By Dr. Juliet M. Getty
Your emergency kit likely includes a stethoscope – a highly valuable piece of equipment during any urgent health situation. Knowing your horse’s normal heart rate and gut sounds beforehand will allow you to better assess the seriousness of the situation — so use your stethoscope now.
A resting pulse is typically between 32 and 40 beats per minute (ponies’ are slightly higher). Place the stethoscope in front of the girth area, just behind the elbow. Using the sweep second hand on your watch or a stop watch (usually a feature on your cell phone), count the number of beats for 30 seconds and double it to get beats per minute. Measure at various times of day, before and after eating, and at any change in circumstances or activity level; this will give you a clear idea of how your horse generally responds to his environment. Marked deviation from normal (without obvious explanation such as exercise) can indicate the presence of infection, pain, or illness.
Your stethoscope is especially useful for listening to gut sounds. It is normal and healthy for sounds to come from the digestive tract due to the movement of feed, gas, and fluid. Intestines are made of muscles; processing forage continuously provides the necessary exercise to keep these muscles in good condition. Normally, the sounds will be low in pitch with some growling. Colic occurs when there is a change within the intestines, ordinarily due to obstruction, gas[i], or torsion, and sounds change or stop altogether. If you don’t hear any noise, or if the sounds have become higher pitched, significantly slowed, or sound hollow, it likely indicates colic and you should contact your vet immediately.
Practice listening to four areas of the gut: along the upper barrel and the lower flank area on both sides. Generally speaking, sounds from the upper left come from the small colon and tend to be high pitched and of short duration. The lower left has sounds from the large colon. On the upper right, the sounds come from the large colon and cecum whereas the lower right has the large colon. However, the point of origin for gut sounds is not completely predictable; the important thing is to identify a variation from your horse’s normal sounds.
Deviations from normal in pulse or gut sounds may have many possible explanations, so unless you have extensive experience, you should never put yourself in the position of diagnosing colic or other disorders. But you can be a valuable resource to your veterinarian if you know what is normal for your horse and can identify a change, before illness happens.
Permission to reprint this article is granted, provided attribution is given to Juliet M. Getty, Ph.D. No editorial changes may be made without her permission. Dr. Getty appreciates being notified of any publication.
Juliet M. Getty, Ph.D. is an independent equine nutritionist with a wide U.S. and international following. Her research-based approach optimizes equine health by aligning physiology and instincts with correct feeding and nutrition practices. Dr. Getty’s goal is to empower the horseperson with the confidence and knowledge to provide the best nutrition for his or her horse’s needs.
Dr. Getty’s fundamental resource book, Feed Your Horse Like a Horse, is now in paperback, as well as in hardcover, searchable CD and Kindle versions. All except the Kindle version are available at www.GettyEquineNutrition.com — buy the book there and have it inscribed by the author. Print and Kindle versions are also available at Amazon (www.Amazon.com) and find print versions at other online retail bookstores. The seven individual volumes in Dr. Getty’s topic-centered “Spotlight on Equine Nutrition” series are available with special package pricing at her website, and also at Amazon in print and Kindle versions. Dr. Getty’s books make ideal gifts for equestrians!
Find a world of useful information for the horseperson at www.GettyEquineNutrition.com: Sign up for Dr. Getty’s informative, free e-newsletter, Forage for Thought; browse her library of reference articles; search her nutrition forum archives; and purchase recordings of her educational teleseminars. Find top-quality supplements, feeders, and other equine-related items, at her online Free Shipping Supplement Store[ii]. Reach Dr. Getty directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[i] For more on this problem, read the article, “Gas Colic—Common but Preventable,” in the Library on Dr. Getty’s website at www.GettyEquineNutrition.com.