A Horse Whisperer’s Guide: Decoding the Language of Equine Health

Equine Care

How to Recognize Signs of Illness in Horses

Whether you’re a seasoned equestrian or a newcomer to the equestrian world, keeping your horse healthy is undoubtedly a top priority. It’s not always easy to tell when our equine companions are ill or in pain, so in this post we’ll be going over the basics in recognizing the signs of illness, with a particular focus on topics such as baseline heart rate, respiration, temperature, and weight.

Now, before we jump into the signs of illness, let’s first establish what is considered normal for a healthy horse. By knowing your horse’s baseline vital signs, it enables you to spot problems early and address potential issues before they become too advanced.


Signs of Good Health


The normal body temperature for an adult horse ranges from 99.5 to 101.5°F, and only slightly higher (102.0°F) for a foal. Anything above this could be considered feverish, so keeping a reliable equine thermometer on hand would be essential. Sometimes environmental factors like weather and recent exercise can cause slight temperature fluctuations, however anything persistently abnormal warrants attention.


Heart Rate/Pulse:

An adult horse’s resting heart rate typically ranges from 28 to 44 beats per minute (bpm), while a foal’s bpm could be anywhere from 70-110 beats per minute – over twice that of an adult! To measure bpm, place your hand on the horse’s pastern or under their jaw, and count the number of beats in 30 seconds, then multiply by two to get the beats per minute. Keep in mind that factors like age, fitness level, and environmental conditions can influence heart rate, so familiarize yourself with your horse’s individual baseline.



At rest, a healthy adult horse should take 10 to 24 breaths per minute, whereas a foal can take anywhere from 30 to 40. Count the number of breaths by watching the horse’s flank rise and fall: one full breath includes one inhalation and one exhalation. Just like heart rate, factors such as temperature and stress can affect respiration, so it’s important to know what you consider normal for your horse.



Regularly monitor your horse’s weight using a livestock scale or a weight tape and then compare that figure to the Henneke body condition score (BCS). The score, numbered one through nine, details the health of the horse by the percentage of body fat present. A score of between four and six represents a healthy animal, so anything over or under should be evaluated. Keep in mind that weight can fluctuate seasonally due to factors like changes in diet, exercise levels, and weather conditions, though. A sudden, significant weight loss or gain may indicate an underlying health issue, however, so make sure to investigate promptly.

Now that we’ve covered the basics, let’s discuss some red flags that might indicate your horse isn’t feeling their best.

Potential Signs of Illness

Changes in Vital Signs:

As explained above, temperature, pulse, and respiration (TPR) are three key vital signs that need to be evaluated when assessing a horse’s health. Depending on the age of your horse, their TPR can fluctuate quite significantly so it’s important to familiarize yourself with what is considered normal for each of your animals. Some ailments, like a fever, can be difficult to diagnose as the symptoms are not only subtle, but could be misdiagnosed as normal if you’re unaware of what is considered the baseline for the age of your horse. If you do find the temp is above normal, consult your veterinarian as soon as possible.

Altered Behavior:

Any sudden and unexpected changes to your horse’s behavior should be cause for concern. A normally energetic horse suddenly becoming lethargic or a calm horse becoming agitated may signal discomfort and should not be easily dismissed as behavioral changes often precede physical symptoms, so always trust your intuition and investigate further if something seems off.


Changes in Eating Habits:

Horses are creatures of habit, and any deviation from their usual eating patterns should raise concern. Do they take much longer to eat their food than normal? Do they take breaks to walk around before continuing to munch? These could be signs that they’re experiencing gastrointestinal distress. Keep an eye on the quantity and quality of food consumed, as well as changes in water intake as a reduced appetite or increased thirst may point to an underlying issue.


Problems with Mucous Membranes and Capillary Refill:

The mucous membranes are a group of tissues that line different parts of the body and secrete mucus, such as in the oral and nasal cavities. To evaluate whether or not the membranes are showing signs of distress, examine your horse’s gum line. The gums should be shiny, wet and pink if your animal is in peak health, but if they’re dry, pale or tacky in texture, consult your veterinarian.

When examining the gums, capillary refill should also be assessed. Capillary refill is how quickly the blood flow returns to the tissue when depressed. Press down gently but firmly on your horse’s gums. If the color returns within two seconds of removing your finger, your horse has good capillary refill. If it takes longer than three seconds for the color to return, it may be a good idea to have your horse thoroughly checked out.


Digestive Issues:

Changes in manure consistency, frequency, or the presence of blood can signal digestive problems. Diarrhea, one of the most common symptoms of digestive ailments, can be caused by many things, including infectious diseases, sand accumulation in the colon, inflammatory bowel disease, and sometimes cancer, so it’s important to familiarize yourself with your horse’s normal bowel habits and consult a veterinarian if you notice any concerning changes. 

Changes in Coat Quality:

One of the most obvious signs of illness in our four-legged friends is the quality and condition of their coats. Although coats can see many changes throughout the seasons, if the coat seems duller, rougher, or if there are signs of prolonged hair loss, regardless of the season, it could be a cause for concern.

Being a responsible horse owner means becoming fluent in the language of equine health. By establishing and regularly monitoring your horse’s baseline vital signs, you empower yourself to recognize the subtle cues that indicate potential illness. Early detection and prompt action can make all the difference in ensuring your horse lives a healthy, happy life, so keep careful baseline records for your equine companions and remember to trust your intuition if you feel something is amiss.