Assessing Vital Signs
Knowing your horse's vital signs is something that every horse owner should know. How else will you really be able to closely monitor your horse's health? Do you compete in a strenuous sport like eventing, endurance, or barrel racing? It is even more important in order to make sure your horse is in its peak condition for that demanding job. If you have never taken your horse's vital signs yourself, make it a point to do this the next time you see your horse. Keep your findings in a journal. It is always good to check these for 3-5 days when you get started to notice any trending. I also recommend checking vital signs after any sort of conditioning work.
Equipment Needed: Assessing a horse’s vital signs is easy, straightforward and can be done with minimal equipment. The only equipment needed are a thermometer and lubricating jelly. A stethoscope makes monitoring the heart rate and respiration easier.
Stethoscopes are a worthwhile addition to any emergency medical kit and are fairly inexpensive.
Thermometers come in many different shapes and sizes from digital to manual. If a manual variety is chosen, a livestock thermometer with a string attached will make your life much simpler when taking the rectal temperature on a large animal.
Proper restraint is important no matter which horse you are assessing. The primary goal is safety of the handler and the horse. Ensure that the horse is in a comfortable location (if possible) before you began to assess the vital signs. It is always a good idea to have a practice run before you have an emergency, so you’re aware of how the horse will react. A practice run will allow your horse to know what to expect during the procedure, as well. Vital signs consist of primarily three things: temperature, pulse, and respiration. Other considerations are: Gastro-intestinal or G.I. sounds, digital pulses, mucous membrane color, and hydration status when confronted with an emergency. Taking Vital Signs: Temperature: With the horse properly restrained, apply a small amount of the lubricating jelly to the end of the thermometer. If using a manual thermometer, make sure the thermometer is shaken down prior to inserting into the rectum. Insert the thermometer approximately 3 to 4 inches into the rectum. Allow at least 2 minutes before reading and removing if using a manual thermometer, or until the digital thermometer beeps if using a digital thermometer. The string on a livestock thermometer can be attached to the tail so that it is not inadvertently lost into the rectum or dropped on accident. Caution should be used to assure the end of the thermometer is not within a fecal ball, as this will tend to falsify the reading in some cases. Normal temperature for a Horse is 98.5-101 degrees F. Pulse: A horse's heart lies approximately behind the elbow. The pulse is easiest to detect by using a stethoscope on the left side of the animal’s body. It can be measured manually by finding an artery and palpating the pulse, much as you do on yourself when you palpate your pulse over your wrist. The horse’s pulse may be taken manually by placing your fingertips on the large artery up against the inside of his jawbone near his cheek. The pulse (each lub-dub counts as one beat) can be counted for a minute, or can be counted for 15 seconds and multiplied by 4 to get the rate per minute. Normal pulse rate in a Horse is 28-45 beats per minute.
Respiration: Respiration is perhaps the easiest vital sign to obtain since no contact with the animal is required in order for it to be measured. In contrast, respiration is also the most variable of all the vital signs, and the most effected when the animal is excited or in pain. It is not uncommon for respiration rates to double or triple with pain or anxiety. Watch the animal’s flanks, counting every inhalation for 15 seconds. Multiply by 4 to get the rate per minute. Normal respiration rate in a Horse is 10–14 per minute. Capillary Refill: This is how you assess the mucus membranes to check if the horse is getting oxygenated blood to their tissues. The easiest way to do this is to lift up the horse's top lip and look at the gums. They should be a light pink color. Push your finger against the gum for a few seconds and then remove it. Count how many seconds it takes the tissue to return to its pink color. 3 seconds or less is normal. Any more than 3 could be a problem.
Hydration status: Hydrated skin is pliable. How can you tell if your horse is drinking enough water? Check for skin tenting. Simply pull up a small amount of skin on the horses neck. If the skin tents and does not fall back into place, your horse could be dehydrated. Proper hydration will cause the skin to fall back into place almost immediately. Is your horse not a good drinker? You might need to add in some salt or electrolytes to increase water consumption.
Always remember that if you have any questions at all, contact your veterinarian. They are always more than happy to help you out!