horse share loan

What are a Horse’s Vital Signs?


If you own or ride a horse, it is important to educate yourself on what a healthy horse’s vital signs are. You should check your horse on a regular basis and become familiar with what is normal for them. This makes it a lot easier to tell when a horse is unwell or ill. Here we provide a guide to a normal horse’s vital signs and provide information on how to check your own horse’s vital signs.

Temperature

Image credit: Alexander Daucik

Image credit: Alexander Daucik

The normal body temperature for a horse is 37- 38° C (99-101° F) . However, be aware that there are some factors that can have an effect on body temperature. Horses will tend to have a higher body temperature on hot days, when they have been exercised or when they are excited or stressed. Therefore, it is important for you to take your horse’s temperature in different kinds of situations to find out what is normal for them. A high temperature is normally an indicator of infection. If you have any concerns it is advisable to contact your vet.

How to check your horse’s temperature:

The most accurate way to check your horse’s temperature is rectally. Generally digital thermometers are best and you can purchase plastic digital thermometers from most tack shops or from a pharmacy. If you are using a mercury thermometer ensure you shake it downwards a few times before using it. Use petroleum jelly or vaseline as a lubricant and standing at the horse’s hip, holding the tail to one side, carefully insert the thermometer into the horse’s rectum. It is a good idea to attach some string and a clip on the end on the thermometer. This means you can clip the thermometer to the horse’s tail to ensure that it is not “lost”. Readings from a mercury thermometer can take around 3 minutes, however most digital thermometers take a reading quicker than this.

It is important to clean the thermometer after use, especially if the horse is ill as it prevents the spread of any illnesses.

Pulse

A normal adult horse’s pulse whilst resting can vary anywhere between 26-40 beats per minute. Note that foals and yearlings tend to have higher heart rates. For foals it is normally around 70-90 beats per minute. Exercise, stress, pain or infection can all result in increased heart rate.

To check your horse’s pulse you can choose to do any of the following three methods:

1. A pulse can be found near the front of the left jaw bone. Underneath there is a main artery that sticks out slightly. Press against this with your finger (never your thumb as you will be able to feel your own pulse).
2. Lift your horse’s near (left) fore forward slightly and place your ear (or stethoscope) behind the horse’s left elbow. Listen for a lub-dub sound. One lub-dub is the equivalent to one heart beat.
3. You can also check your horse’s digital pulse, which is located at the fetlock. To find it, squat down next to your horse’s leg and place your index finger on the left side of the fetlock joint. Strum back and forth with your finger until you feel a cord like bundle underneath your finger. Once you have located this “bundle” (which is the vein, artery and nerve) lightly apply pressure until you can feel the pulse. A pounding digital pulse can often be an indicator of laminitis.

Count the number of beats for 15 seconds using a stopwatch. Multiply the number of beats by four to get your horse’s heart rate.

Respiration

check horse's respiration

Image credit: Dorthe Bjerg

The normal respiratory rate for a horse is 8-12 breaths per minute. A horse should also spend equal time inhaling and exhaling. Respiratory rate can increase in hot weather, during exercise or when the horse is stressed or excited. However, an increased respiratory rate can also be an indicator of pain or fever. It is advisable to contact your vet if your horse is breathing rapidly at rest. Also note that the respiratory rate should never be higher than the pulse rate.

To check your horse’s respiratory rate, watch their rib cage for one minute. Count each inhale and exhale as one breath. You can also hold your hand in front of the horse’s nostril to feel each breath or place a stethoscope on the horse’s windpipe and listen to it breathing.

Capillary Re-fill Time

Capillary re-fill time (or CRT) is the time it takes for blood to refill in blanched tissue in the gums. It is an indicator of blood circulation and should take no longer than 2 seconds. If it takes longer than this the horse may be in shock.

To check your horse’s CRT, lift your horse’s upper lip and place your thumb firmly against the top gum for a couple of seconds to create a white mark. Once you release your thumb, this mark should return to a normal pink colour within 2 seconds.

Gut Sounds

In a normal healthy horse you should always be able to hear gut noises coming from the stomach and intestines. Usually the absence of gut sounds indicates colic or another problem. If concerned contact your vet.

Mucous Membranes

The mucous membranes are your horse’s gums, the inside of his nostrils and the inside of the eyelids. The colour of the mucous membranes is another indicator of blood circulation and should be pink in colour. If they are blue or pale, contact your vet.

State of Hydration

horse hydration

Image credit: Jo Lally

A horse that is healthy will drink up to five gallons of water per day. It is important to encourage your horse to drink if he is dehydrated. If he refuses try and tempt him by adding some apple juice to the water. If he still will not drink contact your vet.

To check whether or not your horse is dehydrated, pinch the skin on your horse’s neck. Once you release the skin it should ping back into place in less than one second. If it doesn’t, it means your horse is dehydrated. The longer it takes for the skin to ping back, the more dehydrated he is.