In which Endurance 101 examines the veterinary card

The vet check – what the vets are looking at (and why)
In equine endurance events, the welfare of the horse is paramount.  The welfare of the horse is more important that milage points, it's more important than the rider's dignity, and it is w-a-a-a-a-a-y more important than the t-shirt completion prize for an event.

The official motto of the sport, “To Finish is to Win,” demonstrates the high priority of horse health:  it is possible for a horse and rider team to travel the entire distance of an event without "finishing the ride" or "receiving a completion.” In order to "finish" or "complete", the horse must pass all of the veterinary checkpoints, including the check at the finish line.  Finish line criteria are the same as criteria at other points during the ride:  the horse must not only be sound and metabolically stable, s/he must, in the opinion of the veterinarian, be “fit to continue”.  In other words, the horse must be physically able to leave camp and do another loop.  Yes,  even at the finish line!

Knowing this, endurance competitors work with veterinarians to take the best possible care of their mounts before, during, and after the competition.  The priority of veterinarians at each ride is to ensure the health and well-being of the horses. 

A rider may sometimes view the vets as adversaries to be outwitted and out-maneuvered, but this is incorrect; rather, vets try to assist riders in their attempts to complete their events, as long as the health of the horse is not endangered.  An examining vet may ask another vet for an opinion; however, the head vet has absolute authority to pull a horse from competition. 

Newcomers to the sport may be confused by the health parameters judged by vets during a check; without knowing the reasons for the specific pokes and pulls at the horse’s skin, it’s possible to think that the vet gives a horse a random set of scores, or that vets will favor a known rider over a newcomer.  However, the vet card is designed so that vets can create a view of the competing horse that is as complete and objective as possible considering that the vets hired to work at endurance events are, for the most part, entirely human.

The scorecard used by AERC vets has changed a little over time; the card in the attached illustrations is an older version, but the same basic parameters are still in use.  The exam card is formatted so that a veterinarian can complete it as thoroughly, yet efficiently, as possible. 

The examination begins on the left side front of a horse, works methodically back to the tail, and then changes to the right side rear, working forward to the mouth of the animal.  The parameters are graded A (superior), B (acceptable), C (cause for concern), D (unacceptable and cause for elimination).

Vet card front- the exam prior to the ride and at the finish line
are recorded here.
You can (and should) practice this exam on your horse at home!

This is something that all horse owners can practice, even if they never intend to attend an endurance ride:  knowing what "normal" looks like on your horse allows you to more clearly identify "abnormal" if it ever occurs.  Descriptions of each type of poke are included in this post so that you can practice at home!
Health parameters are recorded on the back side of the card
during the event.
Pulse is measured by listening to the heartrate using a stethoscope in the “armpit” region behind the left front leg.  A pulse higher than the pre-determined criteria (usually 60 or 64 beats per minute) is cause for concern as well as a reason that horses are eliminated from competition.  A very high heartrate can indicate that the horse is in metabolic distress, pain, or both. 

·        The function of the heart is to move blood through the body in order to nourish and cool it.  If the horse is overheated, the heart pumps faster in order to provide additional cooling.  You can help a hot horse to cool down by applying water to his skin.  Use a sponge, scoop or bucket to apply water to the horse’s neck, chest, and belly (Practice this at home!  Belly-water tickles!).  Immediately scrape off the water with a scraping blade, or the flat of your hand—it may feel astonishingly HOT!  If it does, put more water on the horse and scrape it off again.  Repeat this until the scraped water does not feel hot. 

·        Contrary to old wives’ tales, dumping cold water on a horse’s hind end will not automatically cause the muscles to cramp—but it may make him try to kick you into next Thursday!  If extra cooling of these large muscles is desired, apply the water with a sponge and scrape it off immediately.

·        The horse’s heart will work harder (and pump faster) if he is dehydrated, because his blood will be thicker.  This is the difference between sloshing cherry Kool-Aid and sloshing ketchup:  the Kool-Aid has a higher water content and is much easier to move around.  Offer your horse water as often as possible during the event in order to keep him hydrated.  His heart will have a much easier task, and he will be less fatigued as a result.  For an amazingly coherent explanation of this process, read the “hydration” article written by Susan Garlinghouse,  available online here:  

The next set of criteria roughly measures the horse’s level of hydration. 

Mucus membrane/capillary refill: Press a finger lightly to the horse’s gum just above an upper tooth, and time the return to normal (pink) color.  Ideally the delay is 1-2 seconds.  Refill time past 2 seconds often means that the horse is somewhat dehydrated, as do dry or tacky mucus membranes. 

Jugular refill:  Briefly block the jugular vein with a finger or thumb; refill time of 2 or 3 seconds is normal and adequate.  A horse with a very low resting heartrate (below 32 bpm) may give the impression of a delayed jugular refill time.

Skin tenting: Pinch a fold of skin at the point of the shoulder.  If the skin doesn’t flatten out rapidly, it can indicate dehydration, although this measurement is also influenced by elasticity of the skin and fat content.  This test doesn’t work very well on humans, incidentally—by the time skin tenting is observable on a person, the person is in dire distress.  The mucus membrane test is more accurate for humans, but is customarily performed only between friends.

Gut Sounds:  When a horse is working hard, blood supply is diverted from the gut to the muscles. This is normal; however, prolonged diversion can lead to decreased gut motility, partial or even complete blockage of the intestines, which are, in layman’s terms, Bad Things.  Listen to gut sounds with a stethoscope in the four quadrants of the horse’s abdomen on each side of the barrel.  A normally functioning gut sounds like a washing machine, with lots of liquid churning noises.   Low gut sounds by themselves are not automatically cause for concern; however, if the gut sounds are low and the horse is disinterested in food, water, and his surroundings, it may indicate a stage of colic.  Want to know more?  Treat yourself to a second article by Susan Garlinghouse:

Muscle tone: Gently test the firmness of the triceps, butt cheeks, and hams.  Don’t poke or pinch, unless you have significantly better medical coverage than mine.  The muscles should feel firm but not hard.  Flinching away from this touch indicates muscle soreness or injury.

Anal tone: Lift the tail, evaluating tail muscles and sphincter tone.  Firm is good, floppy is not so good.

The final portion of the exam (which is sometimes performed first, depending on the preference of the examining vet), is the trot-out.  For this exercise, the horse is moved straight out-and-back at sufficient distance to observe the symmetry and soundness of the gait and quality of the movement.  If the horse is an easy-gaited horse, the same parameters of symmetry and soundness are used as the horse moves out at a running walk, tolt, foxtrot, waltz or electric slide. 

The horse may also be asked to trot in a circle each direction, so that consistency of gait can be seen.

NOTE: If you haven’t taught your horse to trot out before the event, he won’t know how to do it for the vet.  Practice at home! 

If you don’t know how to teach the trot-out, fear not:  “Teaching the Trot-Out” is the subject of the next Endurance 101 post!  


  1. Another good one.

    Anyone who thinks the vets are there to be outwitted doesn't belong in the sport. Getting pulled sucks, but having your horse on fluids would suck way worse.

    I thought the trot-out article by the vet in EN earlier this year was fabulous. I send all my read ENs to my mom, so I can't lay hands on it, but it was the one where they talked about how they're looking at the shoulders and hips, not the leg movements. Maybe everybody else already knew that, but it was news to me! :)

  2. You can pinch the skin on knuckles on humans to test hydration levels. It works best if you use it to test your own personal hydration levels, as everyone's skin has a different elasticity and knuckle-skin-pinching only works if you have a baseline for how it SHOULD be.

    I know this because when I get around horses I get really happy and distracted and forget to drink water. Since my horse fix is in Bakersfield, and I usually visit in summer, this tends to be a bad thing and I don't notice I'm dehydrated until the world "goes funny" and nothing makes sense--- and I pinch my knuckle skin and it stays up until I push it back down.

    Just an FYI.

    I am very, very, VERY excited to read about you teaching a trot out!

  3. I'd love to see a horse do the electric slide. lol!
    Fabulous article, Aarene!



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