Finding a Horse's Heart Rate

Hello. I am in 8th grade and I am doing a science fair project on what types of music affect a horse’s heart rate. My teacher told us we had to interview someone so I chose you. Could you tell me all about the horse’s heart, brain, or anything to do with that topic please? The other day I was trying to find my horse’s heart rate but I couldn’t find it. I felt under his cheek, his chest, and the side of his pastern but I didn’t feel a thing! What did I do wrong? To answer my question, please email me ASAP because I need the interview done soon.

—LW, Illinois


Dear LW,

Well, I don’t know anything about how music affects a horse’s heart rate or brain waves, but I do know how to take the heart rate, as well as the respiratory rate and temperature, three vital signs all horse owners should know how to measure. Let’s start with the heart rate, or pulse.

As you have found out first-hand, trying to find a horse’s pulse can be frustrating! Fortunately, there are some tools that can help you. For the serious competitor, a heart monitor is a must-have. In addition to models that include a wristwatch receiver so you can see the rate while still in the saddle, some models even monitor and store the heart rate over an entire exercise session! Then there’s your basic stethoscope. No horse owner should be without one. Place the buds in your ears so they point forward, slide the head forward underneath your horse’s elbow on the left side until you hear the heart beat, and count only one of the sounds (so lub-DUB is one beat). The normal range for a horse is 28 – 42 heartbeats per minute.

Even if you have a heart rate monitor or stethoscope, you should still know where and how to feel your horse’s pulse, as sometimes changes in the pulse itself can be a useful diagnostic tool. For example, if you’re concerned that your horse might be developing laminitis, you should check to see if the digital pulses at his ankles are “bounding” or throbbing. Personally, I find the digital pulse the easiest to detect:

  • Have someone hold your horse
  • Squat next to his left front leg
  • With your palm touching the back of his leg, thumb to the outside and fingers to the inside, start at the knee and run your hand down his leg until you reach the ankle, or fetlock
  • Very lightly press your thumb and middle finger against his leg, at the level of the fetlock
  • Now begin to slowly slide your entire hand backward, until your thumb and middle finger nearly come off the back of the leg
  • Experiment with light, moderate and heavy pressure inward until you feel the pulse
  • Tip: Don’t use the tip of your thumb/finger, where the nail is. Press on the leg just past the last joint in your thumb/finger

There are other places to check your horse’s pulse, such as the inside of the jaw, the inside of the front leg above the knee, the outside of the hind leg, and underneath the tail. But in my opinion, these are all harder to find than the digital pulse.

While you’re measuring your horse’s heart rate, take the time to measure his respiratory rate (8 – 12 breaths per minute is normal) and his temperature (99.5 – 100.5 degrees F is normal). Take these measurements over several days and at different times of day, and record them in your horse’s journal. Then when he’s not acting right, you can compare his heart rate, respiratory rate and temperature to his normal values and help your veterinarian figure out what might be wrong!

Lydia F. Gray, DVM MA, currently serves as the Medical Director/Staff Veterinarian for SmartPak Equine. Prior to joining SmartPak, Dr. Gray served as the first-ever Director of Owner Education for the American Association of Equine Practitioners. She has authored numerous articles in publications such as The Horse, Horse Illustrated, Western Horseman and a variety of veterinary journals and magazines. Dr. Gray is also a frequent speaker at horse expos, veterinary conventions and other locations. After graduating with honors from the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine and receiving her Master's Degree in Interpersonal and Organizational Communication, she practiced at the Tremont Veterinary Clinic for several years. Dr Gray is active in the American Veterinary Medical Association and Illinois State Veterinary Medical Association and enjoys training and showing her trakehner Newman in her spare time.  Find Dr. Gray on Google+

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