Some of the most common mistakes made when taking the vital signs of horses are oversights and stem from trying to do things in a rush.
When taking the vitals on your horse pay attention and don’t make these easily avoidable mistakes.
Having the normal values and behaviour recorded in a journal will help you to understand how sick or stressed your horse is.
Mistake no. 1: Not checking the overall condition
A worsening in the overall condition is the first sign of something being wrong.
Changes in behaviour, being less interested in the environment than usual, hanging the head, being careful with one foot, discharge from the nostrils or eyes, drooping eyelids or cloudy eyes or skin that doesn’t pass the pinch test are all signs that something is up.
Knowing how your horse is usually will make it much easier and faster to tell when something is wrong. Spend time with your horse to learn this, don’t just show up for riding.
If your horse usually comes up to you when you go out into the paddock, but one day doesn’t come to greet you, you should suspect that she may be under the weather.
Mistake no. 2: Not leaving the thermometer in long enough
A glass thermometer will take 3 minutes and a digital one about 1 minute to give an accurate reading.
Don’t rush with taking the temperature and get an accurate reading that will tell you how your horse is really doing. Use a watch or timer if the thermometer isn’t equipped with one.
Mistake no. 3: Taking vitals on a horse that has just been exercising
To get an accurate image of how your horse is feeling, take only resting vital signs.
This means that you should wait for the horse to calm down after exercise to get the right readings. Wait for about 30 minutes before taking resting vitals.
Of course, to learn what is normal for your horse during or right after exercise, you should also take the vitals right after exercising, but not consider this the same thing as resting vitals.
Mistake no. 4: Taking vitals on a nervous horse
When horses get nervous or prepare for a fight-or-flight-response their heart and respiratory rates will spike. Don’t make the mistake of trusting the vital signs taken on a horse that is nervous.
If a horse is in a new environment, hasn’t been handled before or mistrusts the handler or environment, the vitals will be unreliable.
Sometimes you won’t be able to wait until the horse has calmed down and will just have to make an educated guess at the real values.
Knowing what your horse’s normal values are and making your horse used to having the vital signs taken by other people than just you, will better prepare both of you for unusual and new situations.
Mistake no. 5: Letting a horse sniff your hand when measuring respiration (breathing)
Horses sniff much faster than they breathe, and letting the horse sniff your hand when trying to measure the breathing will give false results.
Take the vitals when the horse is relaxed and not busy sniffing something new and interesting to give you accurate vitals.
Let her sniff anything new and interesting before you start measuring her breathing, so that she stands calmly and you get accurate vitals.
Making sure that your horse is used to you touching her muzzle and moving your hands around her head while she stands still and ignores them is good training.
Mistake no. 6: Not learning how to check the vitals by hand
You could find yourself in a situation where you will have to assess the condition of your horse without equipment to help you get accurate readings.
Learn how to take vitals such as breath and heart rates without the help of a stethoscope, and learn to recognise how your horse looks and behaves in different situations.
Knowing your horse well will serve you whenever something new or unexpected happens.
Mistake no. 7: Not checking gut sounds on both sides
Gut sounds should be checked on both sides to ensure that the gut is working all over. By checking on just one side you might miss something that was happening on the other side.
Remember: learn how to listen with and without a stethoscope!
Mistake no. 8: Double counting heartbeats and breaths
Don’t count two parts of one heartbeat as individual heartbeats. One lub-dub sound is one whole heartbeat.
When counting breaths one inhalation and one exhalation make one complete breath.
Practicing when you don’t need to take your horses vitals will teach you how to get an accurate reading. You can also practice together with others and compare results on the same horse.
Mistake no. 9: Not double-checking your readings
Double checking your readings ensures that you get it right the first time.
If you’re unsure or keep getting vastly different results, keep checking until you see a pattern of some sort.
Not being able to get a clear reading is also something to call the vet about!
Mistake no. 10: Not practising on your horse regularly!
The only way you will know what is normal for your horse is to check her regularly when she is healthy, before exercise, after exercise, when she is sick, when she is scared or nervous, in cold and hot weather etc.
Also, compare by checking other horses vitals and if you get the chance check out how ill horses look, feel and sound.
If you’ve got other horses at your barn, ask the other owners if you can practice on their horses and if they’d like to practice on yours.
This will also help desensitise your horse to other people.
If you need to brush up on how to take your horses vitals, read this article: