checking your horse's digital pulses

A bounding pulse in your horse’s digital artery can be a warning sign of pain or inflammation in the hoof. Learn how to find and assess his digital pulses.

Your horse is lame or unwell. You call your farrier or vet, and one of the questions he asks is, “How are the digital pulses?” Do you know the answer? Assessing your horse’s digital pulses is not a difficult skill, but it can be confusing because you will hear all kinds of ways to check and measure them. In addition, if digital pulses are normal, they can be hard to find! In other words, you may not be missing anything. However, being able to monitor your horse’s digital pulses – and knowing what is normal and abnormal – is an important health care and management tool that can provide valuable insight in the face of lameness or other health concerns.

What do digital pulses tell us?

Digital pulses are a reflection of the blood flow to the hooves. If all is well, the pulses can be a bit difficult to detect. But if there is any inflammation in the hoof, or a backup of blood because of inflammation, the pulses will feel unusually strong because it’s harder for the blood to pass into the blood vessels below. These strong pulses are said to be “bounding”. This doesn’t mean an increase in pulse rate, but in the strength of the pulsations you feel.

Generally, an increased pulse in one hoof can indicate a localized problem, like an abscess or a bruise in response to an injury. It may accompany lameness or tenderness. The horse may stand with little weight on the affected limb. The hoof wall may feel warm.

If you find stronger or bounding pulses in two or four hooves, laminitis is a possibility. In fact, bounding digital pulses and hoof pain are often the first signs of laminitis. The horse may shift his weight from foot to foot, or lie down more than normal. He may have a fever, though he may not. He may have a history of exposure to rich grass or other dietary stimulant.

How to check your horse’s digital pulses

Digital pulses can be felt on the lower leg of your horse in the fetlock and pastern area. The pulse comes from the blood flowing through the artery to the hoof. The artery will pulse with each beat of your horse’s heart. There are four places you can check the digital pulse in your horse’s lower leg. If you know the anatomy of the lower leg, it helps. But let’s try to make it simple.

1. Above the fetlock

There are two easy-to-find grooves in each lower limb above the fetlock joint. The first is between the cannon bone and the suspensory ligament. The second lies between the suspensory ligament and the flexor tendons, which run down the back of the lower leg.

The vein, artery and nerve run together in the space between the suspensory ligament and the flexor tendons (the second groove). So if you find the big “chord” in the middle of the two grooves (i.e. the suspensory ligament), slide your fingers toward the tail of the horse and you should find the artery.

2. Towards the back of the fetlock

Once the vein, artery and nerve pass through this area, they next move down over the back of the fetlock joint into the pastern area. As the digital artery crosses over the back and towards the side of the fetlock, you may also be able to feel the pulse at the bulge of the fetlock joint. At this point, the branches of the digital artery are close to the surface and may be easy to feel.

3. Upper pastern

Once in the pastern area, you will see and feel the extensor branches of the suspensory ligament reach from either side the fetlock down towards the front of the hoof, on a diagonal. The vein, artery and nerve travel in the groove behind these firm ligament structures, representing the third possible area where you can feel the digital pulse.

4. Mid pastern  

Finally, you may be able to feel the pulse about three finger widths above the coronary band, just below the suspensory ligament hollow of the pastern area.

A good time to find out where you can most easily feel your horse’ digital pulses is when he is well and having no issues. Try all four locations. Don’t be worried if you have trouble finding the pulse. As noted, pulses that are normal are more difficult to find. When feeling for the pulse, try different pressures. If you press too lightly you may not be able to detect a pulse. With too much pressure, you may restrict the blood flow and therefore the pulse.

To assess your horse, be sure to check the digital pulse on each leg. This will allow you to notice any differences between limbs, which could indicate a potential issue or at least something to keep an eye on. This is why it is important to check your horse’s digital pulses when he is well, so you will know what the normal pulse in your horse feels like. Keep in mind that some variation is normal. I recommend checking during grooming or when you pick your horse’s feet out.

digital pulses

Digital pulses in a nutshell

  • Practice taking digital pulses on all four legs of your horse when he is well and offering no signs of illness or lameness.
  • Experiment with the four locations described in the article to see which works best for you.
  • If your horse exhibits lameness to a degree that causes you concern, call your vet.
  • An unusually strong digital pulse in one leg may indicate an abscess or bruise.
  • An unusually strong digital pulse in multiple legs may indicate early laminitis; prompt treatment can improve your horse’s prognosis.

The whole picture

You can think of your horse’s digital pulses as a piece of a bigger picture. Before reacting to strong or bounding digital pulses, it is important to consider his condition as a whole. Does he appear ill, lame or in distress? How is he standing? Is there any history of injury? Does he have a fever? Are there any obvious signs of trauma? These are important things to report when you call your vet or farrier. If the only thing you notice is a stronger pulse, it’s most likely a normal variation due to exercise, hot weather, or some other factor.