Understanding a horse’s vital signs
I am often surprised by how many Grooms (and Employers for that matter) don’t actually know what a horses “normal” temperature, pulse and respiration rates are. In fact, I used to know an employer who would ask every experienced Groom at a job interview, and if they didn’t know she would show them the door (and a book!). It seems a bit harsh, but they all learned pretty quickly!
According to one of our friendly super grooms “If you want to control viruses then you need to be able to spot subclinical infection. I’ve turned up at yards where there was not even a thermometer.” A useful comment, but of course viruses is just one aspect – there is injury, colic, tying up, laminitis and a whole host of other conditions Grooms find themselves looking out for not covered in detail here.
Finally, before I hand over, don’t forget to always be health and safety conscious, properly attired and appropriately insured for these checks at all times folks! It goes without saying that we need to take good care of ourselves as well as our horses at all times!
T.P.R – Temperature, Pulse, Respiration
Understanding a horse’s vital signs is a fundamental necessity for every horse owner and groom who wants to take the best care of the horses in their charge. These three vital signs form the cornerstone of a physical examination, but they can greatly help you, the owner and the vet when you think a horse might not be well. It will help assess just how sick or injured the horse could be. For example, although the normal heart rate for most horses is 32-36 beats per minute, some horse’s normal heart rate can be lower (e.g. in the region of 24 beats per minute) or maybe slightly higher (e.g. in the region of 40 beats per minute). This can be a starting point for comparison when the horse is sick.
TOP TIP: Always perform a TPR check for the first time when your horse is healthy, then you will have that individual horse’s “normal” vital signs. Write them down and keep the information in a central and known place, so you/others can quickly access.
If you ever perform a TPR check on your horse and think there might be a problem, speak to the owner of the horse IMMEDIATELY, every time!
What you will need
You will need a few bits and bobs in your yard/grooming “toolkit” to perform a basic physical examination – a thermometer, a stethoscope (ideal, but not essential), and a watch:
The thermometer ideally should be digital. As a horses temperature is traditionally taken rectally, the glass types of thermometer are not recommended because of the risk of breakage and possibly dire consequences. The digital thermometers (widely available these days) are much faster and can be read in about 1 minute, compared to 3-5 mins with a traditional thermometer. It is also probably less of a shock and kinder, as well as safer to use the digital ones rather than the rigid glass types, especially if the horse isn’t co-operative. Rectal temperature can be easily taken on most horses. Approach the horse from the side – do not stand directly behind the horse in case the horse should kick out! Raise or move his tail and gently insert the thermometer into his anus.
Top Tips for selecting and using your thermometer:
- When selecting a thermometer, make sure it has a hole at the end so a long piece of brightly coloured string can be knotted through it, to help find the thermometer if disappears during use (yes, that CAN happen!)
- So you don’t get pooped on, consider attaching an “anchor stick” of some sort at the end of the string horizontally, so that it can be clamped to the horse’s tail and left in place until the temperature can be read. Always check that this is ok with the vet and/or owner first.
This will help you clearly hear and determine the rate of the heart beating and the sound of the horse breathing/respiratory rate. Most yards will have a stethoscope to hand or you can get them online or via your vet. The heart rate (pulse) and respiratory rate can be taken without a stethoscope, but having a stethoscope makes the job easier. Alternatively, the pulse can be taken from the lingual artery, which is on the bottom side of the jaw where it crosses over the bone.
You will need a clock or watch to help you make an accurate measure of the horse’s heart rate. A wristwatch with a second hand or digital watch with a second measure is ideal. Alternatively, a clock with a second hand on the wall or a ledge nearby, which you can watch whilst measuring the horse’s heart rate/pulse/respiration. It’s a good idea to give your mobile phone a miss on this occasion; it can be fiddly, dropped and damaged, and the safety of your phone may distract you from the job at hand.
T – Temperature
Facts and figures for using your thermometer:
- The normal temperature range for a horse is 100.0 – 102.0°F (37.5 – 38.5°C).
- If the horse’s rectal temperature is above normal, it’s called a fever, not a temperature. All horses have a temperature–either above normal (fever), below normal (hypothermia), or normal.
- Neonatal foals (foals less than one month of age) have a normal temperature of 100.0 – 102.0°F (37.7 – 38.8ºC). Remember, new-born foals can easily suffer from hypothermia (low body temperature), so if the foal’s temperature is below 98.0°F (36.6ºC), call someone immediately and rub the foal with towels or blankets to stimulate blood flow and/or dry his coat.
