Knowing how to take your horse’s vital signs is an essential skill for any owner, handler or rider.
Knowing how to measure the vital signs of your horse will allow you to check if your horse is healthy, and give the vet more accurate information over the phone in case of an emergency.
You should monitor your horse’s vitals regularly so that you know what is normal for your horse.
Also, keep an eye on your horse’s behaviour and overall condition. Write down normal levels for vital signs in your horse’s journal, so that you have a record to compare with when you need it.
Take your horse’s vital signs every day for two weeks to get a good idea of what is typical for your horse. Also, remember to record before and after exercise.
If your horse has several handlers or riders, keeping a journal in which each person can write down notes is a good idea.
Even when it’s just you, a log of unusual behaviour, injuries and abnormalities can help you pinpoint where a problem first began.
How to measure your horse’s pulse yourself
To measure the pulse of your horse, you can use a stethoscope or your hand. You need a watch to keep time because you listen to the pulse of your horse for 15 seconds and then multiply by 4 to get the heart rate per minute.
A rate of 28-42 beats per minute is standard for horses.
With a stethoscope, take the pulse from the left side of the chest. Place your stethoscope behind the left elbow and find a spot where you can hear the heart.
By hand, use your fore- and middle-finger to find the artery on the inside of the left jawbone. Do not use your thumb to measure someone else’s pulse (horse or human) because you’ll end up feeling your own pulse instead.
The artery sticks out slightly and sits towards the front of the jawbone. Firmly press against the artery with two fingers to find the pulse. Repeat to check your first reading was accurate.
You can also take the pulse from the digital arteries that run along the fetlocks, but it is tricky and the one you’ll most likely struggle to find a reading from. Strong, bounding pulses in the digital arteries can also be a sign of laminitis.
What is the normal heart rate for a horse?
An elevated heart rate can express exertion, illness, pain or distress. A low heart rate is usually a sign of good health.
A resting pulse rate of 40-44 beats per minute (bpm) should be interpreted in the context of how the horse is feeling, i.e. has he just been exercising or resting?
A resting pulse rate from 40-60 bpm is considered severe but can be due to illness and pain; it is usually coupled with elevated temperature or strenuous exercise.
If a horse gets excited or scared, the pulse will also temporarily spike. A critical resting pulse rate is around and over 80 bpm and is a sign of serious problems.
How to measure your horse’s breathing (respiration) yourself
The best and most accurate way to listen to your horse’s respiration is with a stethoscope. You can, however, measure the respiration rate of your horse just by using your eyes and hands.
You need a watch to keep time as you will observe the breathing of your horse for 15 seconds and multiply the result by 4 to get her respiration rate per minute.
With a stethoscope, you can listen to the trachea (windpipe). Listening to the trachea will tell you if the horse has mucous in the windpipe that is obstructing breathing. This can happen with allergies or if the horse is heaving.
Without a stethoscope, you can stand at an angle to the flank to watch the last rib move and count the breaths from there. Obviously, this only works if the horse is standing still and not moving around.
You can also check to see the nostrils expand and contract, and put your hand where you can feel the breath to count the breathing.
If you’re unsure of feeling the breath with your hand, you can put a mirror (or a smartphone’s shiny back in a pinch) up to the nostrils and count the breathing as the mirror fogs.
Make sure that you allow your horse to smell the things you put in front of her nose before you start measuring her breath or you’ll get a false reading.
What is the normal respiration rate for a horse?
A horse should spend equal time inhaling and exhaling, and the respiration rate shouldn’t exceed the heart rate.
8-16 breaths per minute is a reasonable rate, and you should wait at least 30 minutes after exercise to measure the respiration.
Humidity, hot weather, pain, illness and exercise will increase the breathing rate. Very slow breathing can also indicate shock in horses, though slow breathing is generally a sign of a healthy horse at rest.
Dusty environments can cause breathing problems and altered breath rates in horses. It is vital to keep stables and any inside areas kept clean of dust and well ventilated.
Care should also be taken to make sure horses don’t ingest a lot of dust when eating. Feeding a horse at an elevated level decreases the effectiveness of the airways – horses are designed to eat from the ground.
