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Know your horse

Erin Malone, DVM, University of Minnesota

This article is designed to help you establish normal parameters for your horse and enable you to detect a potential problem as early as possible. You must know what is normal before you can determine what is abnormal. The following is a list of things you should check on a daily basis:

Posture. This may the first clue that something serious is wrong. An example would be a horse that stretches out. This may be a normal routine for a horse or could be a sign of abdominal discomfort (colic). A horse that shifts its weight from one leg to the other constantly usually has pain in one of its legs, a horse that is reluctant to move may have founder, and a horse that completely refuses to bear weight on a limb could have a severe stone bruise, a foot abscess, a joint infection, or a fracture.

Appetite. Watch your horse as you approach at feeding time. A good appetite is one of the best indicators of overall health. If your horse eats lightly at one meal, do not panic. Check to see if someone else is feeding the horse or overfeeding him/her at other meals. Also, make a mental note of what food is left behind. A horse that dives into its grain at first and then stops eating after a few bites may have stomach ulcers.

Water. Start by examining the horse's water pail or trough. Horses tend to drink an hour or so after they begin eating the roughage portion of their rations. A few hay stems or grains in the water are no cause for concern. However, if the water pail is packed with hay and or grain, your horse may be having trouble eating and using the water to soften the feed. This could be due to dental problems.

Manure. A normal horse will pass 8-10 piles of manure per day. The manure pile should have well formed fecal balls with enough moisture so that the pile stays heaped. When the fecal balls become separate and somewhat dry, it may indicate that a horse is not drinking enough water. Firm fecal balls covered in mucous are an indication that the horse is taking longer than normal to pass feces and may be due to dehydration. Loose manure could be due to a sudden change in feed, nervousness, or mechanical / bacterial irritation to the horse's gut. Some mares have loose manure when they are in heat. Diarrhea is not common in horses and can be a sign of a severe problem. It is best to call you veterinarian when you notice your horse has diarrhea, especially if it is accompanied by a fever. Extremely dry feces or lack of feces are also indications to call your veterinarian.

If you have performed your daily exam and found that something is abnormal, then the next step is to take your horse's vital signs.

Temperature. Try to take the horse's temperature near the same time twice a day for several days in a row. The horse's temperature is typically higher in the afternoon than in the morning by a degree or so. By taking the temperature at the same time each day, a more accurate record of your horse's normal range in temperature can be made. A normal temperature for an adult horse ranges from 99-101.4 degrees F. Foals and yearlings may have a normal temperature up to 102 degrees F, especially if they are nervous or excited. Fever is a term used when a horse's temperature is above normal. Do not worry unless the horse's temperature is over 102 degrees F.

Pulse. You can take a horse's pulse anywhere you can hear or feel his heartbeat. Start by feeling an artery close to the skin such as the facial artery at the edge of the jawbone. Simply press your first and second fingers gently against the jawbone. Be sure not to use your thumb, as you may pick up your own pulse. A foal less than 1 week of age has a resting heart rate of 60-120 beats per minute (bpm); a 1week-6month old foal 40-60 bpm; and an adult 28-46 bpm. A heartbeat of more than 50bpm in a resting adult horse should be considered abnormal, especially if there are other signs of a problem such as colic, in this case, call your veterinarian immediately.

Respiration Rate. Respiration rate is measured by adding the number of breaths per minute. One inspiration and expiration is counted as one breath. It can be counted by watching the ribs moving in and out, or by watching the nostrils dilate and relax. The normal respiratory rate for an adult horse is between 8-20 breaths per minute.

Mucous Membranes and Capillary Refill Time You can get additional information on your horse's overall health status by looking at his mucous membranes. They are usually examined by looking at the horse's gums. They should be pink and moist. If they are very pale or white, the horse is probably suffering from blood loss. If they are bright pink or red, the horse is suffering from a toxic condition. If the mucous membranes are gray, purple, or dark blue in color, the horse is suffering from a lack of oxygen and is probably in shock. The capillary refill time can give you an indication of your horse's hydration status. Simply press your thumb against the gum above the upper teeth for a couple of seconds. When you remove your thumb, a blanched area will remain. The capillary refill time (CRT) is the amount of time it takes this blanched area to return to the normal color. Normal CRT is 1-2 seconds. In dehydrated animals, the CRT increases to 2-4 seconds. With severe dehydration, the CRT can increase to 5-6 seconds.

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