Temperature, Pulse and Respiration in Conditioning

The Importance of Temperature, Pulse and Respiration in Conditioning

Temperature, pulse and respiration (TPR) is not a separate system of getting a horse fit, but is used with the traditional method to provide indisputable evidence of just how fit a horse is. Knowledge of the horse's normal rates helps us to know when he is sickening for something before more obvious symptoms appear. If he has an "off day" not wanting his food, is sluggish or uncooperative; check his pulse, count his respiration and take his temperature.

If we know a horse's normal rates, it is a simple matter to check them after exertion and note how long recovery takes. It is the recovery rate which is the really important factor. The average normal rates of a healthy horse at rest are: Temperature 100 to 101 degrees Fahrenheit, Pulse: 36 to 44 beats per minute, Respiration: usually 1/4 of the pulse rate or a 4 to 1 ratio, i.e. P = 40; R = 10. After hard work this ratio will narrow to 2 to 1. Normally at rest 10 to 15 breaths per minute. Probably after conditioning, your horse's rates will be lower than before, both at rest and during work.

Taking the readings is not difficult. Taking temperature first, the best type of thermometer is a veterinary one with a short, flat bulb. Always use the same one as they can vary slightly. Shake the mercury well down below the scale and wet or grease the tip. Stand near the horse's hip, not behind him. Draw his dock towards you, and insert the thermometer gently but decisively, screwing it slightly from side to side if necessary. Tilt it slightly so that it is against the side of the rectum. Leave it in for twice the time stated. Most horses are not used to this and may show their dislike in several ways. The majority, however, simply swing their quarters a bit and try to clamp down their trails. Do not let go of the thermometer and push it in as far as it will go leaving just enough to hold securely. (Tying a string on the end of the thermometer is a good idea). A good way to discourage a horse from clamping down his tail is to scratch him lightly under the dock.

Taking pulse and respiration is not nearly so adventurous. The pulse can be taken in several places where a main artery passes over a bone; along the lower line of the jawbone, inside the foreleg just below the elbow, just above and behind the eye, in the canter of the chest and in the groove along the side of the dock. To find a pulse, place the finger tips together and feel carefully around. Wait awhile in one place as it is easy to miss one or two beats.

The respiration is best taken standing behind and a little to one side of the horse and watching the movement of the flanks. In a fit horse at rest you may have to use a mirror held up to his nostrils. Readings may be unreliable at first, until the horse gets used to the strange goings on. Take the readings at various times of day and in different circumstances, several times for each set of conditions, so you know what they should be at almost any time after a few weeks. Most important, though, is that you can check how quickly he recovers from exertion and so how fit he really is.

During work, the temperature and pulse of a fit horse soon rises to some normal working rate and stays there till he becomes tired, when they rise more. In an unfit horse, they again start rising soon, but keep on rising. By avoiding overtaxing a horse, you save much condition for future exertions, either immediately following or in the near future.

An example of a normal rate: T = 100, P = 40 and R = 10. When working try and keep them below the following individual maxima. T not more than 103, P up to about 170 and R up to about 60. As stated earlier, it is the recovery rate which is really significant. Pulse and respiration should show noticeable recovery within 10 minutes, and in a really fit horse you might even notice them slowing down while you are taking them. In a fit animal they should go down by one third in an hour and the temperature should return to within half a degree of normal.

To discover a horse's working rates and rise and fall pattern, it is obviously necessary to check them while out training. You may not have to much time to check recovery rates during a competition, however, you will know from his readings during training and after past competitions how fit he is, and to what rates he recovers in 10 minutes, when fit and unfit. It is easy to take a pulse reading while standing at the head of your horse during a break in a competition. Keeping a careful check on his rates at the end of the day, particularly during the first couple of hours after he finishes, will tell you plainly whether you have a fit horse or not.

Signs of Stress
Footfall uncoordinated with breathing from trot upwards is a sign of stress. Firm massage in the direction of the heart encourages the circulation along and helps lower a high pulse rate. Muscular areas like quarters, shoulders, forearms and thighs are the places to do it. Bringing down the temperature is more tricky, however, provided the horse is not ill, the temperature will come down of its own accord once the pulse and respiration are recovering satisfactorily.

Subnormal readings are as dangerous as excessively high ones being an indication of extreme fatigue and shock, and a vet should be called. Some danger symptoms indicating shock or exhaustion are: Subnormal or very high TPR rates showing little recovery of worsening within 30 to 60 minutes; Irregular or weak pulse; Thumping heart beat which can be seen/heard externally; Violent heaving respiration with marked contraction of the abdominal muscles which does not improve within 10 minutes; Pulse lower than respiration; Stiffness in the quarters; Stumbling or dragging feet, not wanting to move; no appetite, thirst or interest in surroundings.

With proper care and training and particularly with the assistance of TPR, it should never be necessary to push or allow a horse near the danger points described above. This system has proved fascinating and helpful to me, and certainly given me some eye openers, and I am sure it would be invaluable to anyone dealing with hard working horses. I wish more publicity could be given to this system and so fill what seems to me to be quite a gap in our knowledge of horse management.

Mrs. Jane Lee
The Corinthian, March 1972

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