Evaluating Your Horse's Physical Condition

Before beginning or creating a fitness training and conditioning program for your horse, it is important to establish the horse's baseline condition.

A body conditioning score of 5 is considered a sign that a horse is well-conditioned and capable of a good workload.

This baseline condition is the starting point for your conditioning program to enhance and improve your horse's physical, mental, and emotional capabilities.

Record Keeping

To make sure that the training and conditioning steps you take are effective and on track, you will need to do some record keeping by recording data and information about your horse's current condition, and then up-dating it daily or weekly as you progress through your program.

Choose the record keeping system that works best for you whether it is a notebook, a loose leaf folder, index cards in a box, or a record kept on your computer.

Your record keeping should include a place to keep track of each of the horse's 7 vital signs including temperature, pulse rate, respiratory rate, capillary refill time, coloration of mucous membranes, level of hydration and gut sounds. These vital signs, especially temperature, pulse rate, and respiratory rate tell you a great deal about the condition of the cardiovascular, respiratory, muscular and thermo regulatory systems of your horse.

You will also need to score your horse's body condition and record that information along with nutrition information including types of feed, amounts fed, and any adjustments you make to accommodate increasing physical demands.

You will need pages for anecdotal records related to any signs of illness, injury, or fatigue, appetite and water consumption, gait, attitude, and energy level as you monitor your horse's condition on an on-going basis.

Before beginning your fitness and conditioning program, you will want to make sure that your horse is up-to-date on vaccinations, deworming, hoof trimming, shoeing, and any other factors that relate to the horse's over-all health and well being.

The following information will help you in not only determining the current condition of your horse for your baseline, but are also the steps you will take in doing a daily once-over to make sure your horse is in condition to continue with on-going exercise, training and conditioning.

What are normal horse vital signs?

This table presents the normal resting vital signs for a healthy horse.

Measurement Normal
Temperature An adult horse's normal rectal temperature is 99.5 to 100 degrees F (37.5 to 38.6 degrees C).
Pulse rate An adult horse's resting pulse rate will range from 35 to 45 beats per minute.
Respiratory rate Normal rate averages 12, but will range between 10 and 30 breaths per minute.
Capillary refill This is an indication of blood circulation. Normal refill time is 1 to 2 seconds.
Mucous membranes The mucous membranes line the horse's eyelids, gums and nostrils, and the color is another indicator of blood circulation. A healthy horse's mucous membranes are moist and pink.
Dehydration Healthy horses drink a minimum of 7 gallons of water a day and average around 10 to 12 gallons a day with a performance horse requiring up to 24 gallons per day depending on heat, humidity and workload.
Gut sounds Absence of gut sounds can indicate colic or other serious conditions.

What is "normal" can vary greatly between individual animals and conditions. Get to know your horse's vital signs by checking them occasionally. Also, it is a good practice to check the vital signs and be ready to discuss them when you call the vet for a problem.

How to check your horse's vital signs

Temperature

Bulb and digital thermometers are equally suitable.

Traditional vs. digital

Traditional vs. digital

A horse's temperature can give you clues about infection, heat stroke and other health issues. New window.

If using a bulb thermometer, shake it down until the bulb registers below 96 degrees F or 35.5 if C.

Using a water-based lubricant such as K-Y Jelly, lubricate the thermometer. Raise the horse's tail and hold it firmly. Gently inset the bulb into the anal canal using a twisting motion. Insert the thermometer 2 to 3 inches.

Wait 3 minutes, then remove the thermometer and wipe it clean. Read the temperature by the height of the silver or red column of mercury on the scale.

If using a digital thermometer, follow the manufacturer's directions.

Pulse

The horse's pulse can be taken at any point where a large artery is located beneath the skin. A convenient place is where the external maxillary artery crosses the lower border of the jawbone.

To locate the pulse, press lightly with the balls of your fingers.

The pulse is most notable when the horse has been exercise, but you should become familiar with both the horse's resting rate and the rate after being exercised.

The pulse can also be taken at the inside back of the knee which corresponds to the wrist in humans.

Respiratory rate

Determine the horse's respiratory rate by observing and counting the movements of the nostrils or flanks.

Capillary refill time

Lift the horse's upper lip and press your thumb firmly against the gums to create a white mark. Remove your thumb and watch for the return to a normal pink color within 1 to 2 seconds after releasing the pressure.

Mucous membranes

The color the the mucous membranes indicates much about the state of the horse's health. A healthy horse's mucous membranes will be a slightly lighter pink than a human's.

Dehydration

The pinch test has been the standard test for dehydration in horses for decades. To perform the pinch test, simply pinch the skin on the horse's neck and observe how long it takes the skin to flatten back into place after you let go. If it flattens within 1 second, the horse is fine. If it takes longer, the horse is dehydrated.*

Other signs of dehydration include dry mucous membranes in the mouth and sunken eyeballs.

*Some research questions the validity of the pinch test, since results can vary depending on the moisture in the horse's coat, the side the test is done on, and other factors. Some veterinarians believe that keeping track of the amount of water a horse drinks per day while taking into consideration air temperature and exercise factors, is more valid than simply using the pinch test.

Gut sounds

To check for gut sounds, press your ear against the horse's barrel just behind the last rib.

If you hear gurgling sounds, your horse is fine. If you don't hear the sounds on one side, check the other side.

