Understanding the heart beat

  • According to vet Karen Coumbe, heart rate, pulse and respiration are “some of the first veterinary checks to be made when assessing any potential problem, so it is important to know what is ‘normal’ for your horse”.

    The best place to feel for the heartbeat is where the girth lies, behind the elbow on the near side of the horse. The pulse is the pressure beat of the blood as the heart pumps it around the arteries and is usually the same as the heart rate.

    How to take the pulse

    The pulse is easiest to find after exercise — at rest, it is slow and can be difficult to detect. It can be felt by gently pressing a superficial artery against unyielding tissue, such as bone, with the flat of the fingers.

    • Count the beats for 15sec and multiply by four to find the rate per minute
    • Feel for the tubular structure of the facial artery, which runs under the jaw, and press gently
    • The axillary artery can be found just below the elbow on the inside of the forelegs.
    • A pounding digital pulse is indicative of laminitis or pus in the foot. It can be found either side of the back of the fetlock. Never ignore this sign.
    • The coccygeal artery can be felt either side of the tail under the dock

    What is normal?

    At rest, the pulse and heart rate of a healthy adult horse is generally between 32 and 42bpm. The heart and pulse rate can increase rapidly to more than 200bpm during hard work, so always allow time for the pulse to return to normal before checking after work. The fitter the horse, the quicker the recovery time will be.

    A persistently raised pulse in a resting horse suggests problems. Look for obvious signs of pain or lameness and always check the temperature for indications of fever. It can also be an indicator of heat exhaustion, shock or heart disease.

    If the horse is showing signs of colic with an elevated pulse of more than 80 beats per minute (bpm) there is something seriously wrong and urgent veterinary attention should be sought.

    A consistently lower than normal pulse may also be an indication of shock, hypothermia or possibly poisoning. If appropriate, warm the horse with rugs and seek veterinary advice.

  • This article was orginally published as part of the Accident & Emergency series (25 September) in Horse & Hound. Don’t miss this Thursday’s issue, which focuses on how to cope with a rider who has suffered a broken arm in a fall.
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