You know if your horse didn’t eat all of his grain, if one leg’s tendon is a few degrees warmer than the other, and can find the tiniest scrape in the most inconspicuous place, but can you rattle off your horse’s vital signs? Knowing these basic ranges for your horse can tell you the difference between not having to worry and needing to call the vet.
WHAT TO CHECK
Vital signs are the measurements of a horse’s essential body functions and are one of the first things that can alter if a horse is experiencing physical or emotional stressors. Horse owners know to watch for any changes with their horse whether it be a new lump that wasn’t there the day before or a difference in behavior, but the changes that we can’t see are often more important in recognizing if something is wrong.
“The three classic things to monitor, in order of importance, are temperature, heart rate, and respiratory rate,” says Dr. Kris Koss, DVM of Millbury, MA. “For a mature adult horse I would like to see a temperature of 100 degrees [Fahrenheit] plus or minus one degree, a heart rate between 36 and 44 beats per minute, and a respiratory rate between 12 and 20 breaths per minute.”
Each horse is different, so it is important to note that some may naturally fall outside of these ranges. This is why it is suggested to check a horse’s vital signs on occasion and become familiar with his normal ratings.
HOW TO CHECK
Checking all three vital signs requires two tools that can be found at the local drugstore for a few dollars—a thermometer and a watch. A veterinary or equine thermometer from a tack shop will work, but any digital thermometer can do the job just as well and is an important addition to a horse owner’s emergency medical kit.
The easiest to manage, a horse’s temperature is found by moving the horse’s tail to the side, inserting a thermometer into the rectum, and waiting for the telltale beep that it is done reading. Be sure to stand to the side of the horse the first few times this is done in case he has a negative reaction. Petroleum jelly can be applied to the thermometer tip for lubrication and easy insertion. Most importantly, don’t let go of the thermometer, unless it is a veterinary thermometer with a string and tail clip attached!
Recording a horse’s heart rate is slightly more difficult and can be done two ways—by feeling and by listening. “Heart rate can be found by either palpating their pulse or listening to their heart beat,” says Dr. Koss. To feel a horse’s pulse, palpate any large blood vessel that is close to the skin such as the mandibular artery under the jaw or the digital artery on the outside of the fetlock and count the pulses for 60 seconds. Become familiar with how weak or strong each horse’s pulse is at different points. Listening for a heart rate requires a stethoscope being placed behind the horse’s left elbow and counting each “lubdub” sound as one beat.
The final vital to check, respiratory rate, is surprisingly the toughest. “The respiratory rate is the hardest one for people to wrap their mind around. They have to be standing back from the horse, looking at him,” explains Dr. Koss. “If you get too close to the horse, then they are going to start sniffing you and that gives you the wrong reading. Then you’re just measuring sniffing.” For best results, put the horse on a set of cross-ties and stand back a bit, looking at the horse’s flank. Watch as it goes in and out—that is one breath. “If you get in the horse’s face and looking at his nostrils then his sniffing rate will go way up,” laughs Dr. Koss.
When recording vitals, keep in mind the horse’s current environment—weather, strenuous activity, and excitement can cause all three vital signs to be elevated. “If you just got back from a long trail ride and you ran to the barn to check your horse’s heart rate, it is going to be elevated. That is not surprising,” clarifies Dr. Koss. “If you are a horse and a vet about to look in your mouth, your heart rate is probably going to be elevated. That is not because he’s got a problem, that’s just a normal response, so you have to factor that in.”
The simple reason to check a horse’s vital signs is so that horse owners can recognize when something is awry by comparing it to their normal temperature, heart rate, and respiratory rate. If you’re concerned that something may be wrong with your horse, a quick check of his vital signs can give you an indication of whether or not the vet is necessary. “It is an easy, straightforward way to gather useful information that can either be used directly by the owner or passed on to the veterinarian in the case of some sort of problem,” explains Dr. Koss.
More often than not, the first question the vet will ask if someone calls with a worry is if they’ve checked their horse’s vitals. “It is a decision making tool in terms of what possibly could be going wrong as well as what we should do next,” says Dr. Koss, explaining that how far away from normal the vitals are gives a vet a good idea on what the problem could be. “It is kind of a triaging tool. For example, if you think something is wrong and the temperature is normal, that puts a whole set of problems off the list. If the temperature is elevated, then we are looking at something different.”
WHEN TO WORRY
You’ve checked your horse’s vitals, keeping in mind the environmental factors, and they aren’t normal, now what? How do you know if you need to call the vet?
An elevated temperature usually means a horse has a fever and is a cause for concern, but it becomes more serious if the temperature is above 105. “A horse with a fever of 102 degrees? Yeah. A horse with a fever of 106 degrees? Yikes,” states Dr. Koss.
Heart rate is the next most important vital and horses that are in pain, particularly colic pain, are going to have an elevated heart rate. “A horse that is moderately uncomfortable will typically have a heart rate in the neighborhood of 60 beats per minute. If you check your horse’s heart rate and it is 80 to 100 beats per minute, that’s going to put a vet in a whole other category of being alarmed.”
Respiratory rate can vary greatly, so it can be difficult to tell if it is a concern. “Respiratory rates will elevate in a bunch of situations such as discomfort, respiratory distress, and colic, and then there are some other unusual situations,” says Dr. Koss.
No matter what, it never hurts to make a phone call to your veterinarian if you think anything is wrong, especially if their vitals aren’t within standard ranges. “If you are in a situation where you think something is amiss, you check those vitals and they’re not normal, then that is a good opportunity to get in touch with your veterinarian.”