angle-left Equine Vital Signs

Equine Vital Signs

Every owner should know how to record a horse’s vital signs, what are normal levels – and not.

how to take equine vital signs (Credit: Holly Clanahan for AQHA)

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By Holly Clanahan for America’s Horse magazine

If you suspect your horse is colicking or having some other sort of health issue, of course, you’ll make a phone call to your veterinarian. But don’t be surprised if some of his or her first questions involve your horse’s vital signs. It’s important, too, that you’ve practiced taking vital signs before a health crisis hits. That way, you’re comfortable with the techniques and you have a baseline for what’s normal for your horse. 

The following are some equine vital sign tips from Dr. Chad Zubrod of Oakridge Equine Hospital in Edmond, Oklahoma, and the American Association of Equine Practitioners, an AQHA alliance partner. 

Temperature

A horse’s normal temperature range is 99.5 to 101.5 F. To safely take a horse’s rectal temperature, Dr. Zubrod advises the following:

  1. Stand at the horse’s side at their hindquarters.

  2. Use one hand to hold their tail aside and the other to hold the thermometer.

  3. It is suggested to use a plastic digital thermometer for safety and efficiency.

  4. Caution: If your horse’s temperature exceeds 102.5 F, contact your veterinarian immediately.

Pulse

A horse’s normal pulse range is 30 to 42 beats per minute. 

  1. Use a stethoscope behind a horse’s left elbow.

  2. Find the lub-dub (counts for one beat).

  3. Time yourself for 15 seconds and count the beats.

  4. Multiply that number of heart beats by four to get the beats per minute.

  5. Caution: A resting heart rate higher than 64 beats per minute signifies pain and possibly a more serious problem. 

If you don’t have a stethoscope, you can press your index or middle finger on the large artery that runs along the inside of the horse’s jaw, as shown in the top-most photo.

Respiration

A horse’s normal respiration range is 12 to 20 breaths per minute. To calculate a horse’s respiration rate, simply watch his chest. One inhalation counts as one breath. 

Gut Sounds

Normal gurgling or tinkling sounds of digestion can be heard by stethoscope:

  • Between the top of the hindquarters and belly.

  • At the back of the bottom of the belly.

Listen to both areas on either side of the horse. If you don’t hear sounds after several seconds, this could indicate colic

Capillary Refill Time

A horse’s normal capillary refill time is two seconds. Press on your horse’s gums above his teeth and see how long it takes for the color to return after your take your finger off the gum. A longer capillary refill time may indicate circulatory problems. The color of the gums is important, too. Pink is healthy, while red, pale or purplish gums could be problematic.

The Pinch Test

Pinch a fold of neck skin and release it. It should immediately snap back into place, but if it remains “tented,” that’s evidence of dehydration.