The First Thing I do when I Become Responsible for a Horse…
For my first post, I wanted to share the very first thing I do when a new horse is placed in my care: I measure and record its vital signs (VS) to establish what its “normal” readings are and to create a baseline for future reference. To me, it is perhaps the most important thing a horse owner, carer or trainer can learn to do since knowing what the average horse VS are, having a baseline for your individual horse and knowing how to measure your horse’s VS in case of an emergency can save your horse’s life. It can also help you avoid unnecessary anxiety and help you make your horse more comfortable day to day. Knowledge is power.
Besides measuring VS, when I care for a new horse, I make a point to learn everything there is to know about them. I observe them in the paddock, the stall and the arena, at meal time and nap time, at check time and first thing in the morning. I check on how much manure they pass and what it looks like so I can recognize changes in quantity, texture and size. I know what color their urine is on normal days. I check to see if they ate well or not, if their stall (if they are stalled) is messier than normal, unusally disturbed footing or dropping tells me if they pawed, felt colicky, where unable to rest, etc… I check their bodies and legs for swellings or cuts, dry hair patches, cold or hot zones or anything out of the ordinary. I watch them move. I listen to their footfall when I walk them and pay attention to how they carry their neck and to the sway of their tails.
I notice and note every little and every big thing about them so I can recognize small changes in their bodies, body functions and behavior immediately and catch problems before they happen or can develop into crisis. Manolo and I like to share our observations and we talk about what we observe daily.
The four main VS I measure and record when I’m first getting to know a horse are:
– Heart Rate
– Respiratory Rate
– Gum Color (Mucus Membrane)
If I am suspicious of illness I also check for Gut Sounds (listening to the sounds of the abdomen), Dehydration (skin pinch test) and Capillary Refill Time (pressing thumb to the horse’s gum and checking color refill time, normal is 1 to 2 seconds).
TEMPERATURE: When taking a horse’s temperature for the first time I like to have a handler holding the horse to ensure it is safe for me and the horse. I reassure the horse by patting it gently and talking calmly to him/her so that it knows I am at his hind end. I stand to the side of the horse in case he kicks. When a horse is with us we make being touched all over, having their tail lifted, the area under their tails clean, etc..part of the grooming experience so being touched there and having a thermometer slipped in is not stressful to them or surprising. We do not want to teach the horse about having their temperature taken while they are feeling poorly because that can add to their stress.
I like to use a digital thermometer, the kind that can be purchased from a pharmacy/chemist. It beeps to let me know when it has finished reading the horse’s temperature and it has an electronic display that takes guessing out of reading the results. Before inserting it, I like to put a little bit of Vaseline on it so it slides in more easily and it is not startling to the horse.
I have been asked why I do not attach a string to my thermometer so it can be latched on to the tail. The answer is simple: I was taught by my mother when I was very young that “you must hold the thermometer firmly to make sure it doesn’t get sucked all the way inside the horse” It made a strong impression on me, I’ve had years of practice and I hold firm every single time I take a horse’s temperature. I also was taught, and in turn teach people who work with me, that we must concentrate on the job we are doing. Taking a horse’s temperature is not the right time to check email or answer phone calls. Giving the task at hand our full attention helps prevent accidents from happening. This said, if you have a concern about the thermometer getting lost into the horse’s rectum, then it is a good idea to tie a string to it and then attach it to the horse’s tail via a clip.
When I am done, I always thoroughly clean the thermometer with a damp cloth or baby wipes before returning it to the Veterinary kit so it is clean and ready to use again. Cleaning it and returning it right away to its proper place ensures it does not get misplaced or damaged.
The normal temperature rate for horses is between 37.2- 38.3°C (99-101°F)
I have observed over the years that all horses do not have the same body temperature and when you touch their skin, some feel cooler to the touch and some feel warmer/hotter than average. It is useful to know what kind of horse you have and what its skin temperature is because it has a direct bearing on how you care for them. For example, my horse Mickey is cooler to the touch. He gets grumpy if he is cold and I have to rug him so that he feels warm enough in winter – he even wears a fleece Igloo (turtle neck)! On the other hand, Janus (Topaz’s brother) whom I cared for last year for a few months over winter is a very warm/hot-skinned horse who appreciates less blankets in winter. He would be extremely unhappy rugged up like Mickey. All other La Mancha horses at the moment are what I would call average.
