A Horse’s Vital Signs
A horse’s vital signs include its temperature, pulse and respiration. These vital signs should be measured when the horse is at rest. Additionally, the mucous membranes of the gums are an important indicator of circulatory and general health. Membranes should be pink, shiny and moist. If the gums are a different colour, this can indicate a serious health condition that requires immediate attention. For example, gums that appear very pale to white can indicate blood loss, anemia or low blood pressure. A horse should always be checked in a safe and low-stress environment.
THE PINCH TEST
The most common means of checking for dehydration is the skin pinch test. If a horse is dehydrated, its skin loses water. When the skin on the point of the shoulder is gently pinched, pulled and released, it should snap back quickly. The skin can also be gently pinched between the thumb and forefinger, lifted away from tissue, twisted slightly and released. If the skin fold stays in place for over two seconds, this can indicate that the horse is dehydrated.
Watch this video from Equine Guelph that demonstrates how to assess dehydration in horses using a skin pinch test:
HOW TO TAKE A HORSE’S TEMPERATURE
The temperature is taken using a lubricated veterinary rectal thermometer. A digital thermometer is safer and easier to use. Cover the thermometer with a lubricant, such as Vaseline. To prevent the loss of the thermometer into the anus, tie a string to the top end of it and clip it to the top of the tail. To insert the thermometer, stand to the side of the horse. Lift the tail with one hand and, once the horse has relaxed, slowly slide the thermometer into the anus. Try to slide the thermometer gently on the top or bottom of the rectal opening. Do not insert it down the centre of the tract, as feces may cause an inaccurate reading. After a minimum of three minutes, the temperature may be read. The average rectal temperature is 38°C, but 37.5°C to 38.5°C is considered normal. An abnormally high temperature reading may be false and should be checked again in ten minutes.
Watch this video from Equine Guelph that demonstrates how to measures a horse’s temperature:
HOW TO MEASURE YOUR HORSE’S PULSE
The heart rate tells you how fast the horse’s heart is beating. The pulse rate can be affected by weather conditions, exercise and age. The normal heart rate for a mature horse at rest is 28 to 44 beats per minute, whereas the normal heart rate for a foal is 60-110 beats per minute.
To measure a horse’s pulse, use a stethoscope and press the bell of the stethoscope on the horse’s left side right behind their elbow. Listen for a “lub-dub” sound, which is equivalent to one heart beat. You will also need a stopwatch or a different device with a timer. Count the number of heart beats you hear for 15 seconds. Then multiply that number by 4 to get the horse’s pulse.
Watch this video from Equine Guelph that demonstrates how to measures a horse’s pulse or heart rate:
HOW TO MEASURE A HORSE’S RESPIRATION
To measure respiration, stand laterally beside and watch the horse’s flank to see the flank rise and fall with inhales and exhales. Each inhale and exhale is equivalent to one breath. Count the number of breaths for 1 minute. A rate of 10 to 14 breaths per minute is normal for an adult horse at rest. The horse’s respiration rate will be higher after exercise, in warm weather and if ventilation is poor.
Watch this video from Equine Guelph that demonstrates how to measure a horse’s respiration rate:
Information adapted with permission from the "Horse Health" section of the 4-H Horse Reference Manual, Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development.
LINK: For more information about the vital signs of a horse, refer to the Horse Health Information Guide and the Horse Health Checklist.
LINK: Watch this video by the University of Minnesota for further information on assessing the vital signs of a horse.
What does the Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Equines say about monitoring for normal and abnormal behaviour?
“It is essential that those responsible for horse care be able to recognize normal behaviour, signs of sickness or injury, and have basic knowledge of first aid for horses. It is important to frequently check horses carefully in order to identify problems that may not be apparent from a distance. These inspections can be done during feeding or other chores.“
The following requirements are identified in the Code of Practice:
Horses must be observed as often as required to maintain their health and well-being.
Equines that are sick, injured or in pain must receive appropriate treatment without delay or be euthanized without delay.
For sick, injured or compromised horses that are not showing improvement, horse owners or caregivers must, without delay, obtain veterinary advice on appropriate care and treatment or make arrangements for euthanasia.
These recommended practices are also provided in the Code of Practice:
- Learn how to take a horse’s vital signs and be familiar with signs of illness and injury. Refer to Vital Signs in Horses.
- Consult a veterinarian when vital signs are abnormal for an unknown reason or when a horse shows signs of illness.
DO YOU KNOW what lameness and colic are? If you think you need to find out more, go to the "Managing Horse Allergies & Injuries" and "Common Diseases of Horses" topics.