Basic Horse Health: Knowing your Horse’s Normal Vital Signs

vet checking horse vital signs

Every horse owner should become familiar with what is normal behavior for their horse and what is abnormal behavior.  Certain signs in one horse may point to nothing, but in another maybe a cause to call a vet.  So the first thing every horse owner needs to do is OBSERVE!  Observe your horse’s normal behavior, know their normal vital signs and know the normal environment.  In this article, how to take your horse’s vitals will be discussed and what values are within normal range.


Every horse owner should establish a baseline for their horse’s vital signs.  This is a great tool to have on hand for the vet and for you.  If your horse is ever in distress you can then compare the baseline vitals with the horse’s current vitals. 


For taking a horse’s temperature you are going to want to purchase a thermometer just for your horse and keep it in your tack box.  To take a horse’s temperature you must insert the thermometer into the horse’s rectum.  Be careful and stand off to the side to avoid get kicked.  Then wait three minutes or until the electronic beat sounds.  (Note: It is a good idea to tie a string or twine to the end of you thermometer, you do not want it to get lost.)    The normal temperature range for a horse is 99.5° to 101.5°.  This is a good way to know if your horse’s baseline temperature is in the higher or lower range.  To establish a good baseline take your horse’s temperature every day for 1 week and then average the values.  This should give a good baseline temperature.   


For the next two vital signs the use of a stethoscope can make taking baseline readings easier.  However if you do not have a stethoscope these vital signs can still be taken.


The heart rate of a horse can be determined in two different ways.  First be sure that your horse is relaxed, because one spook can sufficiently change the heart rate.  It is a good idea that when taking the heart rate, you take three separate values and average the values.  When using a stethoscope place the instrument of the left side of the horse at the point of the elbow.  You should hear a “whoof” sound.  This is the heart beat.  Simply count the beats for one minute or thirty seconds and double the value.  Heart rate is stated in beats per minute.  If you do not have a stethoscope, no fear, simply feel under your horse’s jaw for their lingual artery.  It is like feeling for a string of spaghetti.  You simply place your fingers over the area and you can feel the heart rate.  A normal heart rate is between 23 to 48 beat per minute.  To establish a good baseline take your horse’s heart rate every day for 1 week and then average the values.  This should give a good baseline heart rate.   


The respiratory rate can be determined in a variety of ways.  When using a stethoscope place it on the horse’s windpipe and you can count the number of breaths per minute.  Similar to the heart rate, make sure the horse is relaxed and take the rate three times and average the value.  If you do not have a stethoscope, no problem.  You can determine your horse’s respiratory rate by either watching their rib cage expand or the nostrils flare.  A normal horse’s respiratory rate is between 8 to 12 breaths per minute.  To establish a good baseline take your horse’s respiratory rate every day for 1 week and then average the values.  This should give a good baseline respiratory rate.


The next vital sign you should check is your horse’s capillary refill.  This can be done by pressing hard on the gum line next to your horse’s teeth.  Observe how long it takes for the blood to rush back to the white spot left by your thumb.  A normal capillary refill time for a horse is about 2 seconds.  Also to be determined when looking at the capillary refill time is the color of your horse’s gum.  Gum color should be pink.  Various shades of red, dark red, blue, or white can indicate various forms of shock. 


Now that you have your horse’s baseline vital signs, you are better prepared in case of an emergency.  You can easily now determine if your horse is in distress and whether a vet should be called.  Not if you feel your horse is not acting normal, call a vet!  You know your horse best and know when something is just not right.