Whether you’re out on the trail for several miles or competing in the ring on a hot day, knowing how to check your horse’s vital signs could come in handy — and it’s something every equestrian should know.
Vital signs are several different measurements that are done to get a good idea of how the body is functioning. They consist of pulse, temperature and respirations. Other indicators you can quickly test to get an idea of how your horse is doing are gut sounds, skin turgor and capillary refill.
Whether you’re out on the trail for several miles or competing in the ring on a hot day, knowing how to check your horse’s vital signs could come in handy.
What you’ll need to check your horse’s vital signs: a stethoscope, thermometer, and watch or timer on your phone. You can buy a stethoscope and thermometer at your nearest Walmart.
Temperature should be taken rectally which is usually a fairly easy process.
Stand to the side of the horse, move his tail in a way that makes insertion easy, place a small amount of lubrication on the thermometer and gently insert the thermometer. Do not stand directly behind the horse in case he decides to kick.
The normal rectal temperature for a horse is between 99.5 and 101.4 degrees Fahrenheit, or 37.2°C to 38.5° Celsius. Anything above or markedly below that should be cause for concern.
Some vets prefer analog thermometers over digital ones for the sake of consistency and accuracy. Either will work, but if using an analog thermometer, make sure it is inserted in your horse’s rectum for three minutes. If using a digital thermometer, double check the temperature to make sure the readings are consistent (I have two that I use to compare).
There are two ways you can check your horse’s respiratory rate without the need for a stethoscope.
The first way is to put your hand by his nostrils and count how many breaths you feel on your hand. The second way is to watch the chest rise and fall. One rise and fall, or inspiration and expiration, is equal to one breath.
This can be counted over 15 seconds and multiplied by four, counted over 30 seconds and multiplied by two, or you can watch for the entire 60 seconds.
A normal respiratory rate for an adult horse is anywhere between 8 and 16 breaths per minute.
Also assess how your horse is breathing. Are his breaths shallow or labored? These are all observations to take into consideration.
The easiest way to take a horse’s pulse is with a stethoscope. Place the stethoscope on the left side of the horse’s chest right behind the elbow. Listen for the heartbeat. Once you have located the heartbeat, start your timer or watch your secondhand on your watch and begin counting the beats.
If you don’t have a stethoscope handy, you can check your horse’s pulse by gently placing your fingers on the lingual artery which is located below the jaw.
Like the respiratory rate, this can be counted over 15 seconds and multiplied by four, counted over 30 seconds and multiplied by two or you can watch for the entire 60 seconds.
A normal pulse varies depending on a horse’s age. For an adult horse, the norm is between 28 – 44 beats per minute. For newborn foals, a normal pulse is between 80 – 120 beats per minute. In older foals, it is 60 – 80, and in yearlings it is 40 – 60 beats per minute.
To hear gut sounds, place your stethoscope behind the rib cage and before the stifle. Listen for an entire minute.
The normal amount of gut sounds you should hear in 60 seconds is between 1-3.
If you do not hear any gut sounds, this indicates that there’s an issue and you should seek veterinary expertise.
Skin turgor is a test that indicates if your horse is hydrated.
To perform this test you pinch the skin on the neck and watch how many seconds it takes for the skin to return to normal.
If the skin immediately returns to normal, you’re horse is adequately hydrated. If the skin takes longer than three seconds to return to normal, this indicates your horse is dehydrated and you should offer him something to drink.
Capillary refill is a test that checks perfusion and oxygenation.
To test for this, you’ll check your horse’s gums. Normal healthy gums should look pink in color.
With one finger, push on your horses gums so that they blanch. Release your finger and watch to see how long it takes for the gums to return to their normal pink color.
If it takes longer than three seconds to return to normal or your horses gums are shades of red or blue, your horse is not perfusing adequately.
Take a look at this video on checking capillary refill and skin turgor:
Being able to take your horse’s vitals offers you a couple of advantages. First, you can recognize when your horse is having a problem. Second, when you call your vet, you can provide more information and help your veterinarian determine how urgently your horse needs to be seen.
Finally, one of the most important things about taking your horse’s vital signs is having a baseline for your horse. Don’t wait until your horse is sick to take vitals. Know what’s normal for your horse so you can recognize when something is wrong.