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Twelve Signs of Good Equine Health

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You know your horse better than anyone—what behavior is “normal” and when something’s not quite right. There are also certain parameters you can monitor to keep tabs on his health. Knowing these normal resting (adult horse) values can help you establish baseline information for your horse and detect potential health problems early, and sharing departures from “normal” with your veterinarian can help him or her gauge the severity of a sick horse’s condition. The following are particularly important:

Rectal temperature is the best indicator of a horse’s core body temperature and should remain within the 99- 101°F (37.2-38.3°C) range. It rises above normal with inflammation and infection, but bear in mind that exercise, air temperature, and blanketing can also cause temperature fluctuations.

Respiratory (breathing) rate indicates respiratory and circulatory function and rises when these systems are functioning improperly or when the horse is in pain. Measured by watching the abdomen move or listening with a stethoscope on the windpipe, normal respiratory rate should be 10-24 breaths per minute. Breathing can become more rapid with excitement and exercise.

Intestinal (gut) sounds indicate intestinal function and decrease due to conditions such as colic. Upon listening to all four quadrants of the abdomen with a stethoscope or your ear, you should hear a mix of gurgling, growling, and tinkling gas sounds. Horses exhibit increased gut sounds while eating and decreased sounds when stressed or fasting.

Heart rate/pulse indicates circulatory function and increases with shock, pain, and anemia. A healthy horse should have a resting heart rate of 28-44 strong, regular beats per minute. Measure heart rate in the girth area on the left side by listening with a stethoscope or by placing a finger on the lingual artery under the jaw. Count the number of beats in 15 seconds and multiply by four to yield beats per minute. Keep in mind that younger horses and smaller horses tend to have higher / faster heart rates, and tissue thickness around the jaw might affect your ability to feel the pulse.

Mucous membranes (gums) indicate healthy circulation and blood. Your horse’s gums should be pink or pale pink and moist. Factors affecting this assessment include ambient light, food in the mouth, and gum pigmentation.

Capillary refill time is the time it takes for gums to return to pink after being pressed with a fingertip. A healthy horse’s gums should return from blanched to pink within one or two seconds, indicating blood flow returning to the capillaries. Longer periods can indicate dehydration, shock, or blood loss. Head position and ambient light, however, can impact results.

Digital pulse can indicate inflammation in the feet. Feel for a pulse in the arteries located at the back of the fetlock; you should not be able to feel a bounding or throbbing pulse in a normal resting horse. Exercise makes the pulse more Detectable, whereas excess hair and tissue make it more difficult to detect.

Hoof wall temperature also indicates hoof inflammation. Use your hands to feel the temperature of the hoof wall, which should be cool, not hot. A horse’s hooves can vary in temperature, how- ever, and exercise and sunlight cause natural warming.

Daily hay intake for a 1,000-pound horse should be 15-20 pounds per day, or 1.5-2% of body weight. Loss of ap- petite can indicate a horse is not feeling well. Factors such as exercise level, hay type and amount fed, and nutritional makeup can affect a horse’s hay consumption.

Daily water intake should be approximately one gallon per 100 pounds of body weight. Normal body functions require ample water intake.

Daily urine volume should be 2.4 gallons/1,000 lb horse (8-9 liters). Normal urine amount along with normal water intake usually means the horse is hydrated and the kidneys are functioning. Water intake affects urine output, as can exercise.

Skin pinch testing indicates hydration. If you pinch a flap of skin on the point of the shoulder, it should snap back within one second.

The longer the skin takes to snap back, the less hydrated the horse. Foals tend to have slower skin pinch returns, however, and there are differences among breeds and individuals.

Practice measuring these parameters on a regular basis to better pinpoint when your horse isn’t well. At the first sign of a problem, call your veterinarian and share your measurements and observations. This will give him or her the best chance for making a prompt diagnosis.