Five Things to Know About Taking a Horse’s Vital Signs

It’s a situation every horse owner dreads: a horse who seemed fine the previous day is now lethargic, depressed and maybe even uninterested in its feed. The horse doesn’t appear to be injured, but something is definitely off. You know you should call your veterinarian, but before you do, you’ll want to check its vital signs.

Vital signs are easy but important diagnostics that tell you if the horse’s systems are functioning correctly. Typically, they should be within a range that is considered normal for most equines. If they’re not, it can indicate pain or disease.

Quarter Horse News spoke with Dr. Shem Oliver, an equine veterinarian at Performance Equine Associates in Thackerville, Oklahoma, to learn how to take these crucial assessments.

“Horse owners are well aware that horses can get sick and injured, and good preparation may be the difference in your horse surviving,” Oliver said. “Such a simple diagnostic can tell you a lot about how they are feeling and if they should be seen by a veterinarian. The more information an owner can give a veterinarian, the more helpful in diagnosing the horse a veterinarian can become.”

Take Their Temperature

The first thing to check is the horse’s temperature, which is usually taken rectally. A normal temperature range in a healthy horse is 99.0 degrees to 101.5 degrees Fahrenheit. Temperatures over 102.5 degrees are considered significantly elevated, and a veterinarian should be contacted immediately.

In order to take your horse’s temperature, you’ll need a thermometer – ideally one that is a “quick read.” These can be purchased at your local pharmacy or Walmart. Lubricate the tip of the thermometer, lift the horse’s tail high and carefully slide it into the horse’s rectum.

To take your horse’s temperature, lubricate the thermometer, then lift the tail high, and carefully slide the thermometer into the horse’s rectum. A normal temperature range in a healthy horse is 99.0 degrees to 101.5 degrees Fahrenheit. • Photo by Kristin Pitzer

“Don’t get kicked!” Oliver warned. “Most horses tolerate their temperature being taken rectally, but if your horse has never had its temperature taken, jamming a thermometer into its rectum could be dangerous. If your horse resents the temperature being taken, a set of stocks, or someone holding the horse, is recommended.”

Check Their Pulse

A rapid pulse, or heart rate, can indicate pain and cardiovascular issues in the horse. A normal rate is 28-40 beats per minute, and anything over 40 should be evaluated by your veterinarian.

The best way to listen to your horse’s heart rate is with a stethoscope — purchasable on Amazon — placed behind the left elbow in the girth area. Listen for 15-30 seconds, then multiply to get the number of beats per minute.

Take your horse’s pulse by placing a stethoscope behind the left elbow in the girth area. Listen for 15-30 seconds, then multiply to get the number of beats per minute. For example, if you listen for 15 seconds and get seven beats, that would be 28 beats per minute. • Photo by Kristin Pitzer

“It is important to note that if one has never listened to the heart of the horse, a single heartbeat has two sounds often referred to as a ‘lub-dub’ sound,” Oliver said. “This sound is made because the horse’s heart is so large that the heartbeat can be heard in two separate sounds. This is important because if the owner counts both sounds as separate heartbeats, the heart rate doubles, and this will make everyone concerned.”

Always try to let the horse settle after you stick the stethoscope to their girth, Oliver noted, before you start taking the reading. Otherwise, if you startle the horse, it will alter your assessment.

Count Their Breaths

Because of the size of the horse’s respiratory system, they usually have a slower respiratory rate, Oliver said. Increased respiration could mean the horse is in pain, dealing with a respiratory infection or experiencing an elevated temperature.

The normal respiratory rate for an adult horse is 12-28 breaths per minute, which you can measure by placing your hand next to the horse’s nostril or watching the flanks. When the flanks move in and out, that counts as a single breath.

One way to take your horse’s respiratory rate is by placing your hand next to the horse’s nostril to feel each breath. • Photo by Kristin Pitzer

“One should try to gauge respiratory effort as well,” Oliver said. “If it is a more exaggerated breath, it could indicate that the horse is having trouble breathing, either from an obstruction, like strangles, or from compromised lungs.”

Look at Their Gums

A healthy horse’s gums should be shiny, wet and pink. Pale gums can indicate blood loss or loss of circulation, and pale, tacky gums could mean the horse is dehydrated. Dark red or purple gums can be even more serious. After observing the gums, you can perform a capillary refill test, which checks for hydration and cardiovascular function.

“Capillary refill time is assessed by pressing firmly on the gums and blanching them out,” Oliver said. “The length of time it takes the gums to refill to normal color indicates the capillary refill time.

A healthy horse’s gums should be shiny, wet and pink. • Photo by Kristin Pitzer

“Normal refill time should be approximately two seconds,” he continued. “If the time is significantly longer, the horse is often dehydrated or has decreased cardiovascular function, and bloodwork should be performed to confirm this is the case.”

Listen to Their Gut

Using your trusty new stethoscope, you should finally check the horse’s “gut sounds” in the four quadrants on the horse: the upper quadrants on the right and left side between the ribcage and the point of the hip, and the lower quadrants at the level of the flanks or just inside the flanks. Healthy horses should have consistent and active rumblings in all four areas.

Listen to each quadrant for at least one minute. You should hear one to three borborygmi, or gut sounds, in a 60-second period.

Place your stethoscope in each of the horse’s four quadrants and listen for gut sounds. • Photo by Kristin Pitzer

“There are, of course, normal variations between horses and when the horse last ate,” Oliver said. “Decreased gut sounds can indicate an obstructive complication of the gut, which occurs in colic, and increased guts sounds can indicate impending diarrhea. It is important to listen to your horse to understand what normal sounds can be present.”