Equine 101: Horse Vitals

This article is coming to you a day late due to an emergency I recently experienced.  I apologize for the delay, and it will be explained in the next article.

How are you under stress?

Do you lose your mind? Or are you cool calm and collected?

When your horse isn’t acting right how do you know?

If you’re around horses enough sooner or later you’ll run into a situation that gets scary.  A horse doesn’t feel well, is acting out of the normal.


If you’ve found yourself in a high stress situation how did you handle it? What were some things that got you through it?  How would you change for the better?

The first important thing is to know a horse’s vital signs.  If you have to call a vet it will help you, your vet, and most importantly your horse to know this information and how to obtain it.

Before calling the vet, check the vitals.  This will give the vet a better idea of what he/she is dealing with.  The more information you can provide the better chances you’ll have of an accurate diagnosis and quicker treatment.


Mouth: Are the mouth and gums moist and pink?  Inspect the mouth noting the color of the gums and any abnormalities.  A vet should be called if you see any other color than pink.

Some colors that may be seen include:

Pink, Very Pale Pink, Bright Red, Gray/Blue, or Bright Yellow

Healthy Gums; photo courtesy of Tania C.-Flickr

Capillary Refill Time: Press your fingers on your horses gums for a few moments (the spot will turn white) then remove them.  Watch and count how long it takes for the gums to turn from white to pink once you remove your finger.

Normal Range (Adult): 2 seconds or less

Gut sounds:  Place your ear on the horses barrel and listen for gurgling gut noises.  Be prepared to possibly describe these noises to your vet if needed.  Is it growling? gurgling? Trickling? Something else?

Respiratory Rate: It’s easiest to have a stethoscope but you can easily count the horse’s breaths per minute.  Use a stopwatch app and count. You can do this by watching the flare of the nostrils, watching the rise and fall of the flank, or by listening using a stethoscope.

Normal Range (Adult): 10-24 breaths per minute

Pulse: Check the horse’s pulse.  One of the easiest ways to do this is place your fingers on an artery.  A couple potential spots include the inside of the jaw, the inside of the front leg above the knee, the outside of the hind leg, or under the tail.  You can also grab a stethoscope to listen to the actual heartbeat.  It’s not likely the horse will be completely still for a whole minute.  Try measuring for 15 seconds and multiply by 4 (or 10 seconds times 6).

Normal Range (Adult): 28-44 beats per minute

Temperature:  Carefully insert a thermometer into your horse’s anus.  Vasoline works wonders.  Keep a good hold on your thermometer so you don’t lose it up there (It can cause more issues, never let go).  It’s a good practice to have a string attached to the thermomter just in case.

Normal Range (Adult): 98-101°F or 37.2-38.3°C


These suggestions would be for a calm adult horse at rest.  They can be skewed for a number of reasons such as nervousness, heat, or errors in measurement.


An once of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

So how do you prevent complications?

That’s a loaded question.  Let’s try again.

How do you prevent user error and increase the chances of giving the vet accurate information?

  • Keep records. Take your horse