Horses have a way of getting into everything, acquiring assorted bumps, cuts, and worse. Your favorite equine may even develop a fever or turn up lame on occasion.
Many of these situations can be handled at home. However, your horse’s life may one day depend upon your ability to identify a true emergency.
First, educate yourself about equine vital signs and what’s “normal” for your horse. Learn how to take his pulse and temperature, and observe his respiration rate at rest. These readings can fluctuate according to the time of day and even the temperature outside, but it’s good to establish “baselines” with which to compare later readings. Also, go over your horse's body and note any pre-existing lumps and bumps. Make a habit of checking all these things regularly to keep yourself (and your horse) acquainted with the process.
Here are some symptoms that warrant an immediate call to your veterinarian, because they could indicate serious, painful, and/or life-threatening conditions:
- Rectal temperature over 102 degrees (adult horse, at rest)
- Weak pulse or pulse faster than 80 beats per minute (normal adult horse, at rest is 38-40 bpm)
- Gums that are pale, bluish-gray, yellowish, or bright red (salmon pink is normal)
- Respiratory distress—erratic, labored, or unusually fast breathing at rest (normal respiratory rate for adult horses is 8-12 breaths per minute)
- An obvious break/fracture
- Staggering or collapse
- Paralysis/inability to move
- Signs of colic such as abdominal discomfort, restlessness, sweating, rolling, pawing, absence of gut sounds, or decreased manure production
- Signs of exertional myopathy/azoturia ("tying up") like tight, painful muscles over the back or rump, reluctance to move, hind-end stiffness, excessive sweating, tremors, and reddish-brown urine
- Signs of laminitis ("founder"), including excessive heat in a hoof, an unusually strong digital pulse, shortening of stride, or reluctance to put weight on a hoof
- Tearing, blinking, sudden blindness, or other signs of eye trauma
- Sudden severe lameness, possibly with heat or swelling
- Joint or tendon injury
- A wound that requires stitches or won't stop bleeding
- Prolonged straining to urinate without producing urine
- Choking/continuous oral or nasal discharge
- Watery diarrhea that won't resolve
- Difficulty foaling, or any problem with a newborn foal
Chronic conditions, such as a prolonged lack of appetite or a wound that won't heal, should also be brought to your veterinarian's attention, especially if the horse is young, old, or in foal. Likewise with changes in weight or behavior, on-and-off lameness, persistent skin problems, and anything else that's unusual.
Although this list describes symptoms of some of the more obvious emergencies, it is by no means complete. If you are ever in doubt, don't wait. Take your horse's vital signs if possible, jot down your observations, and call your veterinarian.