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An Easy Guide to Checking Your Horse’s Vitals

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An Easy Guide to Checking Your Horse’s Vitals

Temperature, pulse, and respiration (also known as TPR) are the basics every horse owner should know if they want to take the best care of their animals. These three vital signs are basics of a physical exam, but they can really help you and your veterinarian out when you think your horse may be under the weather. Knowing what is normal and not normal for your horse can give your veterinarian great insight into just how sick your horse may be. Chances are you already have the tools needed for TPR in your first aid kit!

What You Will Need

  1. A digital thermometer – Glass thermometers are not recommended because of the risk of toxic mercury vapors escaping if the glass thermometers break. Many people also enjoy the fact that when time is of the essence, digital thermometers read in under a minute, while glass thermometers take three to five minutes to give a result. Any thermometer you use should have a small hole constructed at the end so a long piece of brightly colored suture material, string, or tape can be applied in order to help find the thermometer if it’s lost in the stall. Digital thermometers are also much safer to use on rambunctious foals! You can purchase a digital thermometer at the drugstore.
  2. A stethoscope – The stethoscope magnifies sound so you can clearly hear the heart beating and the sounds of breathing. There are many different types of stethoscopes. You can purchase an inexpensive one at a drug store or through horse supply catalogs. These inexpensive stethoscopes are sufficient for enabling you to hear the heartbeat and determine a heart rate and respiratory rate.
  3. A watch that allows you to count in seconds.

Paying Attention

So much can be learned about your horse just by observing his posture, attitude, and his environment. While not everyone is observant, it always pays to be when you are in charge of taking care of horses.  Most of the time, looking out for your horse just means knowing what to watch for–patterns of lying down to rest, normal response to exercise, normal appetite, etc.

Want to learn more about horse and barn first aid? Check out our guide here!

Observation from outside the stall or paddock can give valuable information. For example, did the horse eat or drink last night? How many piles of manure were passed? If a problem is suspected, is there mild pain (flank watching) or are there paw marks and evidence of rolling on the horse or in the stall?

By watching your horse closely, you can recognize what behavior is normal for the horse and what is not. Noticing his current health state can become an almost unconscious part of your daily routine, which can help you decide when there is a problem with your horse.

Determining “Normal” TPR

When will you need to use TPR? Any time you think one of your horses might be ill or injured is an appropriate time to measure TPR, as long as your horse is at rest. To determine what is “normal” for your horse you should perform a TPR when you know that your horse is healthy. This will show you what his healthy and regular numbers are. For example, even though the normal heart rate for most horses is 32-36 beats per minute, some horses are lower–24 beats per minute–or maybe slightly higher–40 beats per minute.

Keep these numbers written down in your tack room or in an easy-to-find spot so they can be at your fingertips when you need them.  

Rectal Temperature

The rectal temperature can be taken pretty easily on most horses. Place a small amount of lubricant (petroleum jelly or KY Jelly) on the thermometer and approach the horse from the side. Do not stand directly behind the horse in case he decides to kick! Raise or move his tail and insert the thermometer into his anus. If the thermometer has a clip, clip the string to his tail.

While waiting for the temperature reading, you can measure the heart and respiratory rates.

The normal rectal temperature of a horse is 99.5-101.5°F (37.5-38.6ºC). If the horse’s rectal temperature is above normal, it has a fever.

Pulse and Respiration Rates

The heart rate (pulse) and respiratory rate can be taken without a stethoscope, but having a stethoscope makes the job easier. If a stethoscope is not handy, the pulse can be taken from the lingual artery, which is on the bottom side of the jaw where it crosses over the bone. The pulse can be taken for 15 seconds, then multiplied by four to get the heart rate in beats per minute.

If a stethoscope is available, listen to the heart on the left side of the horse’s chest, just behind the elbow. The normal heart rate for an adult horse is about 32-36 beats per minute. The heart rate for foals varies depending on age. Newborn foals have a heart rate of between 80-100 beats per minute. Foals which are a few weeks to a few months of age will have heart rates of 60-80 beats per minute.

The respiratory rate can be taken by watching the horse’s chest move in and out (each inhale or exhale is one breath) or feeling the air come out of his nostrils. The stethoscope can be used to listen to the breaths as the air travels across the trachea when the horse inhales and exhales. This should sound clear.

When paying attention to your horses breathing, watch out for a few irregularities:

  1. Is the horse taking shallow or deep breaths?
  2. Are there abnormal squeaky or crackling sounds associated with the breathing?

The normal respiratory rate for adult horses is 8-12 breaths per minute. Newborn foals have respiratory rates that are quite high (60-80 breaths per minute). Neonatal foals have resting respiratory rates from 20-40 breaths per minute.

Please remember that if your horse or foal becomes excited for any reason during the examination, it can elevate his heart and respiratory rates temporarily.

Mucous Membranes

Another indicator of health is the mucous membrane color or gum color. Healthy horses have nice pink gums that are moist to the touch. Capillary refill time can also be checked while looking at your horse’s gums. Press your finger firmly on the gum line, then take it away quickly. The time it takes for the area to turn from white back to pink is the capillary refill time and should be around two seconds.

Gums that are dark red, bright red, brick red, blue, or even white with a prolonged capillary refill time usually indicate one of the various forms of shock, and your veterinarian should be called immediately.

By being knowledgeable of your horse’s normal vital signs and able to take his vital signs in an emergency, you greatly increase your horse’s chance of surviving a serious illness or accident. Your horse’s first line of defense against health problems is your knowledge!

If your horse is showing any signs of discomfort, do not hesitate to reach out to your veterinarian! Carolina Equine Hospital treats equines in the Piedmont Triad area and they are always available by phone! Give them a call at 336-349-4080.