding (pulses that feel like a base drum – thumping hard against your fingers).
- Respiration, again the stethoscope will come in handy for this one. You can count breaths by watching the flank rise and fall, the nostrils move or use the stethoscope to hear the inhale and exhale along the trachea (bottom of the throat). This is a great method to listen for wheezing or any other sounds of obstruction. Only count the inhale as one breath and count for a period of 20 seconds and times by 3 to equal your breaths per minute. Also note the quality of the breathing and any sounds you hear along the trachea. Breathing can be described as normal, rapid, shallow or labored (your horse is breathing harder than normal).
- Mucous Membranes/Capillary Refill Time, all are an evaluation of the gums. By moving the lip out of the way you can see the color of the gums and help determine hydration status. Gum color can be described as pink, dark pink, red or blueish/purple (signs of cyanosis). You can follow by feeling the gums to see if they are moist, tacky or dry – which could indicate dehydration. Last, a gentle press of the gums to blanch out any coloration, then counting the seconds until the color returns will provide capillary refill time. Prolonged times can be seen in cases of shock, dehydration, etc.
- Gut Sounds, drag that stethoscope back out! Take a listen just behind the last rib on the barrel and note any gurgling “hungry tummy” sounds. These are gut sounds and should be present on both sides of the horse.
That’s it! You’re all done. As with anything horse related – practice makes perfect, and the best way to perfect your technique is to work with a professional. Try taking your horse’s vitals on a routine vet visit and compare against your vet’s results. Do they have a tip or trick that might make your life easier? There is no better way to know if you’re doing it right than to confirm results.
I hope you feel more confident in your ability to take your horse’s vitals after reading our article. Be sure to print off our vitals sheet to have on hand when establishing a baseline or monitoring a sick horse. If you have any tips or tricks you like to use when taking vitals be sure to share them in the comments section below. Happy trails!