How many of you horse owners have a stethoscope in your bag of health tools? And those of you who do, how many know how to use it? How many of you have even tried to use it? Or know where to begin in learning how to use it? A stethoscope can be a very useful and effective diagnostic tool, in even the very farthest from medically trained hands. It helps, but you don’t have to be a doctor or a nurse to understand what you are hearing between those ear buds in your head from a stethoscope. Becoming adequate at using a stethoscope is a learned technique; and as with all learned processes, practice makes perfect.
The best time to learn how to use a stethoscope is as soon as you get it. Don’t wait until you need it to find that you don’t know the first thing about how to use it. To know what you are hearing when you are listening to your horse through a stethoscope, you must know what to expect to hear. You can read and study all you want to about steths, but all of that knowledge combined, won’t prepare you for what sounds normal, and what sounds abnormal about what you are hearing.
Before you can know what sounds wrong about your horse, you need to know what to expect right to sound like. And that takes time, and honing your listening skills. Don your new stethoscope as soon as you get it and go right out to your horse and start listening. Don’t wait until you think there might be something wrong with your horse to try out your stethoscope; you will only frustrate yourself.
Unless you are going to become a real expert with your stethoscope, the main reason you will likely want a steth, is to diagnose possible gut problems and potential colic. For sure gut sounds are the easiest of the internal sounds to hear and learn; making this a perfect place to start with your great stethoscope adventure. You can go on from here and learn heart sounds, lung and respiratory functions, and even fetal heart echoes.
There are two main types of stethoscopes available in the market place – at least two that you’d consider being able to afford. The others are designed for the most sophisticated of medical specialists.
There are single head and double head stethoscopes. Those are your two main choices. Both are affordable – the single head for less than ten dollars, and the double head less than twenty dollars.
The single head stethoscope will likely service most of your needs with your horse. The extra head on the double stethoscope is a more refined listening device, meant to pick up the subtler and more delicate sounds, like internal organs and fetal heart sounds. Most horse owners will be well served by a single head stethoscope, and learning to know the intestinal health of their horses.
So drape your stethoscope around your neck like the real medics do, and trot out to your horse lot and start listening to your horses digest their feed and forage. At least you won’t have to warm up the head of your stethoscope like your family doctor has to do.
Upper Intestinal Quadrant Lower Intestinal Quadrant
You will want to listen to both sides of your horse’s flanks. And you will want to listen at two major areas on each side of your horse, for a total of four sites. And what you will want to hear is lots of rumbling sounds; that will mean good gut action, and that is what you want to hear.
If your horse’s intestinal action is normal, you should be able to hear plenty happening in there. The more and the louder the noise the better: grain and hay are being processed properly if you can hear it. And you will want to be sure that you are able to hear those normal signs in all four quadrants of your horse: flank and lower rear belly area on both sides.
The main key to being able to diagnose if your horse might be in intestinal distress, colic, or going into possible colic, is to know what normal sounds like. If you know what normal sounds like, then you will know what abnormal sounds like. Abnormal sounds like anywhere from nothing, to next to nothing.
Know as well that abnormal can exist in any one or more of the four quadrants, while the remaining quadrants can sound normal. Normal digestion can exist on one side of your horse’s digestive system, while digestive distress is going on in the other side.
If you suspect that one of your horses might have colic, or be showing colic symptoms, listen to all four of his quadrants. If you are unsure of what you are listening to, as a stethoscope newbie, then pick out another one of your horses who appears to be behaving normally, and go and listen to that horse’s intestinal system on both sides – in all four spots.
Excessive Kicking At The Belly
After you have been able to hear what normal should sound like, then come back and listen to the horse who is acting suspiciously. If you haven’t had the time to train yourself to the stethoscope yet, then comparing normal to suspect should help you to discern what sort of situation you might have on your hands.
With the use of even a simple single head stethoscope you should be able to make a decision about whether you have a situation that requires emergency attention to possible colic distress; or, if you have determined that intestinal distress is not your situation, then you will know to look for other causes of your horse’s unusual behavior.
You can now determine if there is action you are prepared to take at home, or if you need to call your veterinarian to your barn, or transport your horse to the clinic. Make a stethoscope part of your emergency care equipment. Once you become familiar and comfortable with using your stethoscope for gut sounds, you can proceed to honing your skills at listening to other internal body sounds and functions.