Horses are very athletic animals and their hearts and cardiovascular system have evolved such that their cardiovascular function has a much greater capacity relative to us. However, heart problems are still of frequent concern in horses performing poorly and in either very young, or older horses.
Heart problems in horses often go unnoticed until detected at the time of yearly vaccinations, as part of a pre-purchase examination (vetting) or may result in subtle symptoms like poor performance. In general terms, heart problems in horses can be due to either an irregular heart rhythm (arrhythmia) or heart murmurs (often due to “leaky” heart valves).
In order to examine your horse for cardiac problems we generally perform an investigation in two phases. Initially we perform a thorough clinical examination which includes:
- discussion about your horse's history, current exercise levels and symptoms you've noticed
- clinical assessment evaluating the heart with a stethoscope
Once we've identified potential problems, we can then arrange the most appropriate diagnostic plan.
- Electrocardiogram (ECG) to record your horse's heart rhythm. If there is an irregular beat detected or a poor performance issue, this is likely to be our first recommendation. The ECG can be done at rest and during exercise. An exercising ECG uses a small halter attached to the saddle or surcingle so your horse can be galloped or monitored for up to 24h. The recording can then be downloaded (or sent real time) to a laptop to be analysed.
- Ultrasound examination of the heart, including colour doppler. This allows us to assess the size of the heart chambers and movement of the valves. The colour doppler shows the movement of the blood through the heart and allows us to assess abnormal blood flow; which may be found with "leaky" heart valves or small defects between chambers (hole in the heart).
The full cardiac assessment aims to answer questions such as:
- Is my horse safe to ride?
- If so what level of work can I do?
- Will the heart condition get worse with time?
- Should I purchase this horse?
If a heart murmur has been detected in your horse, it has not be recommended for purchase at a vetting because of a heart murmur, or you would like a second opinion please contact us to talk to one of the vets. Before a second opinion can be given we will contact your veterinary surgeon (it is essential that we obtain your horse’s medical records first). If we feel specialist expertise is required, we call upon our cardiology consultant, Dr Lesley Young BVSc DVC DVA DipECEIM PhD MRCVS, for an in-house referral to examine your horse with us, so that you receive the best service possible.