Bringing Your New Horse Home - What's "Normal"?
The first thing every new horse owner should do is become familiar with their horse's physical norm. That means simply recording vital signs & noting common characteristics. This helps to establish a baseline from which you can determine if the horse is ill. Checking these signs is best done when the horse is at rest, & at first you should take readings over 5 consecutive days to get an average. Readings should be taken around the same time each day to minimize ambient fluctuations. If you're at all unsure, enlist the help of someone who does know how to perform these tasks. At the very least it's a good idea to have a friend holding the horse for you while you concentrate. Before you begin, have a watch with a second hand, paper & pen, and at least ˝ hour to do all this so you're not rushed. Record the averages & keep them handy.
If your horse ever gets sick, those figures will be the only way you can tell if he needs help.
Taking the temperature is done using a rectal thermometer. A digital baby thermometer is ideally suited for use with horses. The probe is flexible, which minimizes discomfort; the display is quite large, making it easy to read; & most importantly it achieves a temperature reading in under 3 seconds. Many have a loop at the end for tying a string to it. Some horses react by clenching the sphincter muscle, & the thermometer can be "sucked up" inside in less than a heartbeat. That string may be the only way you'll ever see your thermometer again, & avoid serious injury to the horse.
The average temperature for most horses is about 37.8? Celsius, or100? Fahrenheit. Individual temperatures may vary by +- 2 degrees, so it's important to know what's "normal" for your horse. The odd "spike" in temperature is seldom anything to worry about, but if the horse carries a higher temperature into the second day, or rises/falls more than 2 degrees; it's time to call the vet. Persistent fever can be a sign of infection or serious internal problems.
Heart Rate (Pulse in Beats Per Minute)
The normal heartbeat for an adult horse is around 35 beats per minute. Pulse rates can increase greatly when a horse becomes alert or excited, so you may need to take several readings over time to determine the resting pulse rate.
Some easily detected arteries are found on the inside edge of the horse's lower jaw, just below the chestnut on the front leg, the inside surface of the cannon bone just below the knee, and the groove beneath the base of the tail. There's a bit of an art to consistently locate and count the horse's pulse, so you should practice this procedure until you are confident in locating an artery and feeling the pulse. Horses have a unique & distinct "double beat", so it may take a bit for you to get used to what this feels like. Locate one of the surface arteries with the flat side of your fingertips. When you can consistently feel the pulse, count the beats for 30 seconds. Multiply this by 2 to give you the beats per minute. While individual anomalies are seldom cause for concern, prolonged elevated heart rates can be indicators of colic or other illness.
Respiration (Breaths Per Minute)
The average respiration rate for an adult horse is anywhere between 8 to 16 breaths per minute. The breathing should easy & effortless, free from any extraneous sounds (rattling in the windpipe, gurgling or loud rushing of air as the horse breathes). You can determine your horse's respiration rate by observing movements of the horse's rib cage,
flank, or nostrils, or exhalations can be felt by holding your hand 2 or 3 inches in front of the horse's nostril. Locate respiratory movements in the horse's rib cage, flank, or nostrils or feel exhalations on your hand. Count either the inspirations or exhalations for 30 seconds. Remember that a breath consists of an inhalation and exhalation, so don't count both. Double the breaths counted to get the breaths per minute.
Capillary Refill Time (CRT)
Capillary refill time is the time it takes blood to return to a mucous membrane after pressure forces it out. When blood is forced out of a mucous membrane the area will look pale and be a yellow to white color. When blood returns to the area, the mucous membrane color reverts to its healthy pink color. The capillary refill time for a healthy horse is approximately 2 seconds. A capillary refill time of more than 2 seconds may indicate a circulatory problem, shock, or dehydration. Capillary refill time is usually checked on the horse's upper gum. Stand by your horse's shoulder and pull his/her head toward you slightly. Lift up the horse's upper lip in the area of the corner incisor tooth and press your thumb firmly against the gum for 2 seconds.
Remove your thumb and count how many seconds it takes for the pink colour to return to area.
A properly hydrated horse has pliable, elastic skin. A dehydrated horse's skin will lose pliability and become dry and wrinkled. The horse's eyes seem to sink into the skull, and its mucous membranes appear dry and sticky. One way to check is to stand by the horse's shoulder and pinch up the skin near the base of the horse's neck between your thumb and fingers for approximately 2 seconds. Release the skin. A properly hydrated horse's skin will quickly flatten to its original position against the muscle mass of the neck. A dehydrated horse's skin will return to its normal position very slowly or may stay "tented up" rather than returning to its normal position. Older horses may have less pliable skin, so once again it's important to find out what's "normal" for your horse.
While not really a vital sign, a horse's manure & urine can tell us a lot about what's going on inside. A healthy horse usually urinates every 4-6 hours, & should defecate every 2-4 hours (this can increase dramatically if the horse is frightened or excited). The stools should be formed in balls that can adhere to one another in clusters. Colour can vary, but if the horse's diet is consistent, so should the colour of the manure. Extremely loose stools are often signs of nervousness, but continued diarrhea can lead to critically low hydration levels. Urine can vary from almost colourless to dark yellow. Blood stained, extremely dark or very cloudy urine can be signs of infection or bladder issues. Horses will stretch out, or "posture" when they urinate. If the horse postures at an extreme position, holds the posture for a long period afterwards, or appears to be having difficulty at any stage, call the vet right away.
Any time you're unsure, call your vet. The call is usually free, the information you get from it can be invaluable. Even if there is a charge, vet bills usually tend to be cheaper than horses.