Saturday, June 1, 2013

Horse Checks - The Basic Physical Exam

Horse checks? No. its not a breakfast cereal!

Basic horse checks are what we should be doing each day as part of our care for our horses.

Whether riding a lot or not, knowing how to do a basic physical exam on our horses can help us detect the early signs of an illness or injury.

Doing this will ultimately help us catch a potential problem before it becomes a big problem.

Here a list of what to look for.

The Routine Basic Check

Some things that we should look for during a routine check are:

General Temperment

Always observe your horse for normal behavior. Their demeanor and behavior can tell us a lot about how they're feeling. Our horses should be alert, interested and curious about their surroundings, responsive to other horses, other animals and people.

They should move easily without pain. They should eat almost continously if given the opportunity. No appetite or desire to eat is not a good sign.

Hoof Condition

I normally check my horses hooves everyday. Sure I miss a day here and there, but on the overall I go by the old saying, "No hoof, no horse."
Because of that philosophy, my horse check includes checking my horses hooves for:

1) Thrush by being alert to a foul smell and dark ooze from the cleft of the frog.
2) Punctures to see if a nail or other object pierces my horse's sole.
3) Cracks that are either superficial or worse. If I notice a crack in my horse's hoof, I usually call my farrier and describe its location and size so he can decide whether it needs attention now or can wait until the next regular shoeing.
4) Abscesses are something that could be inside the hoof from a badly placed shoeing nail, a stone bruise, or an overlooked sole puncture. A routine check can alert us to the problem and get your veterinarian or farrier involved before your horse - probably at least slightly lame already on the abscessed foot, which throbs from the pressure of increased blood flow to the infected area - is in even greater pain.

If you find increased heat and a stronger-than-usual pulse in both front feet, and if he's shifting uncomfortably from foot to foot, call your veterinarian immediately. These are signs of laminitis, an inflammatory condition that can cause severe hoof damage. This needs to be treated promptly.

Wounds and Injuries

I always check my horses for open wounds such as lacerations, punture wounds, bites and abrasions. I also check for lumps and swelling. If I'm not real sure if there is swelling going on, I simply complare the area to its counterpart on the other side.

Checking the legs and other areas for heat could indicate the presence of an injury.

I do this because my horses are usually paired up with my other horses. And yes, that means that injuries can take place even if I don't expect it.


Watch for signs such as lameness. restlessness, inappropriate sweating, anxiousness, tooth grinding, startling or shying when touched in certain areas, looking at their side such as when colic is present, or squinting when eye pain is present.


In a healthy horse, tears and mucus from the eyes and nose is supposed to be fairly inconspicuous. Excessive amount of these discharges or any amount of pus or blood from the eyes or nose is not considered normal.


Urine, which is normally cloudy, should pass easily in a steady stream with no evidence of pain. Manure should be solid and be formed and passed without straining.

So OK, that it. That's the basic check. But if you want to do more, there are other things to look for a more detailed in-depth exam. Such as:
The Detailed Exam


To take a horse's temperature, use a rectal thermometer either glass or electonic. A normal temperature in adult horses is 98 to 101.3 degrees Fahrenheit, and 100 to 102 for foals.

To avoid losing the themometer during use, attach an alligator clip to it with an 8 to 10 inch piece of string and chip it to your horse's tail. I saw a friend do that once and thought it a pretty good idea.  Especially if you're going to be taking their temperature often during an illness.

Apply a lubricant, such as petroleum jelly or K-Y Jelly to the thermometer, and insert it nearly all the way into the rectum so that the protruding end will not poke the tail and will not break off.

Attach the clip to the tail hairs to prevent loss.

The normal rectal temperature of a horse is 98 to 101.3 F. It is typically higher in the evening than in the morning. The temperature also is influenced by the horse’s activity at the time the temperature is measured. Measure your horse’s rectal temperature at various times of the day and determine its normal range.

If your horse’s temperature is over 101.5 F, shake down the thermometer and take another reading. A common cause of an apparently elevated temperature is a “hot”, unshaken thermometer.

To estimate your horse’s body temperature without use of a thermometer, use your finger to assess the temperature of the mucous membrane inside the lips, at the corner of the mouth.

Compare your estimated reading with a thermometer reading twice on 10 different horses. This will "educate" your finger to help you estimate the temperature by feel.

If your horse resists temperature measurement using a rectal thermometer, gradually train your horse to tolerate having its tail lifted and moved side to side and then to accept the touch of your hand near the anus and finally to have the thermometer inserted.

Taking the temperature may eventually be important in monitoring a life-threatening medical condition or may be necessary as a part of competition.

Mucous membranes

For us to check mucous membrane color, we do this by locking at our horse's gums. They should be pale pink.

