How well do you know your horse? Every horse has its own ‘normal’ values. For example, how much he eats and how much he defecates, but also what his body temperature, his resting heart rate and his breathing rate are. As an owner, it is useful to know these basic values. Then you can also more easily determine whether something is going on.
Because horses cannot talk, we as owners sometimes have to guess whether something is wrong with them, whether they are sick or experiencing discomfort. It is important not to dismiss deviant behavior as ‘trying out’, ‘no use’, ‘pubescent’ or ‘fooling around’. A horse doesn’t make plans to tease you. If he’s exhibiting deviant behavior, there’s probably something going on somewhere. In his body, his head or his environment.
Measure and write down base values
To get to know your horse’s basic values, you can measure and write down some things for a few days in a row. For example, resting body temperature, resting heart rate, and resting breathing rate. Repeat this once in a while, so that you also know what the basic values are in the different seasons.
The normal body temperature for a horse is between 37.4 and 38.0 degrees Celsius. It is somewhat higher in young foals: between 38.5 and 39.5 degrees Celsius. You measure body temperature rectally with a thermometer. Put a little lubricant or udder ointment on the thermometer to make insertion easier. It is wise to take your temperature a few times in the morning and a few times in the evening, because the body temperature can vary somewhat. Write down the normal variation for your horse and keep it handy somewhere in the stable.
You can see your horse’s breathing by standing next to the shoulder and looking towards the buttocks. You will see the flanks of your horse move back and forth. Each back-and-forth is one inhalation and exhalation. The normal breathing rate of a horse at rest is 8 to 14 of these ‘breaths’ per minute. Register this for your horse as well.
Resting heart rate
A horse at rest usually has a heart rate between 25 and 40 beats per minute. It does vary. Young foals and small ponies often have a slightly higher heart rate. Well-trained horses – just like human athletes – often have a somewhat lower resting heart rate. A horse that is subjected to maximum stress can even have a heart rate above 200! You can measure the heart rate with a stethoscope, or feel it under the lower jaw. There is a thick vein that you can press against the jawbone to measure the heart rate. This blood vessel is just on the inside where the lower jaw narrows.
Manure and urine
You can also see from the manure and urine whether your horse feels ‘normal’. Urine should be light yellow. Dark urine is a sign of a problem with the liver or kidneys, for example. If there is blood in the urine, you should call the vet. Manure should be produced in reasonably firm, fibrous and shiny balls. If your horse has diarrhea, produces manure water or has very hard dry manure, then something is wrong. Check the ration and make sure your horse drinks enough. In case of colic, always consult your vet immediately!
Nose and respiratory tract
The nose should be clean, without discharge. After a lot of effort, you may be able to see some clear or whitish snot without needing to worry immediately. But beware: yellow or green discharge is always cause for concern! Also, a horse should not cough. You may ignore a single cough, but coughing more than once is very often a sign that something is wrong. Many horses are in an environment that is too dusty, or where too much ammonia is released. This can lead to respiratory irritation. Provide a fresh stable with sufficient ventilation, but no draughts.
Having checked the nose, you can proceed directly to checking the mucous membranes. Healthy mucous membranes are light pink, smooth and slightly moist. In case of irritation, wounds, yellow, purple or a too light color of the mucous membranes, it is important that you contact a veterinarian. Irritation or wounds can be caused by an allergy, but can also have underlying problems. Yellow mucous membranes are a symptom of liver problems. Purple / blue mucous membranes has to do with an oxygen deficiency and mucous membranes that are too light can indicate anemia. Therefore, immediately ring the bell if your horse has a different color of mucous membranes.
Turgor is actually the resilience of cells and skin. When the turgor is insufficient, the horse is dehydrated. You can check this by grabbing a fold of skin on the neck and letting it go. When the skin fold returns to normal within 1 second, the turgor is good. If this does not happen, contact the vet.
Muscles and tendons
In an ideal situation, your horse has nice dry tendons without galls and you can easily press its muscles because they are soft and supple. The day after a workout you may feel that some muscles are harder. A gentle recovery workout may be in order, or some free movement and extra rest. Make it a habit to feel your horse’s muscles and tendons every day when brushing. That way you always know how it is stands.
Many horses that run higher in the sport, or for example participate in more difficult sports such as eventing, endurance or combined driving, receive a blood test twice a year as standard. This includes looking at the status of various vitamins and minerals. But the muscle values are also examined. For horses that are asked a lot of, or where you have doubts about whether things are going well, a blood test can be enlightening. If only to know what is ‘normal’ for your horse.
You can also keep track of which pain signals your horse shows. For example, you can use the handy EPWA App, which was developed with the help of researchers from the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine at Utrecht University. Horses in pain tense certain facial muscles. The app helps you recognize this ‘painface’ and keep track of your horse’s well-being. Read more about pain signals in the horse here
Every horse also has its own ‘basic values’ in terms of behaviour. For example, how he reacts when he is put in, saddled or in training. If something changes there in a relatively short period of time, an alarm should also go off. Is your horse suddenly nasty when saddling, for example? Or suddenly very scary? Then look further. Does your saddle still fit? Has anything changed in the feed policy? Could your horse be in pain somewhere? Has anything changed in the herd?
Conclusion: Know your horse!
It is important to know what your horse’s basic values are. Therefore, write down what his normal body temperature, breathing rate and resting heart rate are. If your horse is ill, this information is very useful to a vet. Make a simple check of, for example, manure, nasal discharge, muscles and tendons part of your daily routine. You can then detect and address any changes and problems much earlier. When in doubt, always contact your vet. Also trust your gut feeling. Is something not right? Then check the values, observe your horse and consult with a veterinarian.