P – Pulse
Facts and figures for measuring a horse’s heart rate and pulse:
- A horse’s normal resting heart rate for an adult horse is about 32-36 beats per minute.
- A horses normal resting pulse rate is 36-48 beats per minute.
- A horses normal resting respiration rate is 8-12 per minute.
- The heart rate for foals varies depending on age. New-born foals have a heart rate of between 80-100 beats per minute. Foals which are a few weeks to a few months of age will have heart rates of 60-80 beats per minute.
Top Tip: The pulse can be taken for 15 seconds, then multiplied by four to achieve the heart rate in beats per minute. If a stethoscope is available, listen to the heart on the left side of the horse’s chest, just behind the elbow. Each “lub-dub” of the heart is considered one beat.
R – Respiration
The characteristics of his respiration should also be noted:
- Is the horse taking shallow or deep breaths?
- Are there abnormal squeaky or crackling sounds associated with the breathing?
The respiratory rate can be taken by watching the horse’s chest move in and out (each inhale or exhale is one breath), or feeling the air come out of his nostrils. The stethoscope can be used to listen to the breaths as the air travels across the trachea when the horse inhales and exhales. This should sound clear. You can also hear by just listening intently most times providing you are in a quiet environment and you have stopped the horse chomping on his hay.
Facts and figures for measuring a horses respiratory rate:
- The normal respiratory rate for adult horses is eight to 12 breaths per minute.
- Newborn foals have respiratory rates that are quite high (60-80 breaths per minute).
- Neonatal foals have resting respiratory rates from 20-40 breaths per minute.
Please remember that if your horse or foal becomes excited for any reason during the examination, it can elevate his heart and respiratory rates temporarily.
P.A.M – Posture, Appetite and Mucous Membranes
The beginning of a really good physical examination begins with looking at and around the horse. A physical examination should never take the place of a vet’s examination, but if you become familiar with these techniques you can help recognize a problem, pass on relevant info quickly and this basic information can save time and contribute to one day potentially saving a horse’s life. These are skills honed to instinct over the years, so to start with, may be useful to have a bit of a conscious checklist. Most of the time it just entails learning what to look out for, learning what is normal for a particular horse.
P – Posture
Posture, attitude, and the environment around the horse. Look out for anything out of character or unusual:
- Patterns of lying down to rest.
- How many piles of manure were passed?
- Is there any sign of pain (a horse watching his flank), resting a foreleg, evidence of rolling, rocking, soreness in his feet etc.
- How does he respond to normal exercise? Does the horse seem unusually tired, reluctant to do what he normally does, gait seems a bit off etc? It may be he needs a day off, but it may also be a sore back, leg issues, virus etc.
A – Appetite
Appetite and drinking quantities and habits.
- Did the horse eat the usual amount of hay last night?
- Is the horse’s response to receiving hard feed usual? Has he eaten it all?
- Has the horse drunk more/less water than is usual for him?
In all circumstances, a good horseperson will know the “norm” with all horses and will take any change as a signal to look deeper.
M – Mucous Membranes (colour/gum colour)
Healthy horses have nice pink gums that are moist to the touch. Press your finger firmly on the gum line, then take it away quickly. The time it takes for the area to turn from white back to pink is the “capillary refill time” and should be around two seconds. Gums that vary from this dark red, bright red blue, or even white with a prolonged capillary refill time usually indicates a problem requiring immediate attention.
Top Tip: Most vets are an excellent source of learning. Don’t be frightened to ask them general questions, ask them to watch you while you perform a basic physical examination. Unless they are frantically rushing to another horse/call they normally would be delighted to advise.
You might be glad to remember TPR and PAM one of these days! These are just some of the checks that can be made to see how the horses in your care are feeling on a particular day, and to be ahead of the game on any issues. We are always looking for anything out of the ordinary in general terms and in measured terms, therefore to know what is out of the ordinary, you need to make it your business to thoroughly know the ordinary. I am sure we haven’t covered everything here but hopefully, for some, it will be a useful start point to go on and learn more about a horses vitals signs, and for others a useful refresher. By being knowledgeable of your horse’s normal vital signs and able to take his vital signs in an emergency, you greatly increase your horse’s chance of surviving a serious illness or accident. As a groom, you are often the horse’s first line of defence and that is a great responsibility. If in any doubt on what you are doing, seeing or hearing always, ALWAYS ask someone – it can make all the difference. It can take years to get to a high level of competency on these matters and everyone has to start somewhere. We are all continually learning, so don’t be shy – your horses need you!
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