It's important that you can spot signs of sickness in horses early, not only to prevent any problem from worsening, but also to avoid the potentially spiraling costs of vet bills.
In order to determine when your horse is unwell, you need to observe them when they’re fit and healthy. It’s good practice to keep a record of the resting pulse, temperature and respiratory rate for your horse as this will help to identify when they’re not 100%. These are your horse's individual vital signs, known as TPR.
The ‘normal’ vital signs for a resting horse are:
Temperature – 36.5-38C
Pulse – 30-40 beats/min
Respiration – 8-12 breaths/min
If you're not confident with carrying out the measurements of these vital signs alone, your vet should be happy to help. Maybe ask them to help you next time they’re visiting your horse to give him his flu/tetanus jab.
How To Take…
Temperature: This should be taken using either a mercury or digital thermometer. Stand to one side of your horse and holding his tail, insert a lubricated thermometer into the rectum, holding it to one side so that that the thermometer sits against the rectal wall. Hold it there for one minute before removing it and reading and recording the temperature.
Care should be taken when doing this as a horse may kick out so ideally the horse should be held by someone.
Pulse: It’s worth practising taking your horse’s pulse, so that both you and your horse become used to it. The most common place to take the pulse is just where the facial artery passes under the lower jaw.
A light pressure applied over the artery with two fingers should allow you to locate the pulse. Once located, count the beats for 15 seconds, then multiply by 4.
Respiration: This can be observed by watching the side of the horse behind the last rib. Watch the side move in and out as the horse breathes and count how many times it does this in a minute. Alternatively, you can watch the nostrils or place a hand in front of the nostril to feel the air as the horse breaths out.
Any deviation to these ‘norms’ may indicate that your horse is unwell, particularly if any combination of two of these signs are abnormal. For example, if your horse has a high temperature and an increased pulse.
Signs Of Good Health
Hooves/Legs - your horse should be capable of standing squarely with its weight evenly on all four feet. Resting a hind leg is normal, but not a fore leg. There should be no excessive heat or signs of swelling.
Eyes – these should be bright, fully open and clean. Any sign of unusual discharge or a glazed, dull appearance should be looked into.
Hydration – the average horse drinks between five and ten gallons (about 1.5 to 3 buckets) of water a day, although this obviously varies depending on other factors such as weather conditions and exercise regimes.
To assess if your horse is dehydrated, take a pinch of skin on the neck area and if it takes longer than about a second, this could indicate dehydration.
Manure – this should be firm and not loose or contain undigested grains. Any change from the normal amount should be investigated.
Nostrils – these should be dry and clean. Excessive mucus could suggest that your horse is unwell.
Condition – the coat should be sleek and shiny.
Appetite – a healthy horse should have a good appetite and any deviation from this can often be one of the first indicators of illness. A loss of appetite may be affected in horses with teeth problems so check that your horse is not dropping large amounts of food as it chews.
All of these indicators are only a guide. If your horse is behaving unusually or you are concerned about his health then trust your gut instincts and if in doubt, call the vet.