Equine Vital Signs
By Don Blazer

       When I was feeling a little sick or had a touch of the well-known  “pip”, my mom would put me to bed and give me a little chicken soup.

          Chicken soup cured everything in those days.

          Rest, good food and fresh water plus a tincture of time constitute the basic cure for “pip-like” horse ailments; they’re the closest thing to the chicken soup cure.

          When they’re not enough, however, call your veterinarian.

          But how do you know if it’s more than the “pip”?

          By reading the horse’s vital signs: temperature, respiration and pulse.

          As you get to know your horse well, you’ll recognize immediately when he isn’t feeling up to par.  That’s the time to check the signs.

          A normal temperature for a horse is 99 to 100 degrees.  A temperature of 101 is common in foals, and a horse’s temperature is normally slightly elevated in the late afternoon.

          To check the horse’s temperature, shake a standard mercury thermometer so the reading is well below the 90 degree mark.  Lubricate the thermometer with some petroleum jelly and insert it full length into the horse’s rectum.  (Before inserting, it’s a good idea to attach a long string to the thermometer….hang onto the string and the thermometer won’t be lost.)

          The thermometer should be left in for at least three minutes.  Once you take the thermometer out, read it.   You do know how to read a thermometer don’t you?  Practice rolling it until you can get an accurate reading every time.

          Take your horse’s temperature three times a day for three days to determine a “normal” for him; now don’t forget his “normal.”

          The respiration rate is the number of times a horse inhales and exhales each minute.  (That’s two actions to get one rate.)

          The average rate for the complete cycle for a horse at rest is 16 per minute.  But, of course, your horse isn’t average.  So check his respiration rate several times a day for three or four days to establish another “normal.”

          The best way to determine respiration is to place your hand on the side of the rib cage and count the number of breathes taken in one minute.  The average wrist-watch with a second hand will do the job nicely.

          Another way to find the rate is to stand back from the horse and count the in and out motion of the rib cage or the opening and closing of the nostrils, while timing in the same manner.     

          If the horse has just been worked or is excited, the rate can climb to 30 or 40 and still be normal.  The key, however, is to know the “resting” rate.

          The pulse rate at rest is normally just a little more than double the respiration rate.  So a horse with a 16 respiration rate would be expected to have a pulse of about 36 per minute.  (As the respiration, the pulse will increase with stress or exercise, so get a baseline when the horse is at rest.)

          The pulse is the throb or surge of force in the artery as the heart pumps blood through the body.

          The easiest location to find the pulse is usually the artery that runs along the inner side of the horse’s jaw.  Other convenient locations are the back of the fetlock joint and the inside of the elbow.

          It’s a good idea to practice taking your horse’s vital signs.  The practice not only helps you read the signs accurately, but will establish the horse’s baseline “normal.”

          The signs will vary a little depending on circumstances, but will always fall within a three or four-point range. 

          If there is a 10-point variance from normal, your “alert” button should be flashing.

          The next time your horse has a touch of the “pip” take his vital signs.  If he’s in the normal ranges, rest, good food and water should perk him up.

          But if he’s not in the normal ranges, call your vet who will be impressed by your medical prowess as you’ve already started the diagnostic procedure.


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