Horse's Vital Signs

Check Your Horse’s Vital Signs

Last Updated on February 28, 2022 by Allison Price

Here’s an easy clip that will help you assess the basic health of your horse.

To assess your horse’s overall health, take a look at his vital signs while he is resting. This summary was adapted from The Comprehensive guide to Equine Veterinary Medicine by Barb Crabbe, H&R’s consulting veterinarian.

HEART RATE

Why do you check: Rapid heartbeats can be a sign of pain, anxiety/stress or exertion. A heart rate that is slower than normal can be an indicator of shock, hypothermia or poisoning, as well as simply being in good physical condition.

Check your horse’s heart rate: Hold a stethoscope under the left elbow of your horse’s neck. To determine the beats per minute, count how many “lub-dubs” you hear in 15 seconds. Then multiply that number by four.

Normal range 28-44 beats per minute

TEMPERATURE

Why do you check: A high temperature can signify pain, infection or heat exhaustion. An abnormal temperature can signify hypothermia or shock due to cold exposure.

Check your digital thermometer. Rub the tip with a lubricant. Place the tip into the rectum of your horse to a depth 2 inches. Hold it in place until the beeps indicate that the reading has been completed.

Normal range 99.5 to 111.5 degrees F.

RESPIRATION

Why Check: An elevated respiratory rate could indicate fever, pain (as in colic), heat exhaustion or difficulty breathing due to an abnormality of the lungs. Exercise and nerves can also help speed up breathing. A lower rate than normal could be an indication of shock, hypothermia or the effects of drugs.

Horse's Vital Signs

Check: Watch your horse’s nostrils flaring and his chest rise and fall to determine how many breaths he took in 30 seconds. Divide by 2 to get the number of breaths per minute.

Normal range 10-18 breaths per minute

GUM COLOOR

Why do you check? The color of the gum (mucous membrane), is a quick indicator if blood is effectively being pumped through your horse’s body. Anemia or shock can be indicated by very pale or white gums. Toxemia or severe shock can be indicated by dark or purple gums. This is because blood is pooling in the distant vessels of the gums.

How to check: Lift your horse’s top lip to inspect the gum tissue above his teeth.

Normal range: Gums should appear pale pink.

CAPILLARY REFILL TIMES

Check: Slow capillary refill times can be a sign that your horse’s circulation has stopped working properly. It’s normal if the refill time is very quick.

How to test: Lift your horse’s top lip and press your thumb down on the gums. Take your thumb off and count how long it takes for the area that you have created to turn pink again.

Normal range: Blood should be back within 1 to 3 seconds.

SOUNDS

Check: A mild colic episode can be caused by intestinal spasms, gas accumulation, or louder sounds. If there is no sound, it could indicate that your horse is experiencing shock or severe colic episodes.

How to test: Use a stethoscope to listen for at least one minute at each location on your horse’s flank. One high, one low and one on each side.

Normal range: You should hear between two and four small gurgles per hour, with a larger rumbling sound every two to three minutes. These guidelines may vary from horse-to-horse and may be most loud just before or after feeding.

DIGITAL PULSE

Check: A strong, “throbby”, pulse could indicate inflammation of your horse’s feet or disruption to blood flow.

How to test: Place three fingers of your hand on your horse’s inside fetlock joint. Rest your thumb on its outside. Gently press your fingers together until you feel a tiny, cord-like structure beneath your fingers. This is the digital artery. You will notice the pulse strength there.

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