Learning how to take your horse’s vital signs, and doing it regularly so that you know what’s normal for him, will help you recognize when something is wrong with his health.
Some horses are high maintenance critters while other horses seem indestructible. They’re never lame and don’t know the meaning of a belly ache or an open wound. But most horses fall someplace in between. And the average horse is more likely to experience a problem when you first bring him home or make a change in his lifestyle. He is learning a new physical environment. He is experiencing a new feeding routine and regimen. He may be meeting new horse friends. All of this has to be sorted out – and during the transition cuts happen, bellyaches happen. And the new horse owner may be getting a first glimpse into the realities of horse ownership.
- Always have a pre-purchase exam done before buying any horse. This will serve you well to detect potential or existing health problems and will establish a relationship with your veterinarian-to-be.
- Find out what your horse has been eating before you bring him home. Feed changes should happen gradually. Horses don’t appreciate an abrupt change in diet and they can end up with a worrisome and expensive colic episode.
- If you will be keeping your horse at home, have an experienced horseperson look over your farm to point out potential problems, such as unsafe fencing, hay storage issues or lurking stall dangers. Your neighbor who had horses as a kid doesn’t count as an experienced horseperson. If you aren’t already taking riding lessons, find a reputable local instructor or trainer who you can learn from. Having an experienced horse person to turn to is invaluable as questions and problems arise.
- Make certain you have access to the following resources before bringing your new friend home: hay, grain, unlimited water, horse transport, farrier and veterinarian.
- If possible get the horse’s health history and vaccination status. And your horse must have a negative Coggins test certificate before he or she can come to her new home.
- If you are purchasing a horse from another state, you will need interstate health papers.
In Good Company
If you only have one horse, your job will be easier in some ways. That is unless he is lonely, and then you have another set of problems. If he is pining, pacing and hollering call an experienced horseperson for advice. This may be a transient event or you may end up having to get a goat or a little donkey or another horse for Prince. Horses are social animals.
If you are bringing your new horse home to another horse or a boarding stable, I would suggest you keep him separated initially. One reason is infectious disease. Let your new horse eye up his new pals from a distance for ten days or so until you are sure he isn’t going to come down with influenza or strangles (strep equi). When he remains healthy you may then put him out with others. I realize not all of us have the luxury of separate, non-adjoining pastures. In the absence of such a resource be certain that your new horse has been vaccinated against the most common infectious diseases. And if he hasn’t, then have him vaccinated and dewormed where you found him and ask if he can stay there for another two weeks.
Another reason for allowing the two horses to eye each other up for some period of time is many of those new horse lacerations and injuries come from the initial period of establishing a pecking order. It is during this time when horses are run into fences, and are kicked or bitten. Once they’ve sorted that out the two are typically best friends from that day forth.
And while we are on the topic of pecking order, don’t let your horse get away with poor stable manners. Establish the rules and adhere to them. Some horses, once they’ve gotten the upper hand, can turn into regular bullies. If you don’t know what the rules should be then go to a horse farm and watch the horsemen lead the horses in and out of the field. Watch how they navigate a gate. Study how they interact with the horses in the stall or at the mounting block. Become a good student of horsemanship.
Once the transition is complete, do not let down your guard. Learn what is normal behavior for your horse. When he is behaving in a way that you haven’t seen before, it is time to investigate. If you see him pawing or rolling he may have colic (bellyache). If you suspect he may be colicking, phone your veterinarian immediately. It will cost you less both financially and in terms of emotional wear and tear if you have a colic treated sooner rather than later.
If your normally voracious horse does not finish his grain, take his temperature (have your vet or horseman friend show you how). Keep a thermometer on hand and learn what is normal for him. If he develops a fever this is another time to phone the vet.
If you notice your horse standing stretched out like a sawhorse and he is reluctant to move, this indicates laminitis, a serious and painful inflammation of the internal structures of the hoof that requires an immediate call to the vet.
Check your horse’s pulse, temperature and respiration when he is healthy and at rest so you know what is normal for him. Then if he is exhibiting unusual behavior, you will be able to check his vital signs and know if they are out of whack.
In general, an adult horse should have a pulse of 35-40 beats per minute. When you check the pulse, count the beats for 15 seconds and multiply your count by four to get your result. You can check the pulse several different locations:
- Slide your fingers on the inside of the jawbone to find the facial artery and use gentle pressure to feel the pulse.
- Just below the fetlock, slightly to the inside.
- The digital artery on the pastern. This pulse should be difficult to feel. If you can feel it easily, this may indicate a serious problem in that foot.
For a normal, adult horse, the rate or respiration should be eight to 16 breaths per minute. Measure by watching or feeling your horse’s sides and counting for 15 seconds, then multiply by four. You can also feel in front of your horse’s nose for breaths, but if you do that, he will probably take a few quick sniffs, so don’t start counting until he has figured out that you are not feeding him a treat and goes back to normal breathing.
Good luck with your new horse. And remember, when in doubt err on the side of caution. Your veterinarian is always happy to field questions – and of course you’ve got that experienced horseperson on your team so you should be in good shape.