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First Posted: Apr 10, 2009
Feb 12, 2011

Vital Signs of Your Horse

by Debora Johnson

Have you ever thought about how you can determine the vital signs of your horse? What are the vital signs? If you notice that your horse is behaving in an unusual way: not eating, listless, change in temperament, sweating at rest, has labored or rapid breathing at rest, etc., it is important to take the vital signs to help you determine if something may be wrong. Often the vet will ask you for the horse's vital signs. It is important to get in the habit of taking your horse's vitals because it will help you be a better custodian of your horse's health. So, what are the vital signs?

Vital Signs

  • Temperature
  • Pulse
  • Respiration
  • Gut Sounds
  • Dehydration
  • Capillary Refill Time
  • Mucous Membrane Color

Temperature (99 degrees F - 101 degrees F)

99 degrees F - 101 degrees F is a normal temperature reading for a horse. A higher reading may spell trouble such as an infection or illness of some sort. Warmer weather, exercise and stress tend to increase a horse's temperature. In cooler weather your horses's temperature may be lower. There is fluctuation in a horse's temperature readings of about 3 degrees F. Give your vet a call if your horse registers a temperature 102 degrees F or higher.

How to Take A Horse's Temperature

I never like being at the tail end of a horse. When taking your horse's temperature this is a necessary evil. For an accurate temperature reading you should take your horse's temperature rectally. A thermometer can disappear into the horse's anus when you let go of it. I always have a string tied to my thermometer so that it does not get lost. I do not use a glass thermometer anymore. They can break. The glass can cause damage and the mercury can cause damage, as well. Instead, I use a thermometer which is made of a hard plastic material--a polymer of some sort. There are also digital thermometers that are made for our equine friends. They are more user friendly. Make sure to clean the thermometer with something like alcohol before insertion. Likewise, make sure you clean the thermometer after the horse's temperature is taken.

In my opinion it is safest to have two people when taking your horse's temperature if at all possible. One person can stand at the horse's head and hold the horse giving reassurance while the temperature is being taken. If I do not have a second person I put my horses in cross ties and proceed. The thermometer is clean, as stated above. Lubricate it with something like KY jelly. Many people use vaseline but I prefer KY jelly because it is not petroleum based. KY jelly is water based. Stand to the side of your horse, away from kicking legs. Always have a hand placed on your horse so that he knows exactly where you are at all times. Lift the horse's tail gently, to the side so that it is not in the way. Gently insert the thermometer into the horses rectum. Most thermometers need to be in for approximately 3 minutes. Make sure to hold the string. For extra safety a clip can be put on the string and then clipped to the horse's tail. That way if the horse acts up or you just drop the string for some reason, the clip on the tail will ensure that the thermometer is not lost in the horse's rectum. Some of the digital thermometers take less time. Usually a sleeve is used over the digital thermometers for cleanliness reasons. You dispose of the plastic sleeve after use. It is still a good idea to make sure the thermometer is washed in sudsy water and then disinfected. Cleanliness helps to prevent the spreading of disease. Digital thermometers usually stay in for a minute or so. They let you know that the reading is ready by beeping. If you lose the thermometer in the horse's rectum do not panic! Call the vet immediately because it must be retrieved and removed.

Pulse

An adult horse, at rest, usually has a pulse rate of 30 to 40 beats a minute. If you register a pulse rate, at rest, of 50 or more it usually signals a problem of some sort. Foals have a pulse rate of 70 to 120 beats per minute, yearlings 45 to 60 beats per minute and 2 year olds 40 to 50 beats per minute. There are a number of situations that may increase a horse's pulse rate: pain, excitement, fear, exercise, distress, infection, and disease. The higher the pulse rate the more the concern.

How to Take Your Horse's Pulse

The easiest way to take your horse's pulse is in front of the left jawbone. A major artery can be found there. Take your forefinger and press against the artery. You will feel the beat of your horse's heart. (Tip: If you use your thumb you will feel your own heart beat, instead. Do not ever use your thumb!) Count the beats for 15 seconds and then multiply that number by 4. That will give you the number of beats per minute. I use a stop watch. If you have someone with you they can tell you when 15 seconds has passed. That is always easier. A second site to take your horse's pulse is behind his left elbow. Sometimes a pulse is taken below the horses pastern. A fast pulse there will often indicate infection or laminitis.

Respiration

An adult horse takes between 8 and 15 breaths per minute. Horses are the most efficient users of oxygen of all land mammals! Weather affects a horse's respiration. Hot and humid weather increases a horse's respiration as does pain, fear, fever, and distress. A horse should never pant. If a horse is breathing rapidly, at rest, call the vet immediately. That spells trouble! A horse's respiration should never be more than his pulse rate. Inhalation and exhalation should be equal.

How Do You Check Your Horse's Respiration?

Place your hand on your horse's ribcage or belly for one minute. One inhalation and exhalation counts as one breath. Horses breath slowly--remember only 18 to 15 breaths a minute. Count the number of breaths for one minute. There are several other ways to take a horse's respiration. You can look at the horses nostrils or put your hand by the nostrils to feel the air inhaled and exhaled. You can also use a stethoscope to hear the air being taken in and let out by placing it on the horse's windpipe. If a horse has allergies, heaves, or any kind of respiratory problems this method may be difficult if you are not a vet.

Gut Sounds

You always want to hear gut sounds. The absence of gut sounds spells trouble such as colic. To check for gut sounds you can put your ear against your horse's belly behind his last rib. If you hear gurgling that is good. Listen to both sides of your horse's gut. I have a stethoscope so I use that. It is easier. If there is an absence of sound your horse is probably having distress. Call the vet.

Dehydration

A horse will drink approximately 5 gallons of water per day. Humidity, heat and exercise will increase the amount of water a horse drinks per day. Dehydration is dangerous. Many people will use electrolytes to guard against dehydration. Flavoring water can be helpful if your horse is refusing to drink. Most horses really like apple juice, so just add some to the water to encourage him to drink if he is at all dehydrated and call the vet immediately.

How to Test for Dehydration in Your Horse

On your horse's neck pinch the skin gently until it is raised in an inverted "V" between your thumb and forefinger. Your horse is dehydrated if the pinched skin stands up and does not spring back to normal. The slower the pinched skin is to retract back to normal the more dehydrated your horse. Also, you can check your horse's gums. The gums should be a nice pink color. If there is a blue tint or other color this is usually an indictor of trouble.

Capillary Refill Time

Capillary refill time is used to indicate blood circulation. Refill time is usually 1 to 2 seconds on a healthy horse. Lift your horse's lip and press your thumb against your horse's gums for about 2 seconds. Remove your thumb. His gum will turn white in that spot. The pink color should return to the white spot of the gum within 2 seconds. If the capillary refill time takes longer, then your horse might be in distress. Call the vet.

Mucous Membranes

You can see mucous membranes on your horse inside his nostrils, the eyelid lining, and the gums. The color of these linings are usually a pale pink. Any other color can spell possible trouble: very pale, bright red, gray or blue, or yellow--call the vet immediately.

Mucous Membranes Colors and What They Mean

  • Moist Pink: Healthy normal circulation.
  • Very Pale Pink: Capillaries contracted, indicates fever, blood loss or anemia.
  • Bright Red: Capillaries enlarged, indicates toxicity or mild shock.
  • Gray or Blue: Severe shock, depression and illness.
  • Bright Yellow: Associated with liver problems.

I hope that this has been helpful. Remember, if in doubt call your vet. You may also read my article on Vital Signs Assessment


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