Monitor Your Horse’s Digital Pulse

You have probably heard about monitoring your horse’s digital pulse but are you confidant in how to find it? Do you know what your veterinarian is looking for when taking a digital pulse? This blog will give you the basic facts to help you understand and monitor your horse’s digital pulse.

The pulse is a pressure wave of blood moving through arteries at the rate of the heartbeat. In horses, the pulse can be taken under the jawline, at the mandibular artery, or in the lower limb at the palmar digital artery. You can also take the pulse by listening to the heart directly with a stethoscope.

Your horse’s digital pulse offers important clues to hoof health. How fast the heart beats is not the main information you are looking for with the digital pulse. Of course the heart rate is important, and in the resting horse a normal pulse is 30-40 beats per minute.

But when you take a digital pulse, the information you gather comes from how the pulse feels. In the simplest terms, digital pulse quality is described as normal or bounding. A normal digital pulse may be faint or even non-palpable. A bounding pulse will feel like the pressure wave is almost pushing against your fingers, as if the blood is trying to “bound” outward.

Hoof Health Blog on WDAA Western DressageYou can feel the digital pulse at the fetlock or pastern.

What does a bounding pulse mean?

A bounding digital pulse is an abnormal finding that could mean your horse has laminitis or an abscess in the foot. In these conditions, blood vessels inside the foot constrict. When the vessels get narrow, the blood meets resistance, and this causes the flow to push against the vessels walls. That is what creates the sense of bounce, or bounding, that you feel as you place your fingers against outside of the vessels.

Since every horse has a slightly different feel to the normal pulse, it is important that you know what your horse’s normal is. That way you will be able to detect small changes and track the development and resolution of a problem inside the foot.

One horse’s normal might be another horse’s “strong” pulse, which could be an early warning sign before it becomes bounding.

It is essential that you understand that the pulse, by itself, is not diagnostic! Your veterinarian gathers multiple sources of information to diagnose disease. If your horse has a bounding digital pulse and no other signs of discomfort or illness, it may be a transient change that does not amount to a problem. On the other hand if you monitor your horse’s pulse every day, and suddenly one day it feels abnormal, you should keep a close eye out for other signs of a problem that may develop.

Also note that a normal pulse does not guarantee everything is fine inside the foot! Some horses can have laminitis without having palpable changes to the pulse.

The pulse won’t tell you all you need to know about foot health, but it is one important factor. Knowing your horse’s normal will make you a better caretaker of your horse’s health.

So, how do you find it?

The quick answer is the digital pulse is taken at sides of the pastern. But finding it is not always easy. These anatomy photos will help you understand the path of the palmar digital arteries. They run along the same path as the nerves, which I have discussed in previous blogs as locations of acupuncture points.

You may need to try different locations to find where your horse’s digital arteries are most palpable. You can feel the pulse on the medial or lateral side.

hoof health blog Western Dressage

Photo Credit – Paige Poss of Anatomy of the Equine, LLC

This anatomy specimen of a horse’s distal limb is marked with dots at the acupuncture points around the coronet and along the path of the palmar digital vessels and nerves. The blue star is probably the most common place for taking the digital pulse. But you can find it anyway long a line connecting the blue dots.

In this dissected specimen, the skin has been removed to reveal the neurovascular bundle (that just means nerves and vessels that run alongside each other). The blue star and the yellow dots mark acupuncture points along the palmar aspect of the limb, behind the suspensory ligament. The digital pulse can be felt anywhere along this path.

In this palmar view (taken from behind the limb) you can see the vessels on the medial and lateral sides. If you cup your hand around the pastern with your thumb on one side and fingers on the other, you can palpate medial and lateral vessels simultaneously. But careful to distinguish the horse’s pulse from your own which you may feel more strongly in your thumb. Some practitioners prefer to use the fingers of both hands at once to palpate medial and lateral sides together.


Copyright © 2012 ~ Dr. Lisa Lancaster DVM, WDAA Blog Author

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