Most horse owners have heard these words: “Hay, water, and salt are the mainstay of horses nutrition.” These three inputs to a horse’s body are directly linked to the overall health of a horse. As a competitive distance rider, I am familiar with the importance of checking your horse’s vital signs at each vet check stopping point. In Competitive Trail Riding, there are vet checks before the ride, several during the riding day and final checks in the evening to check the horse’s vital signs. For endurance it’s similar, the number of vet checks depends on the distance of the ride. In endurance and competitive trail events, riders are told the “pulse down rate” required in order to continue in the competition.
The amount of hay, salt, and water ingested has a definite impact on a horse’s vital signs. These quantitative measurements include hydration, heart rate, respiration, gut sounds, and temperature.
- Hydration: As I drive south of Durango, Colorado into the Navajo Nation and southern New Mexico, I see signs displaying the words, “Water Is Life.” This saying is literally true for most living creatures. In southwest Colorado, we are going through a record dry year and suffering unusual heat. The intangible value of water becomes evermore prominent each day. Horses are extremely dependent on water for life and it does affect the horse’s vital signs.
There are several ways to access your horse’s hydration status:
- The skin tent test: Pinch your horse’s neck skin and release; the skin should snap back to normal in one or two seconds. Any longer indicates some level of dehydration.
- Mucous membranes: Lift up the horse’s upper lip. Take a look at the mouth area and the gums. The gums and tongue should be notably moist.
- Capillary Refill: Lift up the upper lip. Press on the gums with a finger. The tissue should turn white for a second and quickly return to pink or slightly red.
During moderate temperatures and humidity, with light work, most horses will drink 5-10 gallons of water per day. For lactating mares, horses with heavy exercise, or in hot and humid conditions, a horse can drink significantly more – sometimes up to 25 gallons a day.
- Heart Rate: A horse’s pulse is a giveaway as to the horse’s current health status and an important part of the horse’s vital signs. Resting pulse rates in horses typically range from 24 to 44 beats per minute. With this large of a range, it is important to check your horses resting pulse rate several times so you have an accurate baseline measurement.
Every horse owner should have a stethoscope. A stethoscope is a must-have tool that comes in handy for checking heart rate and gut sounds. Most horse product supply companies offer stethoscopes for around $25. Learn to use it while your horse is calm. Horses that are sensitive to pressure will move away at first, which is why it is so important to practice when your horse is calm and to teach it to stand while being examined.
How to check heart rate:
Place your stethoscope on the left side of the horse just behind the elbow in the girth area. Be sure you also have a phone, stopwatch or wristwatch handy. When you hear a definite heartbeat, count the beats for 15 seconds. Multiply by four to get the heart rate. A stressed horse that is at rest will have a pulse significantly higher than 44. An alternate way to check heart rate is the mandibular artery located just under the jaw. To find this artery, curl your fingers in the groove between your horse’s jaw. Feel around for a cord-like area along the inside of the jawbone. Press that slightly with your fingers and you will feel the pulse. It can be hard to count this pulse, but if your horse is standing quietly it can give you a general idea of heart rate.
- Respiration: The normal resting respiration rate for a horse is 10-24 breaths per minute. This measurement, along with pulse, can help determine stress level. If a horse is being exercised, it is fine for it to have a high pulse and respiration count. The important factor, however, is the recovery time. If you recheck your horse’s vital signs after 30 minutes and these two measurements have not significantly decreased, then the horse needs special care, walking and possibly fluids.
How to check respiration rate:
To count breaths, have your watch handy. Place your watch hand near the flank so you can see the seconds without glancing away. Count either exhales or inhales during 15 seconds and multiply that number by four.
- Gut Sounds: Guts sounds should be audible within 15 seconds of listening. A healthy horse’s digestive tract is constantly moving and gurgling. If you have heard your stomach growling you have an idea of what you should hear from your horse.
How to check gut sounds:
Listen to your horse’s gut sounds by placing your stethoscope against the sides of the abdomen (barrel) near the flank. Move it around if needed until you hear growling and gurgling. Prolonged silence indicates an abnormality and could indicate colic. When riding long distances, be sure to let your horse eat grasses or provide soaked beet pulp as a way to keep fiber in its system. To help your horse maintain a healthy gut, consider offering a digestive supplement such as Formula 707 Digestive Health pellets. Always keep a tube of Formula 707 Digestive Health paste on hand for post de-worming or vaccinating, and any other time your horse may need probiotic support.
- Temperature: Normal adult horse temperatures range from 99-101°F; 37.2-38.3°C. This is another measurement that can vary a few degrees for each horse. A high temperature can indicate illness, infection or stress.
How to take a horse’s temperature:
When you purchase your stethoscope, also buy a standard thermometer. While digital thermometers work fine, they are not as long and aren’t always made for attaching a string. Before taking the temperature, be sure to shake down your rectal thermometer. Next, coat it with a small amount of lubricant. (I keep a small tube of Vaseline with my thermometer.) Make sure you hold the thermometer in place and/or clip a string attached to the thermometer to the tail. No one wants to go fishing for one that’s lost! Leave it in for about three minutes, then withdraw and read. Sometimes it is a good idea to repeat the process in order to verify an accurate reading. Yesterday I had the vet out for a horse with a small puncture wound that had caused the elbow area to grossly balloon up. The horse’s temperature was 104, pulse was 60, respirations were 75 and hydration was excellent. This helped to pinpoint infection as the cause of the swelling. I was glad I had recently refreshed my practice of checking my horse’s vital signs.
The bottom line: Know your horse and its resting vital signs – it will pay off in stressful times.
About the Author
I currently reside in Durango Colorado. Durango is in the Four Corners area of southwest Colorado. Living in this corner of Colorado allows me access to riding in three states within an hour drive. Horses have been a passion in my life for 35 years. I currently have seven equines in my care, including a five-year-old mustang in for training, a feisty grade mare I bought eight months ago, a talented Arab/Mustang mare and a blue dun Icelandic pony. —Phoebe Bechtolt