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Normal Horse Vital Signs & How to Take Them

Learn to take and measure your horse's vital signs.

 

Vital signs are a snapshot of the body’s basic functions and can help determine a level of well-being in horses and humans alike. Most people know their “normal numbers” for their temperature, blood pressure, pulse, and respiration rate. 

Horse vitals are summarized into the acronym TPR. 

  • (T)= temperature
  • (P)= pulse
  • (R)= respiration  

Anyone who owns or manages horses should know the normal TPR rates and how to take them. Regular monitoring can be done in as few as 10 minutes. Learn what normal is for each horse in your care. This will allow you to quickly assess if the horse has abnormal parameters and potentially avert a serious health problem by quick action.

Start by establishing baseline numbers when all is well. That way you can provide more information to your veterinarian when you suspect a problem.

The horse’s temperature

What’s your resting temperature? 

Chances are 98.6 is an automatic reply. New research suggests it may actually be a degree lower, 97.51, but nonetheless, this stat is ingrained in your mind.

What is your horse's temperature?

Most horse owners can’t immediately respond. Periodically taking your horse’s temperature establishes a baseline for that animal’s “normal.” An adult horse usually has a temperature under 101 degrees F and is usually between 99.5 to 100.5.2 Foals may be within a healthy range of up to 102 degrees Fahrenheit. Heat, humidity, and exercise may cause the horse’s temperature to fluctuate.

An elevated temperature is one of the first indicators of an illness. Get to know your horse’s “normal” range by taking his temperature every morning and evening for a few days at home. Make a note that can serve as useful information in an emergency.

3 Steps for taking a horse’s temperature

Purchase a rectal digital or mercury thermometer. A digital thermometer is easy to read and less likely to break if dropped. However, it operates on batteries, which can lose power over time or in extreme temperatures. A mercury thermometer always works but is more fragile and can break if dropped.

Step 1: Tie a string with a clip to the end of the thermometer. This way you can clip it to the tail and reduce the risk of losing it inside the horse.

Step 2: Use a small amount of petroleum jelly for lubrication. Stand to one side of your horse rather than behind and gently insert the thermometer into the horse’s rectum.

Step 3: Wait for the beep of a digital thermometer to remove. Wait one to two minutes when using a mercury thermometer.

The horse’s pulse

A normal horse pulse is between 24-48 beats per minute (bpm)3. The horse’s genetics and level of fitness impact the number of beats per minute. Like human athletes, fit horses will have a slower resting heart rate. Foals typically have a faster pulse as high as 80 bpm at birth and 60 bpm during the first few months of life.

The simplest place to take the horse’s pulse is under the horse’s jawline.4 Use two fingers to feel the blood pumping. Have a stopwatch or cell phone timer nearby.

  • Set a timer for 15 seconds.
  • Count the beats.
  • Multiply by four.

The resulting number gives you beats per minute or bpm.  

Using a stethoscope is another option for measuring heart rate. Feel for the horse’s pulse on the left side of the horse’s chest just behind the left elbow. Each “lub-dub” equals one beat. This is also based on 15 seconds and multiplying by four.

The horse’s respiration

A person, and a horse’s, respiratory rate is another sign that can create a red flag that there may be a problem.

Option 1: Watch your horse’s diaphragm. Measure the number of expansions and contractions near the flank for 15 seconds.

Option 2: Place your hand by the horse’s muzzle and count the total breaths during 15 seconds.

Once you’re done timing, multiply the count by four. A normal respiratory rate in a healthy, relaxed horse ranges between eight to 20 breaths per minute.5 It’s important to remember that the weather, especially the heat and humidity, can increase respiration rates. 

Other signs of a problem

T-P-R are the basic vital signs every horse owner should know how to measure. Unusual variations from “normal” can help identify illness, distress, and other problems early. These are other signals to get familiar with.6

  • Attitude: A healthy horse is alert and paying attention to what is going on around him. They should respond to you, other horses and be interested in food. 
  • Mucous membranes: The color of the horse’s gums can tell you a lot about his health. Healthy gums are pink and moist. Apply fingertip pressure to measure capillary refill. It should take about two seconds for the color to return.
  • Gut sounds: Unlike in humans where noisy intestines signal problems, these are good signs that all is well inside the horse. 
  • Digital pulses (on the back of the fetlock): The pulse in this area should be faint. Rapid pounding is a sign of a problem.
  • Manure production: Most horses poop between eight and 12 times a day. The horse balls should be moist but not loose.
  • Stance: The horse should be comfortable standing on all four limbs without shifting weight or pointing a leg in front of him. He should walk off normally and be able to turn without hesitation.  

Take the time to get familiar with your horse’s resting vital signs. Monitoring TPR gives you the chance to catch and respond faster. Most importantly the horse receives the care it needs before a condition is life-threatening. Catching an abnormality sooner than later typically costs less to treat than waiting for a situation to escalate.

  1. What is a fever. WebMD. https://www.webmd.com/lung/what-is-a-fever.
  2. Signs of a Healthy Horse. Tom Lenz, DVM, M.S., DACT. AAEP.org. https://aaep.org/horsehealth/signs-healthy-horse.
  3. Signs of a Healthy Horse. Tom Lenz, DVM, M.S., DACT. AAEP.org. https://aaep.org/horsehealth/signs-healthy-horse.
  4. Measuring Temperature, Pulse, & Respiration (TPR): What’s Normal for My Horse? Rutgers.edu. https://esc.rutgers.edu/fact_sheet/measuring-tpr/.
  5. Measuring Temperature, Pulse, & Respiration (TPR): What’s Normal for My Horse? Rutgers.edu. https://esc.rutgers.edu/fact_sheet/measuring-tpr/.
  6. Signs of a Healthy Horse. Tom Lenz, DVM, M.S., DACT. AAEP.org. https://aaep.org/horsehealth/signs-healthy-horse.
Wellness