It is very important for you to be familiar with the look and feel of your horse’s feet, both in health and illness.
Paired arteries run down the inside and outside of the fetlock and pastern to provide blood to the foot. In a healthy horse, you should only be able to feel a faint digital pulse, if any. In most healthy feet, a digital pulse is not palpable at all.
A healthy hoof should feel about the same temperature as the other hooves.
The existence of increased heat and/or a digital pulse in a horse’s feet is usually a sign of inflammation in that hoof caused by injury or illness. Horses with laminitis, sole bruises, hoof abscesses and many other injuries of the foot will likely have an increase in digital pulse in the affected feet.
Halter the horse. Stand near the limb you intend to assess, facing toward the rear of the horse.
Feeling for Heat: Start at the left front limb. Facing toward the back of the horse, run your hands down the limb to the hoof. Use the back of your hand to feel for heat, and feel the temperature all around the whole hoof wall and onto the hairline of the coronet band. Compare with the opposite forefoot and the hind feet.
Digital Pulse: Feel for a digital pulse at either the fetlock or the pastern. The vessels are paired; one runs down the inside (medial) and one down the outside (lateral) aspects of both the front and hind limb. Place your thumb on the outside and forefinger on the inside vessel bundle. Press into the vessels with these fingers until you feel a pulse. Compare with the opposite foot and hind feet.
Tips for safety & Success
It is easier to feel the pulse on horses with less hair, thinner skin and less underlying fat.
Always compare one foot to the other.
For an accurate reading, bring your horse indoors (out of direct sunlight) and do not perform this skill immediately after exercise. Heat is almost impossible to accurately assess when bright sun is shining down onto the feet. Both heat and pulse are made more obvious with exercise.
Also, in healthy horses their feet change temperature as blood is shunted back and forth. Keep this in mind as you are performing this skill.
I assess the strength of the digital pulse on a scale of 1 (barely detectible) to 5 (“bounding”, i.e. visible to the eye from several feet away). I often look for a correlation between heat and digital pulse, which commonly occur together.
I always try to use the backs of my fingers to assess temperature. I was told to do that early in my training. I am not sure why but that area seems to be more sensitive to temperature changes.