EDUCATION UPDATE
Learning your horses vital signs
By Patrick Young, DVM
The Athletic Horse is dedicated to helping you care for your horse. We are available for both routine
and emergency care, but also want to educate our clients about basic horse health. The vital signs of a
horse, temperature, heart rate, and respiration are good markers of its health. Knowing the normal
heath parameters for your horse will give your vet vital information in an emergency.
It is easy to assess your horse’s vital signs. You will only need a few supplies, which should be a part of
your standard emergency kit: a digital thermometer, stethoscope, and a watch. If you need assistance,
just ask, and the staff at The Athletic Horse will be happy to teach you the necessary skills.
Temperature
Adult: 99.5 to 101.5 F / Foal: Up to 102 can be considered normal
Take your horses’ temperature prior to giving any medication, as some drugs can affect body temp.
Pulse / Heart Rate
Adult: Normal resting rate is 30 – 40 beats per minute.
A stethoscope is the easiest way to monitor the heart rate. The pulse can also be taken by palpating the
facial artery where it crosses over the bone on the bottom jaw. Count the beats for 15 seconds, and
multiply by four to achieve beats per minute. You can use a stethoscope to hear the heart beating in the
chest. Place the stethoscope on the side of the chest just behind the left elbow. Each “lub-dub” is one
beat.
Respiratory Rate
Adult: 8 – 16 breaths per minute
The respiratory rate can be checked by simply watching the horse breathe. You can use your
stethoscope to listen to your horse’s trachea, or listen to his lungs. Learn the normal sounds when your
horse is healthy, so when your horse is in distress, you can differentiate and hear problems. Crackling,
squeaking, or rattling are signs of potential problems.
Capillary Refill Time (CRT), and Mucous Membrane Color
Gum color, texture, and capillary refill time are important indicators of health. Check your own gums in
the mirror: a nice healthy pink and moist to the touch. The color means the tissue is receiving good
blood flow, and the moistness is a sign of hydration. Your horse should look the same way. Blue,
purple, or white gums are bad. Dry or sticky gums indicate the horse may be dehydrated.
Look in the mirror again: press your finger to your gums with a little bit of pressure for just a second.
When you release your finger, you will see your gums turn white and then fill in pink again. This is called
the capillary refill time (CRT). In a healthy horse, CRT should be less than 2 seconds.
Gut Sounds
Normal for an adult: 3/minute-4/minute
To listen to gut sounds you will ideally need a stethoscope. Sometimes, gut sounds can be heard if you
place your ear next to the horse’s flank. You want to listen on both sides for 1 minute each. Both quiet
and excessive gut sounds can be indicators of problems.
Dehydration
Dehydration occurs when there is excessive loss of water in the horse's body. While there are many
causes, strenuous exercise, excessive heat, or digestive imbalances are the most common. The loss of
water and electrolytes -- minerals like sodium, chloride, and potassium -- is a serious emergency that
can lead to organ failure. To check for dehydration, pinch a flap of skin along the horses neck ~ it should
snap back quickly. Skin that remains tented is an indication of a serious problem.
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Learning Your Horses Vital Signs