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Basic first aid for your horse and preparing for emergencies

Know your horse’s normal

You must know what is normal before you can determine what is abnormal. Learn to perform the vital signs tests BEFORE an emergency, and get to know the normal values for your horse.

The following are things you should check on a daily basis.

Posture

  • Posture may be your first clue something is seriously wrong.
  • Stretching out may be a normal routine for a horse or could be a sign of colic.
  • Shifting weight from one leg to the other usually indicates pain in one of its legs.
  • Refusing to move could indicate founder.
  • Refusing to bear weight on a limb could indicate a severe stone bruise, foot abscess, joint infection, or fracture.

Appetite

A good appetite is one of the best indicators of overall health.

If your horse eats lightly at one meal, don’t panic. Check to see if someone else is feeding the horse or overfeeding him or her at other meals. Also, make a mental note of what food is left behind.

A horse that dives into its grain at first and then stops eating after a few bites may have stomach ulcers.

Water

Horses tend to drink an hour or so after they begin eating forage.

A few hay stems or grains in the water are no cause for concern. If the water pail is packed with hay or grain, your horse may be having trouble eating and using the water to soften the feed. This could be due to dental problems.

Manure

A normal horse will pass 8 to 10 piles of manure per day. The manure pile should have well-formed fecal balls with enough moisture so that the pile stays stacked.

  • Separation of fecal balls indicates low water consumption.
  • Firm, mucous-covered fecal balls is a sign the horse is taking longer to pass feces and may be due to dehydration.
  • Loose manure could be from a sudden change in feed, nervousness, irritation in the gut, or heat cycles (in mares).
  • Diarrhea is uncommon and could be a severe problem, contact your veterinarian.
  • Extremely dry feces or lack of feces, contact your veterinarian.

When to call the veterinarian

Vital signs Normal Call the veterinarian if
Temperature 99-100.5 F over 101 F
Heart rate (heart rate is higher in foals) 30-44 beats per minute over 50 beats per minute
Respiratory rate 8-12 breaths per minute over 30 breaths per minute
Mucous membranes pink, moist dry, tacky or not pink
Capillary refill time 1-2 seconds greater than 3 seconds

How to check your horse’s vital signs

Learn to perform these tests BEFORE an emergency, and get to know the normal values for your horse.

Temperature

To create an accurate record of your horse’s normal temperature range:

  • Take your horse’s temperature twice daily for several days.

  • Take temperatures near the same time. A horse’s temperature is typically a degree higher in the afternoon than in the morning.

  • 99-100.5 F is normal.

  • Call the vet if it goes over 101 F.

Heart rate

You can take a horse's pulse anywhere you can hear or feel their heartbeat.

  • Start by feeling an artery close to the skin. (e.g. the facial artery at the edge of the jawbone)

  • Press your first and second fingers gently against the jawbone. Be sure not to use your thumb, as you may pick up your own pulse

  • Count the number of heartbeats occurring in a minute.

  • 30-44 beats per minute (bpm) is normal.

  • Call the vet if it goes over 50 bpm.

  • A foal under 1 week old has a resting heart rate of 60 to 120 beats per minute. Foals from 1-week- to 6-months-old have resting heart rates of 40 to 60 beats per minute.

Respiration rate

Respiration rate is the number of breaths per minute.

  • One inhale and one exhale counts as one breath.

  • Count by watching the ribs moving in and out, or by watching the nostrils dilate and relax.

  • 8-12 breaths per minute is normal.

  • Call the vet if it goes over 30.

Mucous membranes

You can examine mucous membranes by looking at your horse's gums. The color of the gums can indicate your horse’s health status.

  • Pink and moist gums are normal.

  • Pale or white gums may mean your horse is experiencing blood loss.

  • Bright pink or red can indicate toxicity or poison.

  • Gray, purple, or dark blue means lack of oxygen and possibly shock.

  • Call the vet if mucous membranes are dry, tacky or not pink.

Capillary refill time

Capillary refill time indicates your horse's hydration status.

  • Press your thumb against the gum above the upper teeth for a couple seconds.

  • Remove your thumb, a blanched or pale area will remain.

  • Record the amount of time it takes for the blanched area to return to the normal color.

  • It should take 1 to 2 seconds for the pale or blanched area to return to normal.

  • If it takes more than 3 seconds, call the vet.

How to prepare for an emergency

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How to respond to an emergency

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Erin Malone, doctor of veterinary medicine

Reviewed in 2018

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