How to Monitor Vital Signs

Icon of a book Monitoring Vital Signs

All horse owners should know what is “normal” for their horse. A horse’s vital signs include its temperature, pulse and respiration.

The normal parameters of the horse’s vital signs can be an essential benchmark in monitoring its health.


The temperature is taken using a lubricated (veterinary) rectal thermometer. A digital thermometer is safer and easier to use. To prevent the loss of thermometer into the anus, tie a string to the top end of it and clip it to the tail hairs. To insert the thermometer, stand to the side of the horse. Lift the tail with one hand and slowly slide the thermometer into the anus with your other hand once the horse has relaxed. Try to slide the thermometer gently on the top or bottom of the rectal opening, as opposed to down the center of the tract, which may contain feces, which can cause an inaccurate reading. 

Inserting the thermometer is easier if a lubricant has been applied to it. After a minimum of three minutes the temperature may be read.  A normal rectal temperature is between 37°C to 38.5°C in adult horses. An abnormally high temperature reading may be false and should be checked again in ten minutes.

Horse in a halter and blanket standing in walkway outside a stall.
Figure 2.6: Horse in Halter Wearing a Blanket


The heart rate (pulse) is measured using a watch that gives seconds and minutes. Time for 15 seconds then multiply by 4. 

The heart rate tells you how fast the horse’s heart is beating. The pulse rate is affected by air temperature, exercise, excitement and age. The normal heart rate for an adult horse at rest is 28 to 44 beats per minute. The heart rate is faster for a young horse.

To take the pulse you need to find an artery near the skin surface. Most arteries are located well inside the body to reduce injury but three arteries can be used. They may be found: 

  • at the margin of the jaw where it comes from the underside,
  • at the inside of the elbow joint,
  • under the tail. 

– Adapted with permission from 4H Alberta Horse Manual (Section “Horse Health”)


To measure respiration, place your hand on the flank of the horse to feel the movement as the horse inhales and exhales, count one for each inhale and exhale, not two. You can also do the count by watching the flank. In winter, you can count the number of times the horse exhales by watching the warm puffs of air coming from the nostrils. Remember the respiration rate will also be higher after exercise, in warm weather and when the ventilation is poor. Under these conditions the breathing will also be deeper. A rate of 10 to 14 breaths per minute is normal for an adult horse that is at rest.

Table 2.1 outlines the vital signs for an adult horse when at rest and relaxed. These will vary according to age, physical fitness and environmental conditions.

Table 2.1 NFACC Vital Signs for an Adult Horse at Rest

Vital SignNormal Range
Heart Rate28-44 beats per minute
Respiration rate 10-14 breaths per minute 
Rectal temperature 37°C – 38.5°C (99.5°F – 101.3°F) 

The video below provides a brief overview of vital signs to monitor in your horse.

Icon of a graded written submission Vital Signs (Activity)

It is important to monitor vital signs, which indicate body functions and provide a “window” into the health of the animal. Vital signs include body temperature, heart rate (pulse) and breathing rate, or respiration. Regular monitoring of an animal’s vital signs can help give an indication of what is “normal” for that animal. 

Take a few minutes to complete the following activity.

Activity Instructions

  1. Open your copy of the activities booklet for this module which you saved on your computer at the beginning of the module.
  2. Scroll down to the “Vital Signs” activity item in the booklet.
  3. Complete each of the activities outlined in the instructions. Note: links provided in the “Weblinks” item located later in this module may help you complete the activity.
  4. SAVE your work.

When you are done, proceed to the next item here in the online course.

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