In an emergency, being able to take your horse’s vital signs will enable you to communicate important information to your veterinarian. There are three main vital signs: Heart Rate, Respiratory Rate, and Temperature. These are often referred to as the TPR. (Temperature, Pulse, Respiration)
Heart Rate – Normal 24-48 beats per minute
There are two ways to obtain your horse’s heart rate.
One way is to listen to the heart directly. You can buy an inexpensive (less than $10) stethoscope at your local drug store in order to hear your horse’s heart. The best place to listen to the heart is just behind the elbow (see picture). The heart can be heard on either side, but is often louder on the left side. The horse has a large heart and a slow resting heart rate. When you listen you will hear a "lub" and then a "dub" sound followed by a pause. The "lub" and the "dub" together count as one beat. Listen for 15 secounds, count the beats and multiply the number times four. I would recommend obtaining a stethoscope and having your veterinarian help you hear the heart and accurately count beats. Do this at your next vaccine or routine health care appointment. That way you will be prepared for an emergency.
The other way to obtain the heart rate is to feel the pulse. The two easiest places to do this on the horse are under the mandible or in the fetlock region. To find the facial artery under the mandible, find your horse’s masseter or chewing muscles on the side of his head (commonly referred to as the cheek). Run your hand down to the bottom and follow the bony curve of the back part of the mandible. Toward the front of the masseter muscle you will feel a tubular structure snap under your fingers. This is the facial artery and vein. (See the photo) Once you have found them, lightly rest your fingers on the artery and feel it pulsing. It is important not to push too hard, as you will close off the vessel and not feel anything. Don’t be too impatient. Horses have slow resting heart rates so it may take a few seconds for you to feel the vessel pulsing. One pulsation is equal to one heartbeat.
To find the digital artery in the fetlock region, take your fingers and feel from the back of the fetlock toward the front. Your will feel a small tubular structure snap under your fingers. These are the digital vein, artery, and nerve. Once you have found it, lightly rest your fingers over the structure to feel the pulsing. One pulsation is equal to one heartbeat.
Respiratory Rate – Normal 8-24 breaths per minute
One way to take the respiratory rate is to watch your horse’s nostrils. Count each time they flare. Each flare is one breath. You can also watch your horse’s flanks and count the number of times they go in and out.
Temperature – Normal 98-101oF
A horse’s temperature is taken rectally. You can use one of the digital thermometers that can be purchased at your local drug store. Gently lift your horse’s tail and place the thermometer in the rectum. Hold it there until it beeps and then read the temperature on the display. Make certain to keep hold of the thermometer.
Having your veterinarian help you learn these techniques during a routine appointment will make you comfortable and better able to use them during an emergency. If your horse is in obvious distress, don’t delay calling your vet while you try to take the vitals. Go ahead and have him or her get started on their way out to help you. Hopefully you will never have to use these techniques during an emergency, but knowing how to take your horse’s vitals will help you to provide additional information to your veterinarian and play an active role in your horse’s health care.