HEART RATE: Measuring the heart rate in horses is done much the same as in people and just as with people, each heart beat is counted with 2 little “thump thumps.” To listen to the heart, stand on the horse’s left side and place the stethoscope just behind the elbow, in the girth groove. If you cannot hear anything that sounds like a heart beat, move the stethoscope around gently until you find the little “thump thump” noises you are listening for. Sometimes finding the heart beat can be tricky so it is best to listen for it while standing in an area that is very quiet.
The normal Heart Rate for an adult horse at rest is 28-44 beats per minute.
RESPIRATORY RATE: The respiratory rate in horses tells us how many breathes our horse takes per minute. The easiest and most effective way to measure it is to stand back from our horse and watch his abdomen and flank area. You will see his flank expand and deflate as he breathes air into his lungs and back out again. Horses have a much lower respiratory rate compared to people because their lungs are very large and are able to take in large amounts of air at a time.
The normal respiratory rate for an adult horse at rest is between 10-24 breathes per minute.
Respiratory rates will increase with illness, pain, heat and exercise so I also check their VS while they are exercising and when the weather is exceptionally hot or cold, after trailering, etc…. so I have a sense of what their “normal” is in these circumstances..
GUM COLOR: Checking the gum color (Mucus Membrane) is very simple to do and can tell us very easily if something is not quite right with our horse. Normal color is a fleshy pink: See the photo attached to this post showing Levi with normal fleshy pink gums. Abnormal gum color includes pale pink, dark pink, yellow, grey and white. Abnormally colored gums are a big red flag and I will call the vet immediately if I find unusually colored gums. To check gum color gently lift the top lip with your thumb facing sideways across the top lip avoiding unwanted fingers in the horses mouth.
Because it is such an easy check which can tell us immediately if there is a problem, I look at the gums and front teeth of all our horses daily and make sure their gum color is normal and that there are no grass seeds stuck in their gums as these can become uncomfortable and cause mouth abscesses and contact issues with the bit.
In my experience some horses gums are more reddish naturally and that should be noted in the horse’s record. It may be worth to you taking a quick pic with your phone to have a visual record. I use my phone to record information and take pics routinely which I transfer to the horse’s file as needed or share with Manolo.
What are the outward signs that would cause me to check a horse’s VS besides the big red flags like rolling, looking at belly, or limping, etc..? The first sign is the horse looking lethargic: I notice this straight away whether it is at meal time or getting them from the paddock for work. Other signs I pay attention to include the horse not eating it’s breakfast or dinner or not wanting to come for its meal. The horse eating slower than usual or eating then walking away from its food. If I have not picked up on something abnormal when feeding, turning out or bringing the horse in and tacking him/her up, I may find something is off when we start working together: the horse may feel withdrawn, lack energy, find doing some of his easy work difficult, etc…
In the case of a health emergency, I take the horse’s VS every hour/couple of hours or so in order to track how well or poorly the horse is doing. I always write down the TIME I took the VS and the VS in the La Mancha diary on the day’s date so I have a record of it as we progress through the day or days. This gives me very specific information about the condition of the horse and how stable it is or whether its health is deteriorating or improving. It gives me something concrete to share with the vet which can help determine the next course of action. Wait for the vet or put the horse in a trailer and go straight to the clinic? Wait a few more hours, or get the vet out immediately?
It is a good idea if you do not know how to measure VS to ask your veterinarian to show you how to do it and to keep a first aid book with basic information so you can double check on what normal respiration, heart rate, and temperature are. Taking a little video with your phone while your vet demonstrates where to put the stethoscope, etc…is an easy way to have a visual “how-to” guide in an emergency.
In the meantime, I went looking for a good video clip on how to take VS to share and really liked this one . TheHorse online is a free subscription and has a lot of good articles including this one which also includes VS for foals.