Take Your Horse’s Digital Pulse

Learn how and where to take your horse's digital pulse.

Your horse has been diagnosed with laminitis and your vet tells you to take his digital pulse, both the beats per minute (bpm) and strength. Or you bring your horse in from the pasture looking forward to a nice afternoon ride, but once his feet hit the barn aisle something doesn’t sound right. You ask him to jog, and he gives you a limp. Then you look him over for any obvious wounds or swelling. You feel for heat, and check his feet for rocks and nails. Then you remember reading something about checking his pulse.

But exactly how and where do you take your horse’s pulse?

A pulse is the rhythmic contraction and expansion of an artery due to  the surge of blood from from the beating of your horse’s heart. Taking his pulse measures the rate and strength of his heart beat. A faster-than-normal pulse indicates exertion, excitement or system-wide stress from conditions such as colic, fever or other trauma. But a pulse in his leg that feels stronger than usual could indicate laminitis, a bruise, a close nail from shoeing or a fracture. It also could be a sign of inflammation from an infection, such as an abscess. 

There are several places you can take your horse’s pulse, but the best place to gauge leg or foot pain is at the digital artery below his ankle joint.

1. Learn to take your horse’s digital pulse: To locate the digital artery, stand to the outside of your horse’s leg. Slide two or three fingers down the inside of his leg below his ankle. Put your fingers into the notch at the branching of the suspensory ligament and the deep digital flexor tendon. Note: Do not use your thumb. You will feel your own pulse and not your horse’s. © Stacey Nedrow-Wigmore
2. Once you find the notch, wiggle your fingers back and forth a bit until you feel a cordlike structure, which is the artery, vein and nerve. Place your fingers in front of the “cord.” Curl your fingers about 45 degrees to press the cord against the fetlock bone. You should press hard enough to feel the pulse. This can be very subtle or almost imperceptible in a healthy horse. But don’t press so hard that your horse lifts his leg or you cause him pain. © Stacey Nedrow-Wigmore
3. Once you find his pulse, count the number of beats you feel. Do this while looking at the second hand on your watch or use the timer on your smartphone. Note when 15 seconds has elapsed. Multiply the number of pulses you count by four. This will give you his total bmp. © Stacey Nedrow-Wigmore

The normal pulse range for adult horses (ages 4-20) is 30-40 bpm, with an average of 36 for Thoroughbreds and warmbloods. Drafts and Quarter Horse types often average a little lower: between 32–34 bpm. A foal’s pulse ranges from 70-120 bpm and yearlings from 45-50 bpm. Following moderate exercise, a horse’s pulse rate should increase to 180-240 bpm, and it should fall to 60 bpm within 10-20 minutes of rest, and then slowly return to normal. 

Taking your horse’s pulse when he’s healthy will give you an opportunity to get a feel for his normal pulse strength. It can be very subtle in some healthy horses.

To find your horse’s average resting pulse rate, take it daily or every other day for at least a week using the method that I describe below. Add the results and divide by the number of times you took the pulse to get an average. The reason for doing this is because a horse’s pulse can be affected by exercise, environmental temperature, stress, excitement of physical condition. 

To learn to take your horse’s pulse under his jaw, click here.

Original article: February 2008

Dr. Javier Donatelli, DVM, grew up in Argentina training young horses and was a champion rodeo rider. He graduated from the University of La Plata in his home country. He has been the owner of Javier Donatelli Equine Veterinarian, LLC, since 2008 and is based out of Poolesville, Maryland.

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