How to take your horse's vital signs

Knowing your horse’s normal vital signs and being able to evaluate them quickly can come in handy when your horse may not be feeling his best. Here are the vital signs the Badger Equine Veterinary Services doctors use to evaluate horses, what the normal values are, and how to examine and assess them properly.

T:  Temperature

Adult Horse: 98.5 to 101 degrees F

Neonatal Foal: 99 to 102 degrees F

A horse’s body temperature is best evaluated by inserting a thermometer into the horse’s anus. This can be dangerous, as some horses are unfamiliar or uncomfortable with this process and can react unpredictably. It is best to stand to the horse’s left with a forearm braced against the hindquarters so that you are pushed out of the way if the horse steps to the side. Standing to the side will also help to keep you out of harm’s way if the horse kicks out.

The thermometer should be lubricated for easy insertion and held in place until an accurate temperature is taken. A glass mercury thermometer should be shaken down to read below 95 degrees before insertion and held in place for at least 60 seconds before removing it and reading the temperature. A digital thermometer will beep when it is done reading.

Here, Dr. Kiser demonstrates how to take your horse’s temperature:

While exercise, hot weather, and excitement can raise a horse’s body temperature, an equine veterinarian should be consulted if your horse’s temperature is above 102 degrees.

P:  Pulse/Heart Rate

Adult Horse: 28 to 48 beats per minute

Neonatal Foal: 70 to 110 beats per minute. May note a murmur in first two days post-foaling.

The heart can be heard using a stethoscope placed between the 2nd to 5th intercostal space. Horses have four heart sounds, and the full cycle sounds like “Bah-lub-dub-ah” (as opposed to “lub-dub”). In some horses, all four heart sounds can be detected, while in others only two or three heart sounds can be heard (“lub-dub” or “bah-lub-dub”). The individual heart sounds are usually not all heard at the same location as their points of maximal intensity vary.

In order to take your horse’s heart rate, stand on the horse’s left side. Place a stethoscope on the horse’s chest, tucked just under the elbow. Count the number of full beats for 15 seconds, then multiply the number by 4. If a horse’s heart rate is elevated at rest, an equine veterinarian should be consulted.

Another component of taking your horse’s heart rate is listening to the heart rhythm. A second degree atrioventricular (AV) block results in a missed, dropped, or blocked beat, and is the most common arrhythmia found in horses (15-18% of horses have it). It is associated with a slow or normal heart rate and high vagal tone. The rhythm generally converts to a normal sinus rhythm when the horse is exercised.

If any abnormal heart sounds are heard, such as any murmurs or abnormal rhythms (arrhythmia), an equine veterinarian should be consulted.

The pulse can also be felt at other peripheral locations on the horse. These places where a pulse can be felt include:

  • The facial (mandibular) artery that crosses the lower border of the jawbone
    • Stand slightly to the side of the horse’s head and cup your hand with your first two fingers along the inside of the jawbone, just below the heavy muscles of the cheek.
    • Feel along the inside of the jawbone until you consistently feel the pulse beat.
    • Count the beats for 15 seconds, then multiply by 4 for beats per minute.
  • The transverse facial artery near the eye
    • Using two fingers, find the pulsing artery just below the facial crest.
    • Count the beats for 15 seconds, then multiply by 4 for beats per minute.
 Facial Mandibular Artery

Facial Mandibular Artery

 Transverse FAcial Artery

Transverse FAcial Artery

  • The radial artery at the back inside of the front knee (carpus)
    • Crouch facing the limb, then place your hand around the back of the knee with the pads of your fingers pressing on the radial artery. (Anatomically, taking the pulse here is just like taking your pulse at the wrist.)
    • Once your fingers locate the strong, consistent pulse beat, count the beats for 15 seconds and multiply by 4 for the beats per minute.
  • The digital artery, located below the fetlock at the inside of the ankle
    • Crouch facing the limb and locate the digital artery with the pads of your fingers. The pulse may be best found on the inside or outside branch of the digital artery.
    • Place the pads of your fingers on the artery and count the beats for 15 seconds, then multiply by 4 for the beats per minute.
    • This can also be helpful when dealing with a lame horse. Increased or bouncing digital pulses can indicate a problem in the foot or limb.
 Radial Artery

Radial Artery

 Digital Artery

Digital Artery

R:  Respiration

Adult Horse: 8 to 20 breaths per minute

Neonatal Foal: 20 to 40 breaths per minute

Horses’ respiratory rates can be taken by either watching their sides move in and out with each breath, or feeling the air go in and out of their nostrils. A stethoscope can be used to listen to the lungs for any crackles, wheezes, or squeaks within in the lung field outlined in red below:

 Horse Vital Sign: Respiration. Horse's Lung Field.

The character of the horse’s breathing should also be noted. Does the breathing seem shallow or labored? Does the horse seem to have a hard time breathing in, or does he breath out quickly? Is there an abdominal component to the breathing? Is the horse coughing often? Anything other than quiet, slow breathing should be examined by an equine veterinarian.

Mucous Membrane Color

 Horse Vital Sign: Checking Horse's Mucous Membrane Color

Mucous membrane color can be a quick indicator of your horse’s health. The gums should be a pink to pale pink color that are moist to the touch. Any color other than pink/pale pink, such as white, yellow, dark or brick red, purple, or blue gums, should be cause for alarm and an equine veterinarian should be called immediately.

Capillary Refill Time

Normal: Less than 2 seconds

Capillary refill time (CRT) can also alert an owner to potential problems. To take a CRT, lift the horse’s lips, press a finger firmly against the gums, and then take it away. Count the number of seconds it takes for the color to return to the area. If the time is prolonged, this could indicate various types of shock or severe dehydration, and an equine veterinarian should be consulted.

Borborygmi (Gut Sounds)

There isn’t a specific amount of sound you will hear in a horse’s gut at any given time, but you do want sounds to be present. The gut sounds indicate that there are peristaltic movements to the guts, or that they are moving normally. Gurgles, grumbles, and roars are what are usually heard in a normal abdomen. Using a stethoscope, you should listen in four abdominal quadrants illustrated by the green stars below:

 Horse Vital Sign: Borborygmi, Left Abdominal Quandrants

 Horse Vital Sign: Borborygmi, Right Abdominal Quadrants

Silence is an indication that something is abnormal. This, especially paired with signs of discomfort (laying down, rolling, pawing, looking/biting at sides, sweating, etc.), is an emergency and an equine veterinarian should be called immediately.

Our friends at SmartPak illustrate how to take your horse’s vital signs:

Being proficient in taking your horse’s vital signs can alert you to problems before they become serious or life-threatening. If you note any abnormalities, an equine veterinarian should always be consulted. And in an emergency situation, it’s very important to provide your equine veterinarian with basic information regarding your horse’s vital signs — but remember to stay safe.

Badger Equine Veterinary Services offers 24-hour on-call equine emergency service. Learn more about our emergency services, so you know what to do before you need us.