Because horses are a prey species, it can be challenging to identify signs of pain. In the wild, they will hide their illnesses and injuries to avoid attracting predators. Whilst we cannot use the same innate methods of pain recognition as we use in people, there are some important steps that we can take on a day to day basis to ensure that our horses are safe and well.
Examine your horse from a distance
This is important to do every day. Knowing what your horse’s usual demeanour is, will allow you to recognise any changes. When we are called out to poorly horses, one of the main questions that we ask is if there has been any change in their behaviour or management. Some of the things to look out for are:
Are they bright and alert?
Interacting with their surroundings and other people or horses? Or are they just stood still on their own, with their head low to the ground?
Does their coat look bright and glossy?
A dull or overly long, fluffed-up coat could indicate that your horse is not feeling well, or could be suffering from a disease such as ‘Cushings’.
Are they weight bearing evenly on all four legs?
It sounds obvious, but all four legs should be on the ground! Horses may rest their hindlimbs, but they shouldn’t be seen resting a front leg. Equally, if they seem to be repeatedly shifting their weight, this can be a sign of musculoskeletal pain and warrants further investigation.
Are they eating normally?
Are they interested in the grass/hay/hard feed around them? Is any feed falling out of their mouth? This is known as ‘quidding’ and can indicate a dental issue.
Have they been drinking?
Horses will drink 25-55 litres of water per day depending on the weather, their diet and how much exercise they are taking. If they are poorly, horses will often fail to drink a normal quantity of water, and dehydration can cause some serious problems.
Have they passed normal droppings and urine?
An absence of droppings could be the first sign that your horse is developing colic.
How are they tolerating the presence of flies and other insects?
At this time of year, we see numerous flying, biting insects which can cause severe irritation to horses. If your horse is seen persistently stamping, biting and swishing their tail in the field, it could be a sign of a hypersensitivity issue.
As vets, if you call us out, we will perform a thorough clinical examination of your horse to pick up any abnormalities. However, there is no reason why much this examination cannot be carried out, by horse owners, on a day to day basis. The easiest way to make sure you cover all the bases is to take a ‘head to tail’ approach.
Things to check are:
If you carefully raise your horse’s lips, their gums should be a pink colour, and when touched they should feel moist- indicating hydration. If your horse is well behaved, you can firmly press their gum with the pad of your finger, so that it turns white. When you remove your finger, the time the gum takes to return to its normal pink colour should be less than two seconds. This is known as measuring the ‘capillary refill time’. If the time it takes to become pink is more like 4 or 5 seconds, it could be an indication that your horse is dehydrated.
These should be bright and open. If the eyelids are partially, or fully shut, this is a sign of pain, and your veterinarian should be contacted. They eyelids themselves should not be puffy, and there should be no discharge coming from the eyes.
You don’t need a stethoscope to check your horse’s heart rate! The pulse can be felt on your horse’s jaw. If you are unsure as to where the pulse should be taken in the horse, please see our video on ‘how to take a TPR’. Just count the number of beats over 30 seconds and multiply by 2 to obtain your horse’s heart rate. It should normally lie between 28 and 48 beats per minute.
To do this, take a step back and watch your horse’s chest move. Don’t try and count the breaths by placing a hand under the nostrils as horse’s will often start sniffing your hand or holding their breath when you do this! A normal respiratory rate for a horse is between 8-16 breaths per minute. Higher than this could indicate a respiratory disease, such as equine asthma, or pain.
We usually listen to a horse’s gut sounds using a stethoscope, however, if your horse is well behaved, you may be able to lay your ear on their abdomen, just behind the end of the ribcage, and listen for gut sounds. Remember to listen on both the left and right hand side. They should be gurgling away, and if you cannot hear them, it might be suggestive of colic.
A rectal temperature should be taken with a plastic, digital thermometer. Always stand to the side of your horse when doing this- even if they aren’t known to kick, not many horses appreciate having their temperature taken! Apply a small quantity of clean Vaseline to the thermometer as lubrication, and once inserted, make sure you carefully press the thermometer up against the wall of the rectum, to make sure you’re taking an accurate reading, rather than measuring the temperature of your horse’s droppings!
Legs and feet
Run your hands carefully down all four legs checking for any heat, swelling or wounds. Make sure to check you’re the digital pulses- they can be felt either side of the fetlock. Gently place your fingers over the artery (which feels like a squashy tube) and see if you can feel your horse’s pulse. If it is ‘bounding’ under your fingers, it is likely to indicate problem in the foot, such as an abscess, or laminitis. Also check for warmth in the hooves. They should all feel cool to touch, and if they are hot, again it could indicate a problem.