Never wait until an emergency strikes to learn to take vital signs. You should know what your horse’s normal resting heart rate, breaths per minute and body temperature are. This is called TPR (temperature, pulse and respiration) and will likely be one of the first things your veterinarian asks about. Other important vital signs include gum color, capillary refill time, and gut sounds.
To measure your horse’s heart rate – which is normally 38-40 beats per minute (bpm) but can range from 25-45 bpm – you can use a stethoscope placed against the left side of the chest just under the elbow. If you don’t have a stethoscope, try placing two fingers gently on the transverse facial artery just behind the eye. Other places where a pulse can be felt is on the artery underneath the jaw, in the jugular grooves on both sides of the horse’s neck near the bottom, or the digital pulse on the lower side of the fetlock. (Ask your vet to show you how and where to take your horse’s pulse the next time he visits your farm.) Always apply gentle pressure; if you press too hard you will close off the artery and not feel any pulse at all. You don’t need to count for a full minute – even 15 seconds will do, and then multiply that number by four (i.e. 9×4=36 bpm).
The respiration rate should normally be about 8-16 breaths per minute. You can watch the horse’s flank rising and falling, or put your hand in front of his muzzle to count the breaths (he may sniff your hand, though, so don’t count that!)
The normal temperature range for a horse is 37.5-38.5oC (99.0-101.5oF). To take your horse’s temperature, you should get an adult to help, as it has to be done rectally and preferably with a digital thermometer. Lubricate the end of the thermometer with KY jelly or other water-based lubricant, stand to the side of the horse’s hip (never directly behind), lift the tail and insert (If you have to use an equine mercury thermometer, shake it down first to get a more accurate reading, and be sure to tie a string to it which you attach to the tail, as it has to be left in for several minutes).
The mucous membranes – the gums – should be moist and pinkish. To measure the capillary refill time (how fast oxygen-rich blood returns to the area) press a finger into the gum to make it whitish and then lift it off while counting the time it takes for the pink colour to return. Two seconds or less is normal; any longer might mean the horse is dehydrated, in shock, or suffering from disease or toxins.
If you have ever put your ear against your horse’s side, you know that there is a lot going on in there! Watery gurgling, squeaks and rumbles are all signs that things are moving along as they should be. Continual loud rumbling can mean diarrhea is imminent, but the worst sound is no sound at all, especially if the horse is showing symptoms of colic.
• have a list of emergency numbers near the phone
• write down the address/coordinates to the farm
• keep a well-supplied first aid kit
• check and restock it regularly, esp. expired products
In case of emergency:
1. Remain calm – getting into a flap will likely make your horse even more anxious.
2. Put the horse in a safe location (if it can be moved)
3. Take vital signs – the more information you can provide the vet, the better
4. Call your vet – he or she may suggest emergency treatment such as bandaging to staunch the flow of blood, cold hosing for a swollen leg, etc.
5. Contact friends or family, as you may need help before and after the vet arrives.
6. Do not administer any drugs unless specifically told to by your veterinarian.
What to keep in your emergency kit:
• Antiseptic (such as Betadine® or Chlorhexidine)
• Bute paste/Banamine® paste
• Electrolyte paste
• Polos, Vetrap™, standing wraps
• Baby diapers/sanitary pads
• Lubricant (such as KY® jelly)
• Gauze roll (such as Kling®)
• Alcohol swabs
• Plastic gloves
• Duct tape
• Extra batteries
• Extension cord
• Sterile gauze
• Cotton roll
• PVC piping
• Leg splint
• Clean bucket