How do I check my horse's vital signs?

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Knowing how to take your horse’s vital signs will not only help you to assess if something isn’t quite right, but will also help your vet identify what might be wrong with him.

Alan Davies, Carl Hester’s head groom, discusses how to check your horse’s vital signs.

What are a horse’s normal vital signs?

Temperature: 37.2-38.3°C (99-101°F)
Pulse: 28-44 beats per minute
Respiration: 10-24 breaths per minute

Checking temperature

  1. Unless familiar with the procedure, your horse should be held by an assistant.

  2. Switch on the digital thermometer, or vigorously shake the mercury thermometer until the mercury is below the start of the temperature scale.

  3. Lubricate the bulb with petroleum jelly.

  4. Run your hands over your horse’s hindquarters and lift his tail.

  5. Stand to one side to avoid being kicked. Gently slide the thermometer into the anus until two thirds is inside the rectum.

  6. Tilt the thermometer so the end of it lies against the rectal wall. This will ensure it is measuring your horse’s temperature, not that of droppings.

  7. Wait a full minute (or until the digital thermometer beeps) then withdraw the thermometer and wipe it clean.

  8. Read the temperature.

  9. Clean with disinfectant and store safely.

Checking heart rate

  1. The easiest place to take your horse’s pulse is where the facial artery passes under the lower jaw. The horse must be standing up and not eating.

  2. Run your fingers along the lower border of the mandible. The artery can be felt as a tubular structure.

  3. Apply light pressure with the flat of your first three fingers and feel the pulse.

  4. Count the number of beats in 15 seconds.

  5. Multiply this figure by four to obtain your horse’s pulse rate.

Checking breathing rate

  1. This should be done when the horse is resting and relaxed.

  2. Stand quietly and watch and count the movement of the flanks for one minute.

  3. The flanks and chest wall move up and outwards as the horse breathes in. They move down and in as the horse exhales.

  4. Each time the horse breathes in and out is counted as one respiratory cycle.

Checking digital pulse

  1. When your horse is standing quietly, feel for the pulse where the digital artery runs over the sesamoid bones, just above the fetlock joint.

  2. This can be more difficult to locate unless the horse has a foot problem, such as an abscess of laminitis.

  3. A strong or bounding pulse in both front feet is common in horses with laminitis.

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