The following information on equine cardiac examination will form the basis for our discussion of equine cardiology cases.
As in all species, cardiac examination involves cardiac auscultation for rate, rhythm, heart sounds, and murmurs, palpation
of peripheral pulses, and examination of peripheral veins and edema. The points for equine cardiac auscultation are as follows:
Mitral - left 5th ICS halfway between shoulder and sternum
Aortic - left 4th ICS just below point of shoulder
Pulmonic - left 3rd ICS just below point of shoulder
Tricuspid - right 3rd - 4th
There are normal variations in rhythms in horses. The most common rhythm is sinus rhythm. However, physiologic arrhythmias
can result in horses from the effects of high resting vagal tone. The characteristics of these rhythms are that they disappear
with exercise or excitement. The most common vagal-induced rhythm in horses is second degree AV block (ausculted in 15 to
18% of horses; detected by Holter monitor in 44% of horses). Sinus arrhythmia and sinus block occur in horses but are uncommon.
Vagal-induced second degree AV block must be differentiated from pathologic AV block due to AV nodal disease. Pathologic AV
block should be suspected if there is more than 1 in dropped beat in a row, if there is less than 3 normal beats between each
block, and if the block fails to convert to sinus rhythm with exercise. All four heart sounds (S1, S2, S3, S4) are audible
in healthy horses. Intensity varies with duration of diastolic filling and sympathetic stimulation. S1 is early ventricular
contraction, AV closure, ejection w/semilunar opening. S2 associated with closing of semilunar valves and back flow of blood.
Splitting of S1 and S2 can be normal. S3 is associated with vibration of ventricular wall during passive filling of ventricle
and is best heard over the apex with the bell of the stethoscope. S3 may become very loud with volume overload of the ventricle
(e. g. Mitral regurgitation). S4 is the atrial sound and is detected in most horses and is often mistaken for a split S1.
Other sounds in horses include a systolic "click" over semilunar valves that is considered normal. In contrast, a systolic
"click" over MV may be due to prolapsed.
Physiologic murmurs commonly occur in horses due to the size of the heart and volume of blood flow. These murmurs do not alter
heart function and are not attributed to cardiac pathology. These physiologic murmurs are grade 1 to 3/6 and do not create
a palpable thrill. They are localized to a single valve area and do not radiate. They are short in duration and do not occur
throughout systole (not holo or pansystolic). The most common physiologic murmurs in horses are systolic ejection murmurs
over the aortic and pulmonid valve. Less commonly early diastolic murmur (protodiastolic) between S2 and S3 can occur physiologically.
These sometimes "squeak" and do not occur throughout diastole.
The common murmurs that resolve from heart disease in horses are tricuspid regurgitation, mitral regurgitation, ventricular
septal defect, and aortic regurgitation. These generally result from valvular or myocardial disease and are evaluated by use
Jugular vein pulsation occurs in horses with cardiac failure and tricuspid regurgitation. Normal pulsation occur ⅓ the way
up the jugular vein with the head in a normal position. Abnormal pulsation is beyond the ⅓ point of the neck. Cardiac failure,
cranial mediatinal masses, and pericardial disease can lead to jugular vein distention.
The response of the heart to exercise can be an important part of cardiac assessment in horses and may be done with a rider
(if deemed safe in the face of possible cardiac disease), on a lounge line, or on a treadmill. Heart rate monitors or telemetric
ECG are useful to assess the heart rate in response to exercise. Heart rates of 70-120 are normal at a trot. Heart rates of
120-150 normal at canter. Heart rates of 150-180 normal at hand gallop and heart rates may exceed 180 at gallop. The heart
rate usually falls to less than 100 per minute upon cessation of exercise. Heart rate abnormalities detected during exercise
testing may be from lack of fitness or cardiac disease which can usually be demonstration via cardiac examination. Pulmonary,
URT disease, musculoskeletal disease, and other illness may lead to heart rate abnormalities during exercise. Telemetric electrocardiogram,
pre and post exercise echocardiogram, and cardiac enzymology are important techniques for assessment of cardiac disease in