Photos by Abigail Boatwright

Whether you’re on the road competing week after week or your barrel horse spends most of its time in the pasture, gauging your horse’s level of health is important. Checking your horse’s vital signs regularly allows you to become familiar with what is normal, and you’ll quickly recognize when something is amiss—which will also help you inform your veterinarian if more care is needed. 

However, you don’t need a veterinarian on hand to check these vital signs. With instructions from Abigail Velting, DVM, of Colorado State University’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital, you can assess your horse’s basic health in just minutes. 

Gather Your Equipment

You don’t necessarily need a fully stocked first aid kit to check your horse’s vital signs. Velting says keeping a few items on hand will make your life easier if something does happen to your horse. 

“Ideally, you want at least a digital thermometer, but I think an inexpensive stethoscope is also good to have on hand. It’s the easiest way to assess the horse’s heart rate,” Velting said. “Also, having bandaging material around including VetWrap, polos and cotton is helpful if your horse has a laceration and is actively bleeding so you can wrap it until the veterinarian arrives.” 

AB BRBvitalsigns1Using a stethoscope behind your horse’s left elbow is the best way to check your horse’s heart rate; you can also place your fingers
on the facial artery just before the cheek to feel for a pulse. A normal resting heart rate is between 28 and 40 beats per minute.

Heart Rate

The first step in taking your horse’s vitals is measuring your the heart rate. This should be performed while the horse is at rest, as the heart rate can be falsely elevated due to excitement. 

Velting says using a stethoscope is ideal, and the best area to detect the heart rate is by placing the chest piece behind your horse’s left elbow. 

“You can count the amount of heartbeats in a minute,” Velting said. “Normally, a horse’s heartbeat should be between 28 and 40 beats per minute.” 

Typically if the heart rate is higher than that range—such as 48 or 50 beats per minute—the horse could be experiencing pain. 

If you don’t have a stethoscope, Velting says you can check the heart rate by feeling the facial artery, located on the lower mandible just before the cheek. Place your fingers lightly over the artery and feel for a pulse. 

Respiratory Rate

Next, assess the respiratory rate. You can do this by watching the horse’s flank.

“Observe their abdominal muscles while the horse is breathing in and out,” Velting said. “Normally, a horse takes eight to 16 breaths per minute. Horses should not have any flare to the nostrils, and they should have mild involvement of the abdominal musculature.” 

If your horse has a consistently high respiratory rate or greater respiratory effort, Velting says it could be because the horse is not getting enough oxygen due to respiratory disease or compromise to the respiratory system and should be assessed by a veterinarian. 

Rectal Temperature

You should also take the horse’s temperature rectally. Velting says lubricant is not usually required, unless it is a miniature horse or foal. 

“Insert the thermometer into the horse’s rectum,” Velting said. “The horse should typically have a temperature between 99 and 100 degrees Fahrenheit. If you get anything over 101.5 degrees Fahrenheit, you should be concerned that they have a fever.” 

Velting says an increase in temperature could be a sign of an inflammatory response or an infection the horse may be battling. If the rectal temperature is persistently elevated or the horse is depressed, veterinary attention is recommended to identify the source of the horse’s fever. 

Some horses do not like having their rectal temperature taken, so Velting advises you to stand up against the horse’s hind leg—not directly behind the horse—and reach around to take the temperature. 

“If the horse kicks out, it’s better to be right up against them, because there’s less of an impact if they do contact you with a hind foot,” Velting said. 

AB BRBvitalsigns2Watch your horse’s flank to measure his respiratory rate. At rest, it should be eight to 16 breaths per minute without showing much effort to breathe.

Other Vital Signs

While these three vital measurements are the main sources of information about the horse’s immediate health, Velting says there are a few other useful parameters. One is examining the horse’s gums. 

“If you lift up the upper lip, you can look at what we call the mucous membranes,” Velting said. “Look at the gums—they should be a light pink color and should be moist. If they are dry or discolored, it could be a sign of dehydration.” 

Another way to assess hydration is the skin tent test. Velting says to pick up a piece of skin on the neck and watch how quickly it snaps back to normal. 

“It should take only a second or two to come back, but if it takes longer, that could suggest the horse is dehydrated,” Velting said. 

If you’re concerned about your horse’s health, before you call your veterinarian, be prepared for the questions he or she will ask. For instance, if your horse is displaying signs of abdominal pain or colic, Velting says it’s a good idea to know the horse’s diet, when it last ate and when it last passed manure. You also want to be aware of your horse’s travel history—if it just returned from a competition, for example. Be ready to report any medications your horse is on and if any other horses in the barn are sick. 

“If you have all of this information and can be ready to inform the veterinarian, it will greatly help us put the whole picture together,” Velting said. “The more prepared the owner is and the better they are at assessing basic parameters, the more helpful it is for the veterinarian to quickly and effectively treat your horse.” 

AB BRBvitalsigns5Look at your horse’s gums—they should be a light pink color
 and should be moist. Dry or discolored gums could be a sign of dehydration.

Meet the Expert

Abigail Velting, DVM, is a Detroit, Michigan, native. She attended Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine and has worked at equine veterinary practices on the East Coast for a few years before she moved to Colorado to complete a residency in equine internal medicine at Colorado State Aniversity. Velting has two Tennessee Walking Horses. 

Abigail Boatwright is an award-winning journalist based out of Texas. Email comments on this article to [email protected]. This article was first published in the February 2017 issue of Barrel Horse News.


Email comments or questions to [email protected]

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