Knowing how your horse acts and reacts when he is feeling good will help you to faster realize when there is something “not right” with him. Every horse owner needs to know what is “normal” for their horse. Being able to report these to your veterinarian when you contact him can help evaluate whether a visit is necessary and/or how quickly your horse needs to be seen.
Get a baseline of your horse’s temperature, pulse and respiration when he is healthy, relaxed and before working him. You may also want to get additional readings in both summer and winter and after riding to know what is normal for your horse in different circumstances.
What you’ll need:
- a watch that counts seconds;
- a thermometer – plastic digital one are best for ease and safety;
- a stethoscope;
- a notepad or record book for recording the vital sounds.
The normal temperature for the horse is 100.0 degrees. However, a horse’s temperature can vary somewhat with the season. During the winter, your horse’s “normal” temperature may drop several degrees, but low temperatures generally are not causes for concern. On the other hand, summer heat, as well as exercise, can often raise a horse’s temperature a few degrees. These circumstances must also be taken into account when determining if there is cause for concern.
It is easiest to take your horse’s temperature rectally with a clean digital thermometer. Coating the tip of the thermometer with petroleum jelly can make it easier for you to insert and more comfortable for your horse. Always tie a string to the end of the thermometer to make sure you can retrieve it. You can also briefly wrap your horse’s dock in a bandage to make it easier to push the tail hair away to insert the thermometer. Most thermometers will beep when the maximum temperature has been reached.
If your horse’s temperature is over 102 F, you should call your veterinarian.
The pulse rate is taken by listening to the heart, located on the left side of the chest just behind the elbow. You can also take the pulse at the thick artery that runs underneath the cheekbone on either side of your horse’s face. Place three fingers (never your thumb which has its own pulse) on the artery and press upward and inward.
Using a stephoscope can often make hearing and counting the heart beats easier. Some people listen to the heart rate for 10 seconds and then multiply by 6, or 30 seconds and multiply by 2. However, if you have any questions, listen to the pulse rate for the full minute.
The normal pulse rate is 40 beats per minute. Horses that are fit may have rates as low as 28 so knowing your horse’s condition is important. Young horses and ponies can sometimes have a bit faster pulse rate.
Rates between 40-60 are considered “serious”, but may be explained by an elevated temperature such as on a very hot day. Also, if the horse is suddenly frightened or excited, his heart rate can become temporarily elevated on a very temporary. Wait a few minutes and then recheck to see if the rate comes down when he is more relaxed. Rates above 80 are considered “critical” and indicate a very serious problem.
However, ANY rate above 40, even 44, should be regarded with suspicion and evaluated in the overall picture of how the horse is feeling.
Respiration is how hard your horse is breathing. Watch his sides as he breathes in and out and count the number of complete breaths. Deep heavy breathing, or breathing with an extra abdominal effort, abnormal noise, labored breathing, or gasping are all indications of a serious problem.
The normal rate for horses is between 8-12 breaths per minute. Again, many things can effect this that must be taken into consideration before considering whether it is abnormal. One common factor is his temperature, excitement or a heavy workout.
While temperature, pulse and respiration are the three most common vital signs used to determine your horse’s health, there are other indicators that you may want to check and report to your veterinarian:
- Mucus Membrane Color: The normal color is pink
- Capillary Refill Time: After depressing the gums, the color should return within 1-2 seconds.
- Gut sounds (borborygmus): A horse should have a normal gurgling sound on both sides of the abdomen back near the flanks.
- Hydration: Pinch and elevate the horse’s skin over the shoulder, then let go. If it snaps back into place very quickly, your horse is properly hydrated
For a chart that can be posted next to your horse’s stall with instructions on how to take temperature, pulse and respiration, as well as normals and critical values, click HERE.