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By Cynthia McFarland

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Head-to-Hoof Exams and Vita Signs Should Be Part of Your Horse Care Routine

girl looking at horse

Whether you've had your horse for years or he just came into your life, there will come a time when you face the questions: Is this normal? Could something be wrong? Should I call the veterinarian?

Having a baseline of comparison is one of the smartest things you can do as a horse owner. The more familiar you are with your horse, the easier it will be to notice abnormalities, putting you in a better position to address issues when they arise.

You should know your horse's normal vital signs and also conduct regular assessments — both visual and hands-on.

"There’s lots of variation between horses. What’s normal for one horse may not be normal for another. Owners should get familiar with what’s normal for their individual horse," says Amanda L. Hanafi, DVM, MADS, a veterinarian with Peterson Smith Equine Hospital & Complete Care in Ocala, Florida, one of the Southeast's largest equine clinics.

Head-to-hoof exam

An ideal time to assess your horse is during a thorough grooming session when he’s quiet and at ease, not just after a ride or strenuous workout. Plan to do the assessment when your horse is dry, not right after bathing. Halter your horse and tie him so he’s standing still, or have a friend hold the lead.

Head

Observe the head from the front and both sides. Run your hands slowly over the entire head, including both ears and under the jaw.

You'll also want to notice how the horse holds his head when he's loose, either in his stall or turned out in the paddock.

Abnormal:

  • swelling of any kind
  • scratches, scrapes or cuts
  • swelling of eyelid(s)
  • squinting of eye(s)
  • discharge from eye(s)
  • labored or noisy breathing
  • nasal discharge (if present, note color and any odor)
  • feed material coming out of nostril(s)
  • dropping feed while eating
  • foul odor from mouth or nostrils
  • crusty spots or insect bites inside ear(s)
  • lumps, bumps or growths inside ear(s)
  • head held low to the ground or tilted to one side

Make a point of watching your horse eat for a few minutes each day and notice if anything is out of the ordinary. Let your veterinarian know if your horse shows a sudden or gradual change in appetite.

Hanafi points out that every horse, no matter his age, needs at least an annual dental exam performed by a licensed veterinarian.

Neck and shoulders

Observe from both sides and run your hand over the neck and shoulders.

"With any muscle group, look for asymmetry in the left side versus right side," says Hanafi.

Abnormal:

  • asymmetry of musculature
  • scratches, scrapes or cuts
  • any swelling
  • tenderness in any area
  • hair loss
  • broken or irritated skin

Chest

Observe the horse from the front and both sides. Run your hand over the chest, including between the front legs.

Abnormal:

  • asymmetry of musculature
  • scratches, scrapes or cuts
  • any swelling
  • tenderness in any area
  • hair loss
  • broken or irritated skin

Barrel (trunk) and belly

Observe the horse from both sides, also looking under the belly. Run your hand over the barrel and along the belly.

Looking at your horse from the side and using a hands-on examination will quickly give you an indication if he is gaining or losing weight. If the horse is at optimal weight, you should be able to easily feel the ribs, but they should not be visible.

Abnormal:

  • bloated appearance
  • tenderness in any area
  • broken or irritated skin
  • crusty areas or lesions under the belly (typically from insect bites)
  • summer sores (often develop under the belly)

"The abdomen is a common place for summer sores to develop," says Hanafi.

While we're talking about the belly, it's worth noting the common signs of colic, which should always involve a call to your vet:

  • horse watching his flanks/sides
  • decreased appetite
  • lying down
  • pawing
  • rolling
  • change in manure output

It might sound strange, but good horsemanship includes paying close attention to your horse's manure – appearance, frequency and consistency. Knowing how many piles your horse usually produces each day and what they look like will give you an indication that something isn’t right with his digestive system if his manure output and appearance change.   

Back, croup

Step back a few feet and evaluate the horse from both sides. Then run your hand all along the topline, which should feel the same on both sides of the horse.

Abnormal:

  • loss of musculature along topline indicating weight loss
  • asymmetry of musculature
  • tenderness in any area
  • sores or rub marks caused by tack

Hindquarters

View the hindquarters from both sides of the horse and then directly from the rear, standing several feet away for safety, of course. Run a hand over the entire hindquarters from the top of the rump and down to the top of the hind legs.

Abnormal:

  • asymmetry of musculature
  • tenderness in any area
  • dermatitis, crusting or flaking skin
  • bites (from insects or other horses), bumps, cuts
  • lumps or sores under the tail along the tailbone

Don't forget to look under the horse's tail for lumps, bumps or sores. Any unusual growths or lesions should always be examined by your veterinarian as they could potentially be signs of a serious condition.

"Growths often occur on the tailbone, around the anus, genitalia or mouth. Make it part of your grooming routine to check these areas," says Hanafi.

Legs

Observe the horse standing still from both sides, front and rear, looking at the legs from the top all the way down to the hooves. Slowly slide your hand down each leg, from the top of the leg to the hoof, taking care to feel along the inside, outside, front and back of each leg.

Hanafi emphasizes that regular observation and being hands-on with your horse's legs will show you if there’s a change or new finding. If in doubt, use the horse's opposite limb for comparison.

Abnormal:

  • swelling (firm or soft) in any area
  • heat
  • cuts or punctures
  • broken skin
  • scabby, crusty areas

Small abrasions and cuts on legs aren't unusual for horses. Checking regularly will allow you to find and treat small injuries so they don't become an issue.

"Sometimes, less obvious wounds can be the most problematic. Puncture wounds may create a very small opening but involve a joint or other synovial structure," cautions Hanafi, noting that any wound involving a joint should be seen by a veterinarian.

Hooves

This is a good time for a friend to lead your horse at a walk while you watch from both sides, front and rear.

Obviously, you should notice if your horse is limping or favoring a foot, but your exam should include more than just watching him walk. You want to pick up each foot and use a hoof pick to clean it out.

Abnormal:

  • any sign of lameness
  • cracks
  • foul odor
  • soft spots
  • foreign object wedged in hoof or under shoe
  • bruising on the sole
  • a hoof that is warmer than the others
  • weight not evenly distributed when standing

"Outer hoof walls should be examined for cracks. A foul odor, softness or abnormal tissue growth on the underside of the hoof may indicate a need for treatment," says Hanafi.

"Heat is part of the body’s response to injury or infection. It may be helpful to compare one foot to the other, but keep in mind, both feet could be affected," she notes.

Although many horse owners only clean out their horses' hooves when the farrier is coming or before riding, this practice should be a daily routine. It's not unusual for a stone, small piece of wood, metal or other foreign body to become wedged in the hoof — and the longer it stays there, the more likely it is to cause a problem.

"Foreign bodies in the hoof are also cause for concern. Sharp objects becoming lodged in the foot can easily penetrate sensitive structures in the foot," warns Hanafi.

Hanafi encourages horse owners to be familiar with the early signs of laminitis (founder), a serious condition that can affect horses of all breeds. A horse showing any of these signs should be considered an emergency. Contact your veterinarian if you notice any of the following:

  • heat in one or more hooves
  • noticeable digital pulse
  • lame on one foot or more
  • tenderfooted, "walking on eggshells" or "tiptoeing"
  • reluctance to walk off
  • hesitant when turning
  • lying down more than normal
  • "sawhorse" stance — weight more on hind legs than front

Sheath and udder

If you have a gelding, you should know about the importance of cleaning his sheath. Mares also require cleaning around the udder.

Cleaning is a perfect time to examine the sheath and penis (or udder) for anything out of the ordinary, but pay attention to this area on a regular basis, not just when cleaning. This includes both the penis and the prepuce, that loose double fold of skin that protects the retracted penis.

Abnormal:

  • swelling of sheath or penis
  • sores, lesions or growths
  • change in urine stream
  • reluctance to urinate
  • apparent discomfort when urinating
  • penis remaining extended when not urinating

"Tumors on the prepuce or on the penis may start out small and grow rapidly," says Hanafi, noting that any skin lesions, especially new ones, and those that change in size, shape or color, should be noted.

"Keep track of when they are first noticed and any changes in appearance," she advises, "and bring them to the attention of your veterinarian."

With a mare, feel her udder on all sides. Unless the mare is nursing a foal or was recently weaned, it should be soft and pliable.

Abnormal:

  • firm or hard upon palpation
  • heat
  • swelling
  • discharge

Hanafi notes that owners should pay attention to their horses' urinary system in general. Either of the following is abnormal and warrants a call to your veterinarian:

  • straining to urinate
  • discolored urine (red, brown)  

Hair coat, mane and tail

As you make your way over your horse's body, pay attention to the feel and appearance of his hair coat, mane and tail. Although it's easy to think that the condition of hair is only related to grooming, it’s strongly connected to overall health and nutrition.

Run the flat of your hand over the entire body, including mane and tail, noticing the feel of all hair and how it looks. Be sure to move the mane aside and check along the neck at the base of the mane, which is a common place for ticks to attach. Use a strong light to take a close look.

Because external parasites like ticks can transmit diseaseit's important to check horses regularly, advises Hanafi.

Abnormal:

  • dull, dry hair coat
  • brittle and/or broken mane and tail hairs
  • patches of rubbed-out hair

"A dry, dull or brittle hair coat can be an indicator of nutritional status. Horses with an adequate nutrition program should be in good body weight with a shiny, smooth hair coat," says Hanafi.

Change in weight

Hanafi points out that when a horse has unexpectedly gained weight or dropped pounds despite being on a good feeding program, this may be a sign of a metabolic condition or internal parasites.

If you aren't sure what is an optimal weight for your particular horse, this is a conversation to have with your veterinarian.

"Veterinarians can help tailor a nutrition and management plan to achieve or maintain optimal condition," says Hanafi.

Vital signs

No doubt you've heard about "vital signs," but do you know how to take them and what to look for?

Every horse is an individual, and what's normal for one may not be  for another, but every horse owner should be aware of the normal range.

Don't wait to check your horse's vitals when you suspect there's a problem. Knowing your horse's normal temperature, pulse, respiration and gut sounds is an essential tool that can quickly help you notice when things aren't normal. This allows you to give an accurate assessment to your veterinarian in case of an emergency.

"It’s helpful when clients are familiar with their own horses' vitals," says Hanafi.

You can buy a digital thermometer and inexpensive stethoscope at your local drugstore or online.

To determine your horse's normal vital signs, take them several times over the course of a week and do so when he is calm and resting.

Temperature: Lubricate the tip of a digital thermometer with lubricant or petroleum jelly and insert one inch into horse's rectum, holding it in place. (The digital version beeps when ready and takes less time than a standard veterinary thermometer.) Because temps can rise by two degrees in the late afternoon, establish a baseline of what's normal by taking your horse's temperature two to three times a day for a week.

Pulse: Place the bell of a stethoscope into your horse's left "armpit" and count the beats per minute. Each "lub-dub" counts as one beat. (Pulse rate increases noticeably when a horse is in pain or distress.)

Respiratory Rate: Count the number of breaths per minute by watching the flanks move or the nostrils flare. (If the horse is sniffing something, this will be far more rapid than normal breathing.)

Capillary Refill Time (CRT) & Gum Color: Lift the upper lip and check color of gums directly above top teeth. Gums should be light pink to "bubblegum" pink. To check CRT, use your finger to press firmly on the gum in this area. Release pressure and count how many seconds it takes to turn pink again. (Count "one thousand one, one thousand two...")

Gut Sounds: Press the stethoscope against the horse's abdomen on both sides and in several sites (high flank, low flank, between flank and ribs, low belly and midline of belly). Listen for a minimum of 30 seconds in each location, preferably longer. You should hear a gurgling and/or rumbling sound within seconds. It’s common to hear long, rolling rumbles interspersed with shorter gurgling sounds. If everything is working as it should, you’ll hear sounds several times per minute. (A lack of sounds can indicate a problem, such as colic, stress or illness.)

Digital Pulse: The digital artery is located between the fetlock and heel. Place the fingertips of one hand along the outside of the pastern area (between the fetlock joint and coronary band) and feel for a pulse in the digital artery. You're not counting beats per minute, but rather feeling for an increase in intensity, or a stronger pulsing. A digital pulse is subtle and hard to find in a normal horse, but is obvious in the case of laminitis. (Also check the hoof walls for heat, another sign of laminitis.)

Normal Vitals for an Adult Horse:

Temperature: 99 to 101.5°F

Pulse: 28 to 44 beats per minute

Respiration: 10 to 24 breaths per minute

Mucous Membranes: moist, light pink to "bubblegum" pink color

Capillary Refill Time (CRT): 2 seconds or less

Gut Sounds: gurgling, rumbles, "growling" sounds, "tinkling” sounds, occasional roaring sounds; not usually quiet for longer than a couple of minutes

Digital Pulse: subtle, very difficult to detect when normal

(Note that foals will have higher vitals ranges than adult horses.)

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