The Physical Examination - 120 Seconds and $0

Written By: Howard Ketover, DVM

Written By: Howard Ketover, DVM

There are few things you can do as a horse owner at zero cost, but a physical exam is one of them, and it brings extraordinary value to you as a horse owner. If you haven’t already read my 5 Rules for Equine Emergencies, take a look! The very first rule is “know your horse”. When you know what your horse’s vitals, behavior, and appearance are on a regular basis, you are able to more accurately identify what’s abnormal for your horse. This means that you’ll have a much more meaningful conversation with your veterinarian should you need to call him.

A basic physical exam can take as little as two minutes, costs zero dollars, and can give you incredible insight into your horse’s standard vitals, physical appearance and behavior. For the next few weeks, give your horse a basic, two minute physical exam every time you see her. Now you know what’s normal. Going forward, give your horse that physical exam every few weeks to check for any changes or developments, and you’ll be a much more informed horse owner, and probably have a healthier horse!

In Dr. Ketover’s video, he gives you additional information about using a stethoscope, identifying muscle tone, and body condition as well as a few other great pointers.

Appearance: The Physical Exam from Afar (15 seconds)

Oftentimes we speak with our clients and are told that their horse just, “doesn’t seem right”. And that’s great feedback. Understanding when your horse’s behavior is out of the norm, or that their attentiveness, responsiveness, or attitude is different, can be important symptoms of illness in a horse. Here are some questions to ask yourself as you approach your horse: Is she bright and alert, inspecting her surroundings? Or, does she seem dull or depressed, with her head down and a lack of awareness of her surroundings? What’s her response when you approach her in the stall or pasture? How is her hair coat? Is her coat appropriate for the season, or does it seem rather heavy for the temperature? Is the hair patchy, greasy, limp? Is she holding a leg, or cocking a hip? Lastly, what is she doing – eating, sleeping, running around? Is this a normal time for her to be doing that behavior?

The Hands-On Physical Exam

Now we’ll move in to performing the tactile portion of the physical exam. Putting your hands on your horse and measuring vitals, feeling for heat, watching respirations, etc. is cost free and very informative. We like to start at the muzzle and move towards the rear.

The Muzzle (5 seconds)

You're going to look at three things: gum color, Capillary Refill Time, and moisture content.

Check her gum color – is it a healthy pink, or is it dark blue, purple or red? You don’t necessarily need to know what that means, but knowing what’s normal for your horse means you can communicate that with your veterinarian.

While you’re there, check the Capillary Refill Time. Press your finger on the mucous membranes just above the teeth. The color will blanche out and turn white. How quickly does that color return to normal? An average Capillary Refill Time is less than two seconds.

The last thing we’ll check in the mouth is the moisture content. Are the gums dry and sticky, or are they moist? Dry gums may indicate a dehydration problem.

The Skin (5 seconds)

Skin tenting helps us measure a horse’s hydration, and is a quick test you’ll often see riders performing on their horses. A normal skin tent will return to normal very quickly, but a dehydrated horse may have skin that takes a few seconds to snap back to normal. Horse owners will frequently pinch the skin on the neck, which doesn’t give us a very accurate reading of hydration. We recommend you perform a skin tent on the skin right underneath the lower lid, or at the point of the shoulder.

The Lungs (15 seconds)

An important vital sign to measure is your horse’s respiratory rate – this measures how many breaths your horse takes per minute. The average is eight to sixteen breaths per minute, but every horse is different. Again, knowing what your horse’s normal is can point your veterinarian in the right direction. If your horse normally has a respiration rate of six breaths per minute, but he’s currently heaving at 15 breaths a minute, that’s important information that may otherwise be interpreted as a healthy respiration rate. To measure your horse’s respiration rate, look at your horse’s flanks or nostrils, and count her breaths over the course of 15 or 60 seconds. If you measure the breaths for 15 seconds, make sure to multiple your count by four to get the full breaths per minute.

The Heart (15 seconds)

Heart rate can be taken without a stethoscope, though a stethoscope would certainly give you a more accurate reading. You can buy a high quality stethoscope for under $100 if you’re interested in having one. Without a stethoscope, you can measure your horse’s heart rate in a few different locations. Underneath the jaw is an artery that is about the thickness of a pencil. Alternatively, you can measure for the heart rate on your horse’s leg, where you would normally check for digital pulse’s on a lame horse – if you don’t know how to find this, you can ask your veterinarian next time you see him. The average heart rate is between 28 and 48 beats per minute. Again, count your horse’s heart rate over 15 or 60 seconds, and remember to multiply by four if you only count for 15!

The Bowel (5 seconds)

Again, this is much easier with a stethoscope, but you can hear motion and gut sounds just by pressing your ear to your horse’s abdomen, near her flanks. Does the motion sound orderly, or haphazard or irregular?

The Temperature (60 seconds)

You’ll need to use a thermometer for this one. A digital thermometer from any local pharmacy won’t be 100% accurate, but it will give you a reading within 0.2 or 0.3 degrees of the actual temperature. The most accurate way to take your horse’s temperature is rectally. As you can imagine, some horses take issue with this. Having your horse used to having her temperature taken makes it much easier to take her temperature during times of stress. Stand on the left hand side of your horse, near her hip. Hold the horse’s tail with one hand and insert the lightly lubricated thermometer, tilted slightly downwards, with the other in order to take her temperature. The digital thermometers will beep when the temperature has stabilized. The average normal temperature for a horse is between 99.5 and 100.5 degrees Fahrenheit. Make sure to clean the thermometer well prior to use!

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