Basics equine body condition scoring

By carefully assessing six areas of the horse's body and comparing fat deposits to parts of your hand and fist, you will be able to establish a reliable body condition score in a very short time. Following are the descriptions of the 9 body condition scores:

  1. Poor: Bone structure very noticeable, animal extremely emaciated
  2. Very Thin: Slight amount of fat discernable, but animal emaciated
  3. Thin: Slight fat cover over ribs, bones discernable
  4. Moderately Thin: Fat can be felt, faint outline of ribs discernable
  5. Moderate: Rounded features and parts blending smoothly, ribs not visually discernable
  6. Moderately Fleshy: Fat deposits observable, soft fat pads can be felt
  7. Fleshy: Fat deposits noticeable
  8. Fat: Noticeable thickening of neck, areas of body flush with other parts
  9. Extremely Fat: Bulging fat areas, with obvious crease down back

Directions for body condition scoring

BCS = Body Condition Score

Vibrant health indicated by coat condition and body score

Vibrant health indicated by coat condition and body score

The healthy horse is not too fat nor too thin. Body condition scoring provides a method to appraise your horses weight. New window.

Stand about 10 feet away from the horse and observe the top of the horse's neck, shoulder, back, and hip.  Is the appearance of the top line smooth or angular? Can you see the ribs?

Does the shoulder blend smoothly into the horse's front flank? Does a crease run down the center of the horse's back, or is it flush or tent-shaped, with the back bone showing?

Now step closer so you can feel the horse's condition with your hands. Can you easily feel the ribs? Do you have to press and rub hard before you feel the distinctive ridges of the ribs?  Using your hand as a reference guide, press down on the fleshy part of your hand where the thumb attaches to your palm. This feels similar to the rib cage of a horse with a lot of fat cover over the ribs and a body condition score of 7 or higher.

A fat or obese horse will have more fat cover, with a correspondingly higher BCS of 8 or 9.

Now make a fist and feel the long bones of your fingers right above the knuckles.  While you can make out each individual finger, overall it is fairly smooth, which is similar to the feel of the rib cage of a horse with a moderate BCS of 5 or 6. A body conditioning score of 5 is considered by many veterinarians to be a sign that the horse is well-conditioned and capable of maintaining a good workload.

Keeping your hand in a tight fist, run your other hand over the knuckles and notice the jutting out and rigid feel of the knuckles. The ribs and back bone of a thin horse will have a similar feel, giving it a BCS of <4.

An extremely thin or emaciated horse will score lower on the BCS, depending on the level of thinness or emaciation, with a BCS of 1 or 2. A horse in this condition is in poor health.

Heat, inflammation, and gait

Now that you have determined your horse's vital signs and body conditioning score, you will want to observe and check out how well the muscular system of the horse is working and note any signs of injury, strain, or lack of limb coordination.

This can be done in 4 steps as your horse stands on hard level ground.

  1. Walk around the horse starting on one side with the head, neck, body, hip, legs and then check out the other side in the same way. Look and feel for any signs of injuries, bumps, bruises or tense spots. Run your hands over the limbs and hooves to check for variations in temperature or heat that might indicate inflammation.
  2. Jog the horse around in a small circle on the end of a lead rope to observe the movements of the horse's shoulders, head, its tail position, and how the horse moves. Watch for favoring of any shoulder or limb, and for a nodding of the head that indicates a hoof or leg-related lameness. Notice how the horse carries its tail to see how it travels in relationship to how it moved on preceding days. Note inconsistencies in hoof patterns. If a horse is feeling pain in its body, it often shows up as a change in the hoof pattern, in which case you will explore the horse's limbs with flexion tests and palpitation of any areas that appear to be painful or inflamed.
  3. Carefully palpitate along the sides of the horse's spine to check for sore spots, especially in the loin and muscles along the croup. Begin at the poll on the left side and press your fingertips firmly, but gently in a slow continuous sweep from the top of the horse's head along the spine's length checking the neck, withers, back and croup to the base of the tail. Message any tender spots to relax bunched muscles.
  4. Check the flexions of the knees, ankles, shoulders, stifles and hocks. You will most likely need to have someone hold the horse or you can hold the end of the lead, being careful to keep it away from the horse's feet. Flexions can be hard for some horses so be careful and if the horse is agitated or too reluctant don't force the issue.

Begin by picking up the left front hoof as if you are going to clean it, then fold the horse's leg up, bracing the horse's knee just above your locked knees.

With both hands on the ankle, exert pressure on the knee joint by pulling the cannon bone and fetlock towards the horse's elbow, checking for flexibility and observing any flinching response by the horse.

To check the ankle or fetlock, move your hands down to the horse's toe and pull the toe firmly towards your waist, putting flex on the ankle joint and again checking for sensitivity and flexibility.

Next, unfold the horse's knee joint and carefully pull the horse's foreleg first back toward the tail and finally straight out in front of the horse to check the shoulder for soreness. range of motion and flexibility.

Repeat the flexions on the horse's right side, looking for change from the previous day and comparing the horse's reactions with its normal responses.

To check hocks and stifles on hind legs, face forward and hold the horse's hoof up high for at least 60 seconds to compress the hock, then have an assistant immediately trot the horse forward.

Since this flexion requires a helper, you may not do it every day, but it should be considered necessary if the horse appears to be developing a hock problem.

By going through these four steps, you will be able to methodically examine the horse's body for injury or muscle soreness. After you've done these checks a few times, you will get to know your horse well enough to quickly detect any problems or changes.

Consider this

Once you know your horse's baseline condition, you will be in a position of assessing how well your conditioning program is working as it enhances and improves your horse's physical, mental, and emotional capabilities.

If disturbing changes are noticed at any time, call your veterinarian for advice about how to treat the horse to remedy any problems, but If all the systems check out, the horse is ready for continued training and conditioning as you work toward your goals.

About the author

EquiMed Staff shares a common goal of helping you improve your horse's health. The staff work together to develop unique web-focused content that answers the most common questions of horse owners. EquiMed staff written content is updated frequently to incorporate the best practices within the equine healthcare industry. Thanks for visiting!

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