A stethoscope can give you loads of valuable information about your horse’s health. Your veterinarian uses it to garner many different important pieces of information about what’s going on in your horse’s lungs, heart or abdomen, but it took him or her years of training to learn the techniques. While you can’t achieve that level of expertise from an article, you can find out how to use the stethoscope to your advantage.
It can be tough to get a reasonably accurate pulse rate (pulses per 15 seconds x 4 = pulse per minute) by placing your finger over an artery, even if the horse does stand perfectly still, let alone if he’s excited. Not only is the strength of the pulse in a horse at rest often faint, but the facial artery may easily slip out from under your fingers. It’s much easier to get a heart rate using a stethoscope.
With practice, you can learn to follow even a fidgeting horse with a stethoscope without losing count or contact by focusing on the loudest of the heart sounds.
Slide the stethoscope forward under the upper arm at the level of the elbow on the left side. How far forward you have to go to hear the heart clearly depends on the horse’s conformation and muscling.
The best way to get the hang of using a stethoscope is to start with a quiet horse at rest. The heart rate will be slowest at this time, with obvious pauses between beats, so you can clearly hear the cluster of heart sounds-pause-heart sounds again.
Listening takes a little practice. A horse’s heart sounds different from a human’s or a dog’s, and every heart is a bit different. You’ll be able to hear from two to four sounds, one obviously louder, followed by a pause before the next beat.
Some sounds are short and sharp, others more muffled, sounding like they run into the next one. Horses also commonly have a variety of murmurs, which sound like blowing, whistling or sloshing. Many of these are normal, but differentiating among them is a job for your veterinarian.
Just learning to take your horse’s heart rate — and knowing what’s a normal rate for him — can give your veterinarian valuable information and help him or her determine if a visit is in order or not.
Using a stethoscope to record breaths per minute isn’t necessary. It’s just as easy to do by watching the rise and fall of your horse’s rib cage. However, a stethoscope is an advantage for diagnosing “thumps,” the electrolyte abnormality caused by exercise that makes the horse’s heart beat at the same rate as his breathing.
With thumps, the diaphragm muscle attached to the last rib contracts forcibly with each breath, so that it looks like there is a spasm or strong twitch in the horse’s flank as he breathes. It’s simple to confirm this is thumps by listening to the heart rate while you watch the breathing and compare the rates.
While it takes experience to really know what’s going on in a chest from the sounds you hear, you’ll be able to differentiate between a normal and an abnormal chest with a little practice. In young and/or thin animals, soft breath sounds can be heard over most of the chest, easiest often at the lowest parts, around the level of the heart, about two-thirds of the way up, where the largest airways are located.
In an adult normal-weight horse or an overweight horse, it takes a sensitive stethoscope to hear anything when the horse is at rest. You’ll be able to hear the air moving though if you rest the stethoscope over the trachea/windpipe in the neck.
Lung sounds that are loud and harsh, as well as a variety of unusual sounds, including things like wheezing, crackling, popping, or “catches,” are abnormal.
Few things are more disconcerting than wondering if your horse is in an early stage of colic. A stethoscope can help you make that decision.
When your veterinarian listens to your horse’s belly, he or she may know which sounds suggest one type of colic or another. This distinction takes considerable training, but you can easily learn whether or not things sound reasonably normal or likely something is wrong.
The intestines normally make a host of odd sounds, including growls and rumbles. You may also hear some high-pitched sounds, like water dripping into a well and echoing, and mixing-type noises that build to a loud peak then fade away.
Intestinal sounds vary depending on when the horse ate, excitement, recent exercise, even how the horse is built and how fat he is. However, at rest, you should always hear intestinal sounds on both sides of the abdomen. The most clearly abnormal finding is when the gut is too quiet. That said, overly active sounds can indicate a disorder as well.
The more times you listen to an abdomen, the better you will be at recognizing normal. Listen to your horse at different times of day and different intervals after feeding. Even if you’re not sure, it’s another piece of information you can give your vet if your horse becomes colicky.