Horse Talk


Horse Talk reports on subjects of interest to the Bay Area and California equine communities. Reader participation is encouraged. To respond to an article, suggest a topic, or submit an article for review, write to To read past articles, visit the Horse Talk Archives.

10 Things Your Vet Wishes You Knew
By Garry Stauber

                      Illustration by Jessica Young
      Last week my veterinarian and I were discussing what she thinks all horse owners should know, in order to assist their vets in the diagnosis and treatment of common horse ailments. 

My vet is Natalie Broomhall, and I happen to think she is wonderful. We decided to limit the discussion to triage and diagnosis, with an action plan for some common horse health symptoms. Here are ten basic things my vet thinks the average horse owner should know, regarding their horse's health. 

1.   Never be afraid to ask questions.  You should have a relationship with a vet, so that you can call him or her and ask questions comfortably. Yes, time is money, but like a family doctor, some amount of veterinary phone triage is important. Some horse owners feel that calling the vet should be the last resort. This is usually based on the idea that calling a vet means money spent. In fact, my vet would rather I call when I have a question, rather than assume or guess.

2.   Keep an emergency phone list of "back-up" vets, in case your veterinarian is unavailable in an  emergency.   My vet lists other vet contact numbers on her answering machine, so that owners  have choices, in the event that she is unable to respond quickly. She is a one-person operation,  thus her company name, One Woman Veterinary Service. She cares about my horses almost as  much as I do, and she prefers that I have good back-ups available for an emergency when she is  not available.  Ask your vet who they recommend you call when they are unavailable, and keep those numbers by the phone where they can be easily found.

3.   You should know how much water your horse normally drinks in a day, and how much manure you should expect to see since the last stall or paddock cleaning. Water intake and manure production  are good indicators of how well your horse’s digestive system is working. As you can guess, my vet is not a big fan of automatic waterers, because they prevent observing a horse's daily water intake.  

4.  Stock vital health and first aid supplies for your horses.  Many horse owners have first aid kits for  humans, but few have them for their horses.  Do you have the right equine first aid medications  and materials and know how to use them? BAEN has a list of suggested equine first aid kit supplies posted at  Bute (Phenylbutazone) and  Banamine are the two most important prescription drugs to have in your equine first aid kit. But  as important as having these medications, is knowing the correct dosage, how to administer them, and when to use them. And if you don’t know, don’t be afraid to ask your vet. The fact that they are not sold without a prescription suggests that these medications do require some basic understanding of their usage. Acquiring them and knowing when and how to use them is another       reason for developing a good relationship with your vet. 

5.  Owners knowing how to take their horse's temperature is very important to my vet. Many people  know that a horse’s normal temperature is between 99.5 and 101 degrees Fahrenheit. But do you know how to take that temperature? You may want to ask your vet to show you the first time.  Start with a thermometer well-lubricated with petroleum or KY jelly,  and shake it hard to reset the mercury. Digital thermometers are great as shaking is not an issue. Insert the thermometer (bulb first) into the horse’s rectum, holding it tightly. Sliding your free arm under the horse’s tail first will test your horse’s initial reaction and will move the tail out of the way. After one minute remove and read the temperature.  Fevers (over 101 degrees) should always be immediately reported to the vet.

6.   Learn to read your horse's pulse and respiratory rate.   The normal resting pulse rate of a horse is 30-40 beats per minute. It may take some practice to find the pulse. Reaching under the jaw and pressing lightly back towards the closest edge of the jaw you will find a large artery. You can also use a stethoscope, if you have one. It may help to have a vet show you the first time. Count the beats for 15 seconds and multiply times four for the pulse rate. Respiration is best observed from a safe distance behind the horse, watching for the rise and fall of the ribs. A complete out and in movement is one breath. Count for one minute. Horses normally take 8 to 20 breaths per minute.

7.   Two other important equine vital sign tests to learn are the hydration skin-pinch and the capillary-refill test. The skin-pinch is just that. It is easily performed by taking a pinch of skin just over the point of the horse’s shoulder and counting how long it takes for the skin to return to a normal  flattened state. If it takes 2-3 seconds for it to flatten, your horse is probably dehydrated. The capillary-refill test is just as easy to perform. Press your thumb against the horse’s gum for a moment and then release it, counting the number of seconds it takes for the whitened gum to return  to a normal pink color. One or two seconds is normal. Any longer suggests dehydration or a  stressed horse. Before taking this test take a good look at the color of the horse's gums. A chalky white color or yellowish color, dark red or purplish color is something to be concerned about.       Normal, healthy gums are good and pink. Being able to communicate this info to your vet can be very valuable.

8.   “Eye issues” are always worthy of a vet call. Swelling, drainage (especially thick white to thick green or yellow drainage), rapid blinking, squinting, cloudiness in the eye, or redness are all worthy of concern. I will usually thoroughly flush out the eye with sterile water and apply Terramycin (an antibiotic ointment sold over the counter at most horse supply stores) for most symptoms, but I call the vet if I don’t see immediate improvement. The eyes are very fragile and these symptoms usually mean serious problems or results if left untreated.

9.    If it’s cut, clean it. The most important treatment for lacerations is washing of the wound.  Do not cover a dirty wound:  covering or bandaging the wound to keep dirt out is futile with dirt already present. Bandaging is for the stoppage of bleeding and is important if blood is flowing. If blood is not flowing, spend more time cleaning the wound than bandaging. If the wound is clean then cover it. Keeping the wound moist with ointments is helpful.  Powders should not be applied to fresh wounds. Your vet will only have to clean these powders out, since they are designed to stop proud flesh, not to heal a fresh wound.  In fact, powders hinder the immediate healing process, making them counterproductive for an early laceration.

10.  Be mindful of all potential warning signs to colic.  Most important, be aware if your horse is not eating. This warrants an immediate call to your vet.  Don’t wait, hoping your horse will change its mind and begin eating. Your vet will be far happier to arrive and find a healthy horse in your stable than to find they have a serious problem that could have been drastically reduced by early intervention. Major agitation, sweating (when they have not been worked), pacing, groaning, kicking or looking at their sides, constantly getting up and down, or repeated rolling are also signs of colic. It is good to know how to check for decreased gut sounds (ask your vet where you should listen).  Watch for any major mood change in your horse, either more active or more docile. Any of these symptoms or signs is worthy of a vet call.

Most importantly, do not delay in calling the vet for any problem that has the potential of escalating, such as lameness, coughing, discharge in the eyes, a laceration, a changing mood or dietary habits.   While these symptoms don’t independently constitute an emergency, they certainly warrant a call to your vet. Keeping your horse's vaccinations and worming up to date will also make your vet's job easier and your horse healthier and happier.

Your vet may have different ideas of what is important for you to know. All the more the reason to have a conversation and learn the things he or she would like you to know and agree upon a good tactical plan for emergencies that may arise.  Here's to a long and healthy partnership between you and your horse!  



Google has given BAEN
permission to display the 
following relevant links:
























  In 2003 Garry Stauber completed a 1350 mile, 3 ˝ month horseback trip, riding the length of California with a packhorse and is a member of the Long Riders Guild.. Garry has written articles for Riding Magazine, Western Times, Stable News, Trail Rider, and is a columnist for the Southern California Equestrian Network, Bay Area Equestrian Network,  and Ride Magazine “Adventure Out”.

Article copyright © 2004 Garry Stauber © 2004  All rights reserved. and the Southern California Equestrian Network. All rights reserved. The above article is the property of the Author and may not be duplicated or redistributed in any way without permission. Visit Garry on-line at Dream Adventures.   


Return to top     Horse Talk Archives     Return to BAEN Home Page