Check capillary refill time - a way of evaluating the cardiovascular function - by pressing on the gum with your finger. The pink color will lighten but should return to normal in 1 to 2 seconds.

Heart Beat You can use a stethoscope to hear the heart beating. If that is, you have a stethoscope on you.

You can use a stethoscope to determine your horse’s heart rate. You can purchase an inexpensive one at a drug store.

A stethoscope is the easiest, safest and most accurate way to count the heart rate. Stand on the left side of the horse at the shoulder and find the point of the elbow.

To make sure the stethoscope is working, tap very gently on the diaphragm while the earpieces are fixed in your ears. Press the bell of the stethoscope into the chest wall and listen carefully. To determine the point of loudest heart sound intensity, move the bell around the chest wall while continuing to press firmly.

The main cause of an increased heart or respiratory rate is excitement. Therefore, it is best to make repeat counts after the horse has become less excited.

A normal resting heart rate is 32 to 44 beats per minute (bpm) in adult horses and 60 to 110 bpm in foals.

To arrive at the correct beats, count the heart rate for 15 seconds and multiply the result by four to get the bpm.

Something to keep in mind, a pulse represents a wave of blood propelled through an artery by a heart beat. Counting your horse’s pulse takes practice; try it twice on 10 different horses.
You will need a watch with seconds displayed. As said before, you can count the pulse rate for 15 seconds and multiply that number by 4.

If the horse has a rapid pulse rate, you can count the rate for 6 seconds and add a 0 (multiply by 10).

Remember that the normal pulse rate ranges from 32 to 44 beats per minute. The pulse rate of horses is much slower than that of people by approximately 50%.

It is advised that you take your horse's pulse at the facial artery where it crosses the jawbone directly in front of the cheek. It's actually visible on many horses.

Bottom line is that to check your horse’s pulse rate, find an artery, partially compress it with a fingertip and wait for the pulsating sensation. If you compress the artery too much, you obstruct the blood flow and will not be able to feel a pulse.

The mandibular artery is located just to the inside of the lowest (largest) part of the jaw bone. The artery runs perpendicular to the bone and can easily be compressed against the jaw bone.

The palmar digital artery is located at the posterior (back) groove behind the suspensory ligament, just in front of the sesamoid bones in the middle of the fetlock. This pulse is more intense when there is increased blood flow to the foot - normally from exercise or abnormally from pain or inflammation.

This artery is not commonly used to determine the pulse rate but it is very important in assessing foot problems, such as abscesses, laminitis, or other causes of foot inflammation.

These 2 arteries feel like firm, cooked noodles about 1/8 inch in diameter. Move your finger back and forth over the area and the artery will bounce back as your finger passes over it.

Consider your own safety when evaluating a horse’s temperature, pulse and respiration, especially when the horse is abnormal.

Be prepared to avoid kicking, being hit in the head with the horse’s knee when you are bending to check the digital pulse, and throwing of the head during assessment of the mandibular pulse.

Respiratory Rate

Count the respiratory rate first, before the horse is stirred up and excited. The respiratory rate is best counted when the horse is unaware of your presence. Don’t walk up to the horse and put your hands over both nostrils and start to count!

It is best to watch flank excursions, as the flank moves in and out with each breath. One in and out excursion counts as one breath. Watching the flank area also provides the best evaluation of the quality of breathing, such as pushing with the abdomen, an overly rapid rate, etc.
Look at the flank excursions through the stall window before opening the door. The normal respiratory rate is 8 to 16 breaths per minute in adults, and 25 to 60 in foals.

You can also count the respiration rate for 15 seconds and multiply that number by 4.

Gut Sounds:

Using that stethoscope that you purchased from a local drug store, place it over your horses abdomen to listen for gut sounds.

These sounds should always be present. Sometimes, gut sounds can be herd without stethoscope - unless of course your hearing is as bad as mine.

So now, here we go!

Does your horse breathe hard, sweat excessively, lie down at unusual times? How about weight loss related to worms, nutrition, or conditioning?

Has your horse experienced weight gain from overeating or decreased exercise? How is your horse’s coat for this time of year?

Are there changes in the manure, urine spots, bedding, feed bucket, or quantity of hay eaten? And how about its water supply, is the container full or empty?

There's so much to learn that it may seem impossible to learn it all. From the daily care of hooves to maintaining our horse's teeth, we are responsible for a lot of animal.

Keeping our horses healthy involves choosing the right feed, watching out for colic and other digestive problems, paying attention to foot and leg issues, riding with the proper tack, regular vaccinations and deworming, and much more.

These things are all just part of our responsibility as horseowners. But all in all, as you probably already know, the work is worth the benefits.

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