A horse’s vital signs offer early clues into its overall health. Get to know your horse’s vital signs and practice taking them. The earlier a potential issue is identified, the better the chances for responding and preventing a larger issue from developing.

Temperature: 99 to 101.5 F

Like humans, horses are individuals and may have a slightly higher or lower resting temperature, and it may vary with ambient temperature and exercise. Therefore, knowing your horse’s baseline is essential.

Take and record the horse’s temperature several times a month to establish what is normal for the individual. Exercise and weather can create fluctuations. Measure while the horse is at rest, after work, and in other common scenarios.

  • How to measure: Use a rectal thermometer and lubricant. Digital thermometers are available at local drug stores, tack stores and farm supply stores. The inexpensive thermometer provides easy reading but requires batteries, which can be sensitive to cold weather. Check and change batteries as needed.

Mercury thermometers are another option but can be more challenging to read and aren’t readily available for purchase. The benefit is that no batteries are required. With either model, you can attach a string to the end and clip it to the horse’s tail to avoid it getting lost if dropped.

  • What it means: A slightly elevated temperature can suggest a horse is fighting a mild infection or having an inflammatory reaction that could be the equivalent of a cold in humans. A mild fever after vaccination can be normal and shows that the immune system is responding. Mild fevers can be monitored while watching for any other clinical signs. If the fever persists and the horse stops eating, consult with a veterinarian about treatment with cold hosing or an NSAID.

“Bringing the fever down can help the horse resume eating and drinking, but it’s important to remember that fevers have a purpose in terms of fighting infection, so we don’t want to just mask them with drugs,” said Boehringer Ingelheim equine technical manager Dr. Sarah Reuss, VMD, DACVIM.

Fevers that climb to 105 F or greater could suggest several different infections from equine herpesvirus to potomac horse fever, influenza, and more.

“If your horse has an increased temperature, contact your veterinarian,” Reuss said. “They can guide you through the next steps based on the horse’s condition.”

Read more: Taking Your Horse’s Vital Signs

Pulse: 28 to 44 beats per minute

The average pulse rate can vary based on the age and size of the horse. For example, a fit racehorse may have a resting pulse of 30, whereas a nervous pony may be closer to 40. Foals also have higher pulse rates at birth and through the first few months of life.

  • How to measure: Along the jawline and at the fetlock are the easiest places to locate a pulse. Place two fingers in either location and feel for pulsing. Count the pulsations for 15 seconds and multiply the result by four.

“If you have a stethoscope, you can listen for the pulse just behind the horse’s left elbow,” Reuss said. “Listen for a ‘lub-dub’ sound.”

  • What it means: It’s normal for a horse to have an elevated pulse after exercise. However, if the horse has not worked or takes more than a few minutes to return to normal depending on the intensity of exercise, it’s time to call the veterinarian. High pulse rates can point to pain, dehydration, illness and distress.

Respiration: 10–24 breaths per minute

  • How to measure: Count the number of breaths for 15 seconds. Watch the horse’s sides as he inhales and exhales. Again, multiply by four. Then, hold one hand or a mirror by the horse’s nostrils to feel for breath out of each nostril.
  • What it means: Horses in heavy work can take as many as 150 breaths per minute. In addition, heat, humidity, exercise, and fitness level can influence respiration rates.

“Get to know how long it takes a horse to recover after exercise to establish a baseline for what is acceptable and to signal a potential issue,” Reuss said. “Continued rapid breathing can suggest respiratory disease, pain or discomfort, and it is essential to work with your veterinarian.”

Horses with fevers often have an increased respiratory rate as well, so be sure to check all vitals if you notice any one of them being abnormal.

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Photo by Abigail Boatwright

Three Additional Horse’s Vital Signs to Know

In addition to T-P-R, other physical clues can offer insight into a horse’s health.

Mucous membranes: Healthy tissues are pink and moist. These tissues are visible when the skin meets an opening on the body. The most common are the gums and the conjunctival sac of the eyes.

Capillary refill: This is how quickly blood returns to an area after applying pressure. This is best observed on the horse’s gums. Apply firm pressure to the gum and release. It should return to pink within one to two seconds.

Gut gurgles: Stand beside your horse and listen for intestinal sounds. Gurgling, growling, and rumbling-like noises indicate all is well. If it’s silent, the horse may be colicking or may have just not eaten for awhile.

“Knowing a horse’s vital signs make it possible to catch and diagnose a problem early, which allows for quick intervention,” Reuss said. “It’s always prudent to contact the horse’s veterinarian if they are off. Sharing the horse’s vital signs can help determine how quick the response must be and the next steps.”

Information provided courtesy Boehringer Ingelheim. For more, visit bi-animalhealth.com.


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