During one of the Summer Camp "inside lessons" I asked the group of medium-size girls "What do horses normally do all day?" The lesson was on how to tell if your horse is sick. Generally, if your horse is not doing any one of the normal things, it could be ill.
"Breathe!" was the first response.
"That's true," I replied, "but usually if your horse isn't breathing, it's not because he's sick. It's because he's dead. But good thinking!"
The answers began to come forth as the girls pictured their camp horses' daily routines.
"Poop!" Actually, what was said was "Use the restroom!", which isn't semantically correct. So the next camper chimed in with the updated version. Then the last one, catching on to the path we were headed on called out, "Pee!"
Yes, little grasshoppers, these are all correct.
An ill horse, or injured horse, is most likely going to refrain from normal, every day, horsey activities. It does help to know your horse well. At my barn, Gigi does not like to eat her breakfast grain. Raffles doesn't want to eat hay. Imy never drinks water in his stall. Rocket drools all over everything. Abbie uses her paddock like a home gym. Henry takes several naps every day. What is normal for these horses, may not be normal for any other horse.
Just recently, one of the horses went from drinking one tub of water over the course of 3 days, to drinking 4-5 tub-fulls in one day. After hundreds of dollars in blood and urine tests and multiple vet visits, still no one knows why. She is completely, perfectly healthy and happy otherwise. Weeks later, she is still drinking about 5 times the amount of water she usually drinks. Her electrolytes, organ functions, proteins and enzymes are all textbook. She isn't sweating more than normal, she isn't eating her salt block, her food and work load have not changed, her turnout is the same. Absolutely nothing has been found amiss, other than the water consumption. The answer may be revealed weeks from now, or she may return to normal water consumption as spontaneously as she deviated.
In case you are wondering, yes, I did check to see if her tub was leaking.
The point is, it helps to know your own particular horse's habits to know if anything has changed. The point also is, sometimes horses do weird things for no discernible reason.
If something seems askew, before calling the vet, take a moment to record current vital signs. The vet is going to ask for them and if you haven't checked, you will feel very silly.
Vital signs include, body temperature, pulse, respiratory rate, capillary refill time and in the case of possible colic, gut sounds. It is handy to have a chart with the normal values printed on it and either displayed in a prominent place or kept with the medical kit because in a time of emergency not everyone can be clear headed enough to recall all the correct numbers.
For some of us, recalling numbers is difficult even at the best of times.
In order to determine vital signs you need a thermometer (and a little Vaseline or lube), a watch, and a stethoscope. If available, a pen and paper to record numbers, and a second person to hold a horse or tell time is nice too.
Keeping a horse still long enough to determine respiratory rate and pulse can be a challenge. It's easiest to time them for 15 seconds then multiply by 4 to get a per minute number. It may be helpful to have a calculator on hand to do this.
For some of us, doing math is difficult even at the best of times.
Knowing your horse, knowing what is normal for normal horses, and knowing the vet's telephone number are resources you will need to properly care for a horse. Even if something is normal for your horse, it could still indicate a problem. Just because a horse always coughs when he eats, or usually has runny manure does not mean it's okay. There could be a reason for it that can be remedied.
If something does seem wrong, observe, record, and call the vet.
Oh yeah - and breathe.