Performing a Physical Examination on Your Horse

A brief physical exam allows you to collect important information to relay to your veterinarian before he or she can reach the farm.
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taking horse's temperature
By performing a brief physical examination on your horse, you can collect important observations to relay to your veterinarian before he or she can reach the farm. | The Horse Staff

Knowing how to perform a basic physical examination is a skill every horse owner should have, and practicing before you have a stressful emergency is key. As veterinarians, we often juggle several appointments and emergencies at the same time, and prioritizing urgent cases can be difficult. However, the horse owner performing a brief physical examination before calling with an emergency can help us facilitate the triage process.

The only required equipment to perform a thorough physical exam is a stethoscope, thermometer, and watch with a second hand (or the stopwatch on your smartphone). Once you have these tools, all it takes is practice to gather key information for your veterinarian should an emergency arise. Generally, normal adult horse vitals range from heart rates of 32 to 44 beats per minute, respiratory rates of 8 to 16 breaths per minute, and temperatures of 99.5 to 101.5 degrees F. For heart rate and respiratory rate, you can either listen and count for a full minute or count for 15 seconds, then multiply by four to get the beats or breaths per minute.

Heart Rate

To take your horse’s heart rate, place your stethoscope just behind the elbow on the left side of the chest. You will hear a “lub-dub,” which is one heartbeat. You can also take a pulse rate, which should be the same as the heart rate. To do so, feel under the round aspect of the jaw for the artery and vein; it will feel like a large spaghetti noodle. Apply light pressure with your fingertips until you can feel the wave of blood passing beneath the skin. Using the perfect amount of pressure takes practice, so don’t get frustrated if you have a hard time feeling the pulse initially.

Respiratory Rate

The easiest way to count your horse’s respiratory rate is to watch the rise and fall of his chest or abdominal wall with each breath. In normal horses this movement might be subtle. You can also place a piece of glass in front of the nostrils and watch it fog when the horse exhales. Some horses, however, will snort at the glass and increase their respiratory rate.

Temperature

To take your horse’s temperature, stand to the side of the hindquarter. Gently lift the tail and insert a lubed thermometer into the rectum. If you have a mercury thermometer, attach it to the tail with a clip and leave it there for a full two minutes. Digital thermometers work quickly, and you can just hold one in place until it beeps. Make sure you stand in a safe position in case the horse tries to kick.

Other Important Health Parameters

While temperature, heart rate, and respiratory rate constitute the basic TPR, other parameters might be useful to assess, as well. These include mucous membrane color and capillary refill time (CRT), gut sounds, and digital pulses. To assess the mucous membranes, gently flip the upper lip to look at the gums. Normally, gums should be light pink and moist. Checking their CRT is simple and involves pressing your thumb into the gum until the tissue beneath it blanches white. Then release the pressure and count how many seconds it takes for the pink color to return to the area; a normal CRT is less than two seconds. With gut sounds it’s important to learn normal before you can identify abnormal, as they can vary significantly between horses and times of day. If your horse is having a colic episode, this parameter is particularly useful, as gut sounds might increase or decrease. Lastly, digital pulses are particularly helpful in laminitis or lameness cases. To palpate the digital artery, feel near the horse’s fetlock or pastern for a group of round structures on the outside of the limb (away from the midline). Palpate this area gently to see whether you feel a pulse. In normal horses you might not feel a digital pulse, but very strong pulses in the hooves can indicate a problem.

By performing a brief physical examination on your horse, you can collect important observations to relay to your veterinarian before he or she can reach the farm. This information might dictate whether you can or should initiate immediate treatment. Learning the art of the physical examination takes time and practice, so prepare before you have an urgent situation.

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Written by:

Erica Secor, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVS-LA, grew up riding and training horses in Vermont. She completed her undergraduate degree and veterinary school at Cornell University and completed her residency at the University of Illinois. After residency, she worked as a staff surgeon in private practice before returning to Cornell in 2021 for her PhD. She currently studies the immune system’s role in osteoarthritis and is working toward improving diagnostic capabilities and understanding how arthritis varies among individuals, with the goal of identifying how to better tailor osteoarthritis treatment to individual cases. Outside of research, Secor enjoys trail running (there is a lot of time to come up with research ideas during 60-mile trail runs), riding her 24-year-old Morgan horse, Mocha, and hiking with her favorite dog, Annie, and favorite husband, Andrew.

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