When a horse feeds from the ground, with the head low and the neck straight, the airways are functioning at an optimum. Elevation reduces the space in the airways and therefore the function of the airways.
More dust in the airways obstruct breathing and the amount of air the horse can take in at once. It also introduces extra dust into the respiratory system and may be difficult or impossible for the horse to clear out entirely.
This, in turn, increases snorting and decreases breathing during exercise. Horses can also begin to breathe more shallowly.
Less effective breathing means that the muscles don’t get an optimal supply of oxygen and can begin cramping under stress.
Shallow breathing is also closely connected with holding tension in the body (just like with humans) and tension decreases the oxygen levels in the blood (decreasing performance).
Tense horses suffer from poor gut function – and if there’s anything I know about horse health, it’s that a healthy gut is critical for a healthy horse. A horse’s metabolic system is very sensitive and doesn’t handle, even small, imbalances well. It’s critical to have your horse’s diet under strict control or risk having a very sick horse (or worse: a dead one).
If your horse is having trouble breathing or is wheezing, check if you can pinpoint it beginning or worsening at a particular time, such as when hay is delivered. Ask around to see if other horses in the stable are having the same problem.
How to take the temperature of your horse yourself
To take your horse’s temperature, you can use a glass or digital thermometer.
When using a glass thermometer that has mercury in it, remember to shake the mercury down before using it.
Mercury is toxic and if the thermometer breaks, you’ll need to carefully and correctly clean up both the glass and the mercury to stay safe.
Always attach a string to the thermometer and a clip to the other end of the string to secure it to the tail. This way it won’t fall to the ground and get stepped on in case it gets pushed out.
That the thermometer might get sucked into the rectum is just a myth. The muscles in the horse’s rectum are closed tightly and designed to work only one way – to push things out.
Since it will take a moment to get the reading, you can walk away and do other things (once the thermometer is secured).
Remember to lubricate the tip of the thermometer with petroleum jelly or vaseline and have someone else hold the horse, or tie him down while taking his temperature.
To take his temperature, stand by the side of the hip – not behind – to do it. Most horses don’t mind the thermometers, but some might lash out with a kick – especially if it’s the first time, they aren’t used to being handled, the rectum is sore or has an infection or if the horse is generally jumpy.
Move the tail to the side and insert the thermometer into the rectum, slightly angled down – you’ll get the most accurate reading when the thermometer is touching the inner wall of the rectum.
A glass thermometer will take about 3 minutes to give you a reading, and many digital ones will work in 1 minute when their batteries are fully charged.
Clean and disinfect the thermometer well before returning it to its case. This will make sure that it is ready for use in an emergency and that it won’t spread any illness or disease from one horse to the next.
Remember to wash your own hands well before and after, or use rubber gloves.
What is the normal temperature range for a horse?
The normal temperature range for horses is 37.5 – 38°C (99.5 – 100.5°F).
A high temperature will usually indicate an infection, and a low temperature can be a sign of shock. You need to consider things that will lower or raise the core temperature of the horse without illness.
Exercise will raise the core temperature, so do not measure the temperature right after exercise to get an indication for illness.
Hot weather raises the core temperature, and cold weather lowers the core temperature. You should expect to read lower averages in cold weather than in warm weather.
Remember to check: tail and anal tone
When measuring the temperature of your horse, you should note the tail and anal tone of the horse.
Healthy horses have tone in their tail when it’s elevated. The anus should pucker (close) when stimulated and not remain wide open.
If you notice that your horse lacks in tail or anal tone, you should have the vet check your horse.
A horse with a very flaccid tail can often have problems in the spinal cord and should be diagnosed for possible treatment as soon as possible.
What to do if your mercury thermometer breaks
Before taking the thermometer into use you should determine whether it contains mercury, alcohol or a non-toxic compound that looks similar to mercury.
Mercury is a liquid metal and is toxic. Small droplets will combine into a larger sphere that will roll on a flat surface and break back into smaller droplets if pressure is applied or it falls.
