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When I was at University, the importance of knowing a horses vital signs was drilled into us on a near daily basis. We were expected to know what the normal parameters were and be able to check them when asked. I believe all horse owners should know the vital signs and how to check them. But if you don’t observe your horse regularly, this information may not be as useful as you think!
What are the vital signs?
Different people include different things in the vitals signs. But I was always taught T.P.R (temperature, pulse, respiration.) I feel these are the 3 most important things along with mucous membrane colour.
- Temperature = 37.2-38.5°C
- Pulse Rate = 28-44 beats per minute
- Respiratory Rate = 8-16 breaths per minute
- Mucous Membrane = Moist and salmon pink in colour
How to check your horse’s vital signs
The most reliable way to check your horse’s temperature is with a thermometer in the bum. It isn’t pretty, but most horses are absolutely fine with it and it doesn’t take long. I use an animal thermometer I bought on ebay. I lube it up with some vaseline, press a button and insert. My thermometer beeps once it has got an accurate reading, so I know how long to keep it in there.
When taking a horses temperature, stand to the side of the horses hind end. Lift and pull the tail towards you to help prevent you getting kicked. When you insert the thermometer, go in straight and then pull slightly to the side, while keeping it straight. This ensures you get an accurate reading of the horse’s temperature and not any poo you might have stuck the thermometer in. Keeping it straight stops you from stabbing the walls of the rectum.
Very few of us have a heart rate monitor or stethoscope to hand. Which makes listening to the heart beat difficult. Therefore it’s much easier to check your horse’s pulse rate. I tend to check the pulse around the fetlock/pastern area as I think it’s quite easy to find there. But you can also use a pulse you can find elsewhere on your horse’s body, such as the jaw.
When checking your horse’s pulse rate, count how many times you feel a push from the pulse. I tend to do this over 30 seconds, timing on my phone and then double it to get beats per minute.
There are two ways to count your horses breathes per minute. The most common one is to hold your hand in front of the horse’s nose and count how many times you feel their breath on you. However, this isn’t always that accurate. So I would be tempted to instead count how many times you see the ribcage inflate as they breathe in. If you stand in front of them slightly to one side, you should be able to clearly see the ribcage moving in and out.
Easy mistakes to make
Despite how simple it may seem to check your horse’s vital signs, there are lots of silly mistakes it is easy to make. Here are some of the key mistakes to look out for:
- Taking vital signs from a stressed horse.
When a horse is stressed, their heart and breathing rate often changes. Try and allow the horse to calm down before assessing their vital signs.
- Removing the thermometer too soon.
If you take the thermometer out too quickly, it might not have an accurate reading. Many now beep at you when they have a reading, so wait for the beeps.
- Counting for an entire minute.
A minute can be a long time to expect the horse to stand still and not moving. You will probably get a better reading for pulse and respiration rate if you count for 20-30 seconds and then times it to get a reading for a minute.
- Double counting heart/pulse beats.
The heart beat is made up of 2 contractions, 1 in each side of the heart. These two distinct beats can be heard and can be mistake for two heart beats rather than 1.
What’s normal for your horse?
As great as it is to know the vital signs for horses, if you don’t know what is normal for your horse, it can be hard to tell if your horse is feeling okay or not.
Your horse’s normal temperature could be 37.3°C. If you never check their temperature, you might think they seem a bit under the weather one day and take their temperature and it could be 38.3°C. This is still within the normal range for horses, so you would probably decide that your horse is fine, despite their temperature being 1°C more than it always is.
So while your horse is probably fine in the grand scheme of things, by not knowing what is normal for them, you could be missing signs that they may not be feeling 100%.
Should all horse owners regularly check their horse’s vital signs?
In an ideal world yes. But if I’m honest, I can count the times I’ve taken Scottie’s temperature when I have thought he is perfectly healthy on one hand! Yes there are some horse owners (such as one of my lecturers) who regularly take their horse’s temperature and keep records of their horse’s normal vital signs. And I think this is a fantastic thing to do! But, as long as you are confident checking your horse’s vital signs and know what they should be within, then I think that is fine.
I challenge you all to check your horse’s vital signs this week. I know I could certainly use the practice! If you do check your horse’s TPR, please let us know by using the #HorseTPR on social media.