Equine Vital Signs Explained
Steffany L. Dragon, M.S.
Are You Familiar with Your Horse’s Normal, Resting Vital Signs & Behavior? As usual, we strive to have a little fun with our information, not to duplicate the information published already. Before reading or looking ahead, find out how you score on this quick quiz!
1. What does pulse measure?
A) Blood pressure
B) Heart Rate
C) Respiratory Rate
2. Gurgling, gaslike growls, occasional growls or tinkling sounds in the gut are most often signs of:
C) Normal gut activity
3. What does Capillary Refill Time measure?
A) Blood circulation
B) Possibility of shock or dehydration
C) Both a & b
4. It is often perceived safer to use a(n) _____________thermometer when taking the horse’s temperature.
A) Glass/ Mercury
5. The best time to take your horse’s vital signs is:
A) 20-30 minutes after exercise
B) Just Before Eating
C) 10-15 minutes after exercise
Bonus Question: How many bowel movements does your horse generally have overnight?
Answers: 1. B 2. C 3. C 4. B 5. A Bonus: Check in the morning!
How did you score? Being able to measure vital signs and being familiar with your horse’s normal ranges and behavior allows you to detect even subtle changes upon observation. The horse owner that provides the earliest intervention when encountering a horse in any distress gives their beloved equine the greatest chance of a full recovery. I recently came across this quote that illustrates this point, “Waiting until you have a reason to take a horse’s vitals is essentially the same as shutting the barn door after the great escape.” (https://thehorse.com/112293/know-your-horses-health-parameters/)
These are the Normal Resting Vital Signs for a Healthy, Average, Adult Horse. It is important to have them posted or easily accessible in the barn along with the Veterinarian contact information in case of an emergency.
We commonly refer to them as TPR (Temperature, Pulse & Respiration). It is important to emphasize that these are normal ranges at rest. In other words, any excitement, pain, nervousness, sickness, or weather extremes may and should cause these measurements to reflect the horse’s current health status. For example, hot and humid days can easily result in higher respiration rates and the risk of heat exhaustion. It is a good idea to know if your horse at rest tends to be toward the higher or lower end of the ranges to have a baseline as well. Unless you are determining your horse’s recovery rates (as would be important in endurance riding among other equine sports) you should give your horse at least 20-30 minutes post exercise to return to rest. Inopportune times to take your horse’s resting vitals would be, for example, before feeding, while tacking up, after a nap in the hot afternoon sun, when separated from other horses, etc.
Now, let’s quickly discuss how to measure your horse’s vitals and provide you with some tips!
Temperature: Ideally, lubricate the tip of the equine thermometer with Vaseline, move the horse’s tail out of the way, and insert the thermometer into the rectum while angling it slightly toward the ground. Leave it in for about three minutes or according to the manufacturer’s instructions for an accurate reading. Normal resting temperature should be between 99-101°F. It is a good idea to tie a brightly colored string around the end and clip it to the tail so it can be found if the horse defecates, and it gets dropped in the stall or accidentally “sucked” into the anus. Remember to clean the thermometer before putting it away. The most common mistake with taking temperature is not leaving the thermometer in long enough resulting in a false lower temperature than is accurate.
Pulse: measures the heart rate and is measured in beats per minute. If a stethoscope is handy, you place the head in the flat spot on the side of the horse, just behind the point of the elbow in the girth area. You will hear “lub-dub” which counts as one beat. You can count how many beats in 15 seconds and multiply it x 4 (=60 sec= 1 min) to get beats per minute. A horse at rest should be between 28-44 bpm. The most common mistake owners make with a stethoscope is double counting the heartbeat since there are 2 fast parts per each 1 beat.
If you don’t have a stethoscope available, you can take the pulse from the facial artery where it crosses the jawbone. It is easily located. Assume you are standing on the left side of the horse facing forward. To find the arterial pulse, you would take your right hand, and in front of the jaw muscle (large masseter muscle) feel the artery that feels like a piece of hay-string under the skin that crosses under the jawbone. Press inward and upward. Count how many “pulses” through that artery for 15 seconds and multiply x 4 or for 30 seconds and multiply by 2.
Another way to measure a horse’s pulse, especially when laminitis is suspected is by finding what is referred to as the ’digital pulse’ on the horse’s lower leg. You may follow the tendon grooves down along behind the canon bone where you get to a softer spot just behind the fetlock and practice applying just the right amount of pressure with your fingertip until you feel it. An abnormal bounding digital pulse can indicate laminitis.
Yet, another spot is behind the pastern, just above the heel bulbs. The most important thing to remember is that the best way to find the pulse out of these 4 places, is…whichever you are most comfortable with and become most proficient at. Where the pulse is most easily felt may vary from person to person and horse to horse, so practice what comes most easily and feels normal, so you are prepared in an emergency.
Respiration: measures the breathing rate and is 10-24 breaths per minute for a healthy, adult horse at rest. Growing up riding and showing in hot and humid Florida, this measurement was one we always kept an eye on. It is very easy to visually watch the horse’s nostrils flare with every breath and then count how many flares in 15 seconds and multiply by 4. One mistake that some people make is that they try to feel the air coming out of the nostrils by putting their hand close to the nose. This is a mistake because often a curious horse will commence to sniffing the hand. Sniffing is not the same as breathing and has a much higher rate that would be alarming if measured. Just as there are multiple ways to measure other vitals, another way to measure the respiration rate is to watch the horse’s flanks move in and out, remembering that each inhale OR exhale is considered one breath.
Capillary Refill Time: This measurement is important because it indicates whether or not there is a problem with the horse’s blood circulation. Normal capillary refill time (the time it takes for capillaries in the gums to return to pink after being pressed or blanched white, with a finger) is 2 seconds or less. A delayed refill time may indicate circulatory shock (decreased blood pressure) or dehydration resulting from a serious health problem.
Hydration: Most riders are familiar with the skin tent test where you pinch the horse’s skin into a ‘tent’ in the middle of the neck and release, seeing how long it takes to lay flat again. If it takes more than 1-2 seconds, that is a telltale sign of dehydration.
Gut Health: If you have never listened closely to your horse’s gut sounds before, you may be quite surprised at all the activity and variety of sounds going on in there! Place your ear or, preferably, a stethoscope, against both sides of the abdomen, high and low. A healthy horse’s gut sounds should be gurgling, with gas like growls, “tinkling” or pinging sounds (fluid), and occasional “roars.” Prolonged silence indicates an abnormality and could indicate colic.
Keep in mind that foals have different normal resting vital sign ranges than adult horses with temperature ranging from 99.5-102.1°F, pulse being 80-100 beats per minute , and respiration ranging from 20-40 breaths per minute.
In addition to gauging your horse’s vital signs to interpret his health status, be sure also to:
- Check the condition of the stall (evidence of pawing, circling, manure piles or urine spots)
- Observe any eye or nasal discharge
- Take note of any changes in feed, hay or water consumption
- Pay attention to any changes in attitude, behavior, gait or energy
When it comes to horse stewardship, the more observant owner is the better owner, often interceding just in time to prevent a mild issue from becoming life-threatening. If your horse appears to be experiencing an issue, contacting your veterinarian with his vital signs already measured means you are one step ahead of getting the proper diagnosis and care for your horse.
For a quick reference & review, I think you will enjoy this excellent Vital Signs Chart: https://i.pinimg.com/originals/86/1c/3e/861c3efb86b4d5602a1f84d6d1d02ab8.jpg
Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine has also produced a Printable Vital Signs Stall Card. Not a bad idea to at least fill it out and keep it with your horse’s health records.