You must take care to not spread the mercury and not allow it to roll into a hard-to-reach location.
Consider the following:
- Is the liquid in the thermometer any other colour than silver? If yes, then it’s most likely alcohol.
- If there is a paper calibration strip inside the thermometer that includes the words “mercury-free”, then the liquid is not mercury and is non-toxic.
- If you do not see “mercury-free” anywhere on the thermometer, assume that it is mercury.
If your glass thermometer breaks and you suspect it contains mercury, follow the proper steps to clean up and dispose of the toxic waste.
How to check your horse’s gut sounds yourself
The sounds that come from your horse’s gut give you essential information. Vets use the sounds coming from the stomach and intestines to diagnose illness in horses.
To listen for gut sounds press your ear to the horse’s barrel just behind the last rib. You should hear gurgling noises on both sides of the horse. If you can’t hear any sounds, use a stethoscope in the same spot to hear better.
The lack of sounds in the gut is usually more serious than excessive sounds. There should always be gut sounds because the absence of them often indicates colic.
If you can’t hear any sounds from the gut of your horse you should call your vet.
How to check your horse’s capillary refill time (CRT) yourself
Capillary refill time (CRT) is an indicator of blood circulation. The normal refill time is 0-2 seconds.
To check your horse’s CRT, lift the upper lip and press your thumb into her gums for 2 seconds creating a white mark.
The white mark should return to normal within 1-2 seconds after letting go. If it takes longer than that, your horse may be in shock.
How to check your horse’s mucous membranes yourself
The mucous membranes make up the lining of a horse’s gums, eyelids and the inside of the nostrils. The colour of the mucous membranes is another indicator of blood circulation.
In a healthy horse the gums should be a little lighter than in people. If the gums are very pale, bright red or yellow or a greyish blue, you should call the vet immediately.
- Moist pink gums mean there is healthy, normal blood circulation.
- Very pale pink gums mean that the small blood vessels (capillaries) are contracted due to fever, anaemia or blood loss.
- Bright red gums mean the capillaries are enlarged and can indicate mild shock or toxicity.
- Grey or blue gums indicate illness, severe shock or depression.
- Bright yellow gums often mean there is an issue with the liver.
If you see any signs in your horse that there could be a problem, don’t hesitate to call your vet straight away.
The sooner your vet can examine your horse, the more time they will have to diagnose and treat the problem.
Also check if the gums are dry or tacky. They should be sufficiently moist in a healthy horse.
How to check if your horse is dehydrated yourself
A healthy horse will drink at least 20 litres of water a day. If your horse is dehydrated, it’s vital that you encourage her to drink more water.
If she refuses to drink any water, try adding flavour to it like molasses or cordial, and if that doesn’t make her drink you should call the vet.
When it’s hot and humid, your horse should be drinking a lot more than usual. A horse in intensive training can drink up to 70 litres a day when the weather is hot and humid.
If you don’t know how much your horse is drinking, use buckets instead of waterers to get an idea of what’s normal. During exceptional conditions, such as when you’re horse is sick, you can also switch to buckets to make it easier to log water consumption.
The skin turgor test is used to assess hydration levels in both animals and humans. Performing the pinch test is easy and you might have had this done to you!
On people, we usually test hydration levels with the skin on the back of the hand. On a horse, you would pinch the skin on the neck.
When you let go the skin should flatten back to its normal position in 1 second. If the skin doesn’t immediately go back to normal it means that your horse isn’t drinking enough water and is dehydrated.
The longer it takes the skin to bounce back, the more dehydrated she is.
The idea is not to pinch the skin painfully, but rather to gently grab it and lift it so you can observe how it falls back into place.
Older skin is generally more dehydrated than younger skin – that’s why the skin on your nan’s hand takes a lot longer to go back down than your own.
The pinch test can essentially be done anywhere on the body and you should check in a few different places if you are unsure of your results.
On cats and dogs, it’s usually done on the scruff (back of the neck) and on horses on the neck or shoulder.
Free downloadable sheets
Download these free printable checklists and sheets for hanging in the stable or barn for everyone to use.