The Whole Horse Exam™ (WHE) is a collection of skills (organized as a system) that any horse person should be able to perform on a horse. The WHE includes basic vital signs and other important skills, but also includes an assessment of the horse’s attitude and environment.
When you want to generally assess the state of a horse’s health, simply perform this exam. By practicing the WHE on horses when they are in health, you will be better equipped to confidently perform the WHE when you suspect that a horse has a problem.
In addition, by sharing your findings with a vet, you will assist them in determining the nature and severity of any problem or illness. This exam is also ideal for assessing horses that are undergoing treatment or recovering from illness.
The WHE includes assessment of a horse’s general attitude and demeanor, temperature, pulse rate and quality, respiratory rate, gum (mucous membrane) color and capillary refill time, skin pinch assessment for hydration, assessment for heat and digital pulse in feet, and intestinal sounds.
Part of this exam involves touching the horse as much you can, especially the areas you don’t evaluate normally, such as the belly and under their mane. In addition, a simple evaluation of the horse in movement at the walk is very helpful to catch stiffness and lameness. The Whole Horse Exam (WHE) should become as natural to you as catching, tying or riding a horse.
To perform the Whole Horse Exam, start by standing quietly and watching the horse from a distance, for demeanor, attitude, and appetite. Approach, establish communication with, and halter the horse. Study his interaction with you and whether it is normal or not.
Stand in front of the horse, and compare right and left sides of the face, the eyes and the legs. Look for swellings and assess for symmetry of the legs, left to right. Then stand on the horse’s left side. From here you can consider conformation, body condition, muscling, skin, mane, tail and coat. And pay particular attention to the legs. Now stand behind the horse. Again, consider conformation and symmetry, from the pelvis to the feet. Move to the right side, and assess as you did the left.
Move back to the horse’s left shoulder. Now, keeping contact with the horse, move down his left side and insert the thermometer. Return to the head. Check gum color, capillary refill time and pulse quality and rate. Pinch the skin on the left shoulder to assess hydration.
Put on your stethoscope, listen to the heart, and take the heart rate. From here, you can see the movement of the abdomen as the horse breathes, allowing you to get a respiratory rate. Move to the rear and listen to the two left quadrants of the abdomen. Move around the back of the horse and listen to the two right quadrants of the abdomen. Take the stethoscope out of your ears and move back to the horse’s left shoulder.
Now slide your hands down over the left front limb to the hoof, feeling for swelling, pain, digital pulse and heat. Pick the foot up and inspect the sole and assess the balance of the hoof. Put the foot down.
Now touch as much of the horse as you can as you move back.
Run your hand down the left hind limb to the left hind foot, feeling and looking at the hind limb as you did the front.
Now repeat this for the right hind, and the right front limbs.
Finally, lead the horse forward a few steps and ask him to walk small circles to both left and right. Does the horse move fluidly and without hesitation, or do you notice stiffness or lameness?
Now remove the thermometer and read the rectal temperature.
Record your findings on the Whole Horse Exam Form, available as a downloadable PDF document that is attached to this record in the Outside Resources section.
Tips for safety & Success
This record summarizes the performance of multiple skills together. For more information and guidance on performing a specific skill, click on that related skill below.
Download and print copies of the WHOLE HORSE EXAM FORM to keep in your barn for later use. This form can be found attached to this record as an Outside Resource.
I use a mercury thermometer because it can be inserted and clipped to the tail (string and alligator clip attached) while the rest of the exam is completed. But you can adapt this to the use of a digital thermometer, which many people prefer.
Once you have practiced the WHE a few times, it should take only 2-3 minutes and it provides a wealth of information that you can share with your vet.
It is nice to have a helper hold your horse, but you can easily teach a horse to allow you to perform this exam without any help. Always keep contact with your horse as you move around them, and use excellent horsemanship. This is one more opportunity to build trust in your relationship with your horse.
Helpful Outside ResourcesCredible Equine Health Information on the Internet