It has been a while since I actually had to think about this, but I had a scare with my horse, Twentyone, a couple of weeks ago, and it prompted me to write this.
As horse owners it is important that we pay attention to how our horses act on a daily basis. Are they alert, nickering, and happy to see you when you get to the barn? Are they anxiously awaiting their morning feed, or are they normally quiet and just hanging out until you get to them? Do your horses lie down in their paddocks to take a nap once in a while, daily, never? These are all signs we need to pay attention to, so that when something is wrong and our horses are not quite themselves, we will notice the change.
What color are your horse’s gums? Are they normally bright pink, or are they on the paler pink side? The gums are usually a shade of pink and should be moist. If they are white and dry, this is usually a sign that something is wrong. Press your finger against the gums. In a healthy horse the gums will turn white, but will go back to pink within a second or two.
You can also check for dehydration just by pinching the skin on the neck. It should go back to flat in a second or so. If the skin stays raised then your horse is not getting enough water. Putting a salt block in your horse's stall, or adding salt to the grain can get them drinking more. Adding extra salt to your horse’s diet won’t be an issue as long as they are always provided plenty of fresh, clean water.
What is your horse's resting heart rate, and normal temperature? A horse’s normal temperature range is 99 to 101 degrees. Where does your horse fall? It is important to know what the norm is for your horse so that when it is elevated, even slightly, you are aware of it.
How about your horse's heart rate? Most horses' resting heart rate is 30-40 beats per minute. In younger horses it is higher. Taking the heart rate is fairly simple: put the stethoscope against the left side up, behind the horse's elbow. Move the stethoscope around a little at a time and listen. I still have trouble at times finding it. If you need to, you can also find the large vein under the jaw, press your fingers on it enough to feel the pulse, and take the pulse rate that way. It is a good idea to practice before you are in a stressful situation. This way you will be able to locate the pulse easily with some practice. Once you feel the blood pulsing through, count how many times you feel it pump in 15 seconds, then multiply by four. This will give you the heart rate per minute. Again, knowing your horse’s norm is helpful.
Having a digital thermometer on hand is also helpful, but keeping an old-fashioned mercury one in your medical kit is a good idea. Why prolong getting vital signs because the battery is dead in your digital thermometer? Knowing your horse's heart rate, temp and capillary refill time are always a helpful starting point when contacting your vet.
What about lying down in their paddock? No big deal right! Well that depends. Does your horse lie down on a daily basis to take a nap; does he do it once in a while on a nice warm sunny day? Or is he the type of horse that you have never seen down in his paddock? A lot of horses will lie down if they do not feel well, and it could be a sign of colic, especially if they are up and down a lot. Is your horse looking at its belly, possibly kicking at it, or pawing at the ground? These could all be signs of colic and you should check for gut sounds. Usually just by placing an ear on the belly you will be able to hear gut sounds. If not, try using your stethoscope. You should check both sides of the belly for sound. There should always be gut sounds, if not your horse may have an impaction.
If it is a very hot humid day, your horse can lose a lot of water through perspiration, their heart and respiratory rate increases and heat stroke could be a problem. Heat stroke can be a very dangerous situation. If you don’t catch it before it gets too bad, it can be fatal. Once the outside temperature gets to 95 degrees and the humidity is at 90% your horse’s ability to cool itself is ineffective. If you work your horse in this weather your horse’s body temperature can reach 105 degrees and higher. If you have to work them in this type of weather be sure they are allowed to drink during exercise. Horses that are out of shape, or overweight are at higher risk for heat stroke if exercised in this weather. Personally I would not work my horses in these conditions. I know how horrible I feel when the temperature and humidity reach these levels. If your horse does experience heat stroke it is extremely important to get his body temp down quickly. Get him in a cool area, place cold towels on him, or spray him with a hose. Putting a fan on them is also a good way to get air moving around them and get them cooled down.
Practicing these things once in a while and knowing your horse’s normal ranges may help you when a crisis situation arises. If you get used to practicing when all is well, and know what the norm for your horse is, it could keep you from panicking if your horse gets sick.
Donna Mori; Certified Instructor/Natural Horsemanship Trainer