Mental Checklist

Or, Erring on the Side of Caution

I am in no way a vet or vet tech, but I have been around horses long enough to have a mental checklist of things to go through when something is amiss with a horse. I learned all these different things from other horsemen, vets, barn managers, fellow owners, reading, personal experience … knowledge built up over 30+ years around horses, but it’s knowledge that just as easily could be learned in a week if you know your horse and what to look for, and record his normal vitals for comparison. I can use something from this week as an example–but please, this is not professional advice. If something is wrong with your horse, just call the vet! There is a nice interactive checklist on The Horse ( website, but you have to create a free account to access it. Do not try to diagnose anything based on this list–it’s a representation of my rational brain’s thought process while evaluating my horse’s condition, and nothing more than that.

On Wednesday evening, Eli’s respiration was mildly elevated for no apparent reason that I could figure out. I pulled him out of his stall and as I started grooming him, I noticed his breathing was slightly heavier than normal, although his breaths were even. He was otherwise himself–he seemed bright, interested in treats, nipping at me as he usually does. I offered him a drink and he drank. I started checking everything–I walked him outside to see if he was interested in grazing–that would be YES; I walked him up to the arena to catch a breeze and see how he behaved up there–interestingly, his breathing moderated just a little while outside the barn.

I started really going over everything I could think of–this is that list.

Know your horse’s normal respiration, or at least what normal respiration is for any horse generally. Eli’s was visibly above normal on Wednesday evening, but not labored, wheezy, or uneven.

Heart rate
Check a horse’s heart rate with a stethoscope on the left side at the girth near the elbow. Admittedly, I suck at this, and have trouble hearing anything with a stethoscope. My best guess based on what I could hear was that Eli’s heart rate was normal. It certainly wasn’t pounding in his chest like it does when he sees cows.

Guess where you get to take a horse’s temperature? And guess who is a brat about that? You take a horse’s temperature via the rectum. Baby or toddler flexible digital thermometers that have been lubed with Vaseline or baby oil are a good bet. I took Eli’s temperature with a SpongeBob thermometer. I’m sure you needed to know that. He repeatedly tried to kick me at first, but got over himself. His temperature was 101.2F–definitely at the high end of the spectrum for what is normal, however, it was 95F degrees out and Eli runs a little hot normally. I did not consider his temperature to be abnormal for him. If your horse is amenable, you might take it a few times as you watch over your horse over the course of a few hours. I like my kneecaps where they are, so I only took Eli’s temperature once.

Gums & mouth & jaw
What do your horse’s gums look like? Light pink, moist? That’s a good sign. If they look pale, or dark, or really red, I’d say get someone else’s opinion. And probably call the vet (you may get sick of me saying “call the vet” by the time you get to the end of this post). What else is going on in your horse’s mouth? I tried to check Eli’s tongue, too, but he’s a bit silly about that. He easily lets me check his gums, and they were indeed, thankfully, light pink and moist. There is also something called a capillary refill test, where you press the gums with your thumb-tip to see how quickly they regain color–if not within a few seconds, again, get someone to take a look and maybe call the vet. Check for any swelling around the face and jaw, which could indicate a few different problems, like an abscessed tooth or worse. Eli didn’t have any.

Eyes/expression/ tension in muzzle or around nostrils
This is an instance of things getting a little subjective. Know what your horse’s face looks like on a normal day, so you have something to compare a not-normal expression to. Check his eyes. Bright and clear is good. Eli’s were just that. Now some horses naturally seem to hold a little tension in their mouths, and before I owned Eli, he had such an expression all the time. But his new normal is very relaxed, very bright, very curious. Nothing in his expression Wednesday evening indicated discomfort or stress to me. Even though he was breathing a bit more heavily than usual, he didn’t have any tension in his nostrils, and not much nasal discharge at all, and what was there was clear.

Gut sounds
You want to hear them. If you don’t, this is not a good sign. A healthy horse gut makes noises. Eli had good gut sounds all around, and he was still munching on hay when I pulled him out of his stall so I expected to hear normal digestive gurglings and did. Phew.

Any new bites, cuts, scrapes
Oh, that festering, pus-weeping, swollen scrape on Trigger’s stifle? Yeah, that might be an issue if left unaddressed. Eli had maybe a few fly bites (the struggle) and no new cuts anywhere, but a few old, quiet, healing ones. Nothing jumped out at me.

Check coat condition for bumps, hives, or unusual dullness
Hives are pretty much an indication of an allergic reaction, as far as I know. If your horse has never had hives before and does, consult with your vet. I had a horse that occasionally got hives, and the course of treatment was medicated baths and steroids tapered off over the course of a week. Big random bumps–well, where is it and what’s around it? Maybe it’s girth gall, maybe it’s a localized reaction to a bug bite. Maybe it’s some new fun injury. Eli had neither hives nor random bumps, and his coat was shiny as ever. A dull coat could mean a variety of things, but if your horse usually looks like a shiny new copper penny and suddenly looks like a dried out, desiccated toad, take that coat condition into consideration, in the context of his vital signs and other factors (like maybe you just don’t curry him enough).

Pinch test to check for hydration
Dehydration in horses is bad (as in any mammal). You can pinch up the skin on your horse’s neck where it ties in to his shoulder. If it doesn’t bounce back down right away, but stays pinched up, it’s time to hydrate.

Check legs and hooves for heat or swelling
Eli had nothing out of the ordinary along these lines. Heat and swelling could be indicative of a variety of things–get a second opinion, palpate, use hoof testers… narrow it down to what you can, with the help of a professional if you need it. X-rays or an ultrasound might be called for (oh, hey, call the vet!).

Is he unusually sweaty? Is he not sweaty at all, but normally you would expect him to be at least a little if it’s hot out?
Profuse sweating can be a sign of distress in horses if it’s not a result of regular exercise in warm conditions. No sweating when you would expect it is anhidrosis, which ultimately requires veterinary intervention, as there are courses of treatment and precautions you can take to keep your anhidrotic horse safe–anhidrosis is very serious, especially in hot climates. Eli wasn’t sweaty, nor do I think he should have been—it was hot, but there was a breeze and he has a high powered fan in his stall. And I have owned an anhidrotic horse in the past, so I keep a pretty close eye on Eli’s ability to sweat. I think for now, I can rule that out.

Check the stall for anything different
This goes for those horses that live in stalls, and mine does. Does it look like he hasn’t pooped recently, or been pawing, or rolling, or laying down at a weird time of day for him? Does his poop look weird, or did he poop in a weird place? I’ll come back to Eli’s poop later in this post. When I first checked his stall, his poop was where he normally poops and it looked like it normally does, he had eaten his dinner and was still munching on hay, and I couldn’t find anything amiss–anything from a brown recluse nest to an errant nail–so all clear there. His automatic waterer was functioning properly.

Has the horse finished his meals/is finishing his meal with normal appetite? Is he drinking water/interested in drinking water? Is he interested in grazing or treats?
When I offered Eli water, he drank some. He inhaled treats like he was starving. When I took him to graze, he dragged me around like the ravenous little grass vacuum that he is. Mostly ruling out a tummy-ache at this point. My sense is that because he doesn’t have a fever and is eating well, it’s probably not a cold or other kind of infection, either, but I would want a vet to confirm that for sure.

Does he seem like himself?
Eli’s personality was in full effect Wednesday evening. This is a very subjective standard, and I can’t really tell you what to look for. Just know your horse, and know your horse’s normal. Keep bubble wrap, duct tape, and wine on hand just in case.

Are other horses acting similarly?
This is sort of tricky, because you may not know the other horses in your barn very well, but if you have a handful of symptomatic horses, ask yourself what the common denominator could be. A situation like this would call for altering the barn manager or other professional on site and probably, you guessed it, consulting with a vet. I have been at my barn for a while, and know many of the horses there. Everybody was just doing what they do.

Once you’ve answered all these questions, you’ll be better prepared to communicate with the vet about what’s going on with your horse. In Eli’s case, I called the vet to consult over the phone after hours (love my vet!). I was able to give him Eli’s vitals and describe his breathing. My vet had actually been seeing similar things lately in other horses, respiratory issues possibly related to allergies. Change of season can trigger random stuff like this in horses, I guess. The vet was already scheduled to visit the barn the next day, so I asked him to look at Eli then. I kept a watch on Eli for another hour or so, to monitor if any additional symptoms developed. I hand walked him for part of that time, and while hand walking his respiration stayed a bit high, but when I let him stand in a cross-tie in front of a fan, it seemed to start to even out. I let him back in his stall, where he got back to work on his hay. I stayed until he pooped again, and inspected his poop.

What do I mean when I say “inspected his poop”? I am visually inspecting–for color, consistency, moisture. I even picked up a poop apple to double-check the moisture content. Yes, I touched my horse’s poop. Erring on the side of caution, yes? Ultimately, Eli’s poop was completely normal poop, both for him and generally. Satisfied with Eli’s condition, I left for the evening. Right after I washed my hands.

The vet saw Eli on Thursday and gave him a clean bill of health; Eli’s respiration was normal, but the vet put him on some medication for two weeks as a precaution, and cleared him to ride as we normally would. He mentioned that sometimes in the evenings the allergens can be more bothersome. Nobody needed to tell me twice to keep an eye on Eli for any changes.

Thursday evening, I took Eli out for a light ride, and he did not put a foot wrong, and he breathed in a completely uninteresting and pedestrian way. Everything as it should be.


In some ways, my impetus for writing out this post was simply to get it down “on paper” to get a feel for whether or not I acted appropriately. I know that many readers of this blog will find nothing they didn’t already know in this post. I’m not trying to be didactic–I’m really just using writing to organize myself and my approach to horse care a bit better. And now that I’ve written it out, it really is a lot of information to remember. Oddly, one of the things this post makes me think of is that I have no idea if there is a way to monitor your horse’s blood pressure at home. Y’all know anything about that? And did I miss anything y’all do when evaluating your horse’s condition?





10 thoughts on “Mental Checklist

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  1. Val actually came out the same way last week. I think maybe Thursday? Totally normal, but when we walked out of the barn I noticed his nostrils were slightly flared and he was puffing the tiniest bit. He’s also had a bit of a runny nose off and on the past few weeks so I’m sure it was allergies. I went ahead and rode because he was otherwise totally normal and kept warm up slow just in case. Haven’t seen it since.


  2. great checklist. i think it’s funny how sometimes we just *know* something is wrong with our horses, even when they appear outwardly fine. when we had the flu outbreak last spring one young rider started getting super worried about her leased pony. we thought she was just being panicky (ya know, like a 12yr old might do) but nope, she was right, the pony was sick too.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. It’s funny bc B actually was coming out of his paddock breathing HARD for a bit this summer. I of course did the mental rundown and then freaked out and thought I would have to get him scoped. Pretty sure it was allergies, because it went away when we moved to night turnout. Hey, being thorough and freaked out is better than the alternative! Glad Eli is ok and know you’re not alone in being an uber concerned horse owner.

    Liked by 1 person

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