National Farm and Facility Level Biosecurity User Guide for the Equine Sector
Annex 4: Conducting a horse health check

a picture of a saddled horse cross-tied in the alleyway of a barn
Photo courtesy of Ingrid Hildebrandt DVM

To optimize health and welfare, you should know how to assess basic horse health. Knowing the normal range of your horse's vital signs and physical condition and their standard character, behaviour and activity level is necessary to determine what is abnormal and might indicate sickness. Subtle health changes can be easily missed, particularly if you are not looking for them.

Performing a horse health check does not replace the need and benefits of a physical exam by a veterinarian. The health check provides an early warning of a potential health issue. The information will assist your veterinarian in determining the severity of the health issue and establish the priority of attending to your horse.

Record the results of your horse health check.

Perform the horse health check any time you believe there is a change in the health status of your horse. Check your horses daily when attending competitions and weekly when at your home farm or facility.

Equipment

  • digital thermometer;
  • lubrication for the thermometer;
  • watch capable of displaying seconds;
  • stethoscope;
  • gloves and supplies to clean and disinfect your hands and equipment before and after the exam.
Horse Health Check
How to conduct a horse health check Table Note 25  Table Note 26
Health checks include observing your horse at rest and in motion, from a distance and up close.

From a distance – Assess demeanor and behaviour.

  • Is its head down or are they alert and responsive to their surroundings?
  • Is it lying down, standing, pacing, or shifting weight from leg to leg?
  • When turned-out with other horses, is your horse withdrawn, or interactive?
  • What is its general body condition? Table Note 27  Table Note 28
  • Is there a change in gait or abnormal movement?

Appetite and water intake

  • Is your horse eating less, eating more slowly or refusing food altogether?
  • Is water intake reduced or increased? Water intake will increase during warm weather. Water intake can be more difficult to assess if using automatic waterers – Use a trough or pail to measure water intake when necessary.

Manure and urine

  • Decreased volume of manure and urine may indicate decreased consumption and dehydration or a possible obstruction.
  • Dry manure (fecal balls) can indicate dehydration.
  • Straining when passing urine or manure, bloody or coffee-coloured urine or diarrhea should be discussed with your veterinarian.

Up close

  • Assess the condition of your horse, running your hands over its body and look for swelling, pain, and heat.
  • Examine the hooves for cracks, chips, pain, and the fit of the shoe.
  • Do you notice any asymmetry which may indicate a health issue?

Temperature

  • Normal temperature in an adult horse is 37.0-38.5°C (98.6-101.3°F).
  • In foals and newborns, the normal temperature is slightly higher: 37.5-38.9°C (99.5-102.0°F).
  • Take the rectal temperature of your horse – remember to lubricate the thermometer.
  • Your horse's temperature can vary slightly due to outdoor temperature and exercise; however, the temperature should return to normal following exercise.
  • Infection, pain, and dehydration can elevate temperatures. Temperatures above or below normal should be investigated.

Heart rate

  • Normal heart rate is 28-44 beats per minute in an adult horse. Normal in a foal or newborn is 80-100 beats per minute.
  • Heart rate can be obtained by listening to the heart using a stethoscope. Place the stethoscope on the chest behind the left elbow. Count the number of beats over a 15-second period and multiply this by four.
  • Exercise and excitement can elevate the heart rate; however, it should return to approximately 60 beats per minute for an adult horse within 10 to 20 minutes of rest, and then continue dropping into the normal range. The heart rate can also be obtained by counting the pulse of an artery. Your veterinarian can show you the location of arteries that can be used.

Respiration

  • Normal respiratory rate in an adult horse is 10-14 breaths per minute. In foals or newborns, it is 20-40 breaths per minute.
  • Respiration can be measured by watching the ribcage for expansion, watching for flare of the nostrils, or listening to respiratory sounds of the chest or trachea using a stethoscope.
  • Observe for 30 seconds and multiply the number of breaths by two.
  • Hot or humid weather, excitement, exercise, pain and infection can increase the respiratory rate.
  • There is very little movement of the flank and abdomen during normal respiration. Laboured breathing at rest indicates respiratory distress which should be investigated to determine the cause.

Mucous membranes and capillary refill time
Examine the mouth and lift the lips to inspect the mucous membranes (gums). In a healthy horse, they are pink, shiny and slick/moist. Dry, tacky gums can indicate dehydration.

  • The capillary refill time (CRT) is measured by applying slight pressure with the tip of your finger to the mucous membranes and then releasing the pressure. In a healthy horse, the colour should return in less than two seconds. A CRT greater than two seconds can indicate a health issue.

Examine the head
Eyes: Discharge from the eyes, cloudiness, redness or swelling indicate a problem.
Nose: Discharge from the nostrils, odour, and decreased air flow in one or both nostrils should be investigated.
Ears: Diseases of the ear are relatively uncommon; however, discharge can indicate local infection. Ears that droop or are slow to respond to noise may indicate a need for further health investigation.

Abdominal/Intestinal sounds

  • Using a stethoscope listen for at least one minute in high and low locations of the flank on the right and left side of the abdomen. In a healthy horse, there will be regular series of approximately one to three intestinal or "gut sounds" over the period of one minute.
  • Normal sounds include gurgling, rushing and even roaring sounds. Pinging and ringing sounds may indicate an accumulation of gas and are a cause for concern.
  • The absence of sounds may indicate a significant health problem requiring immediate veterinary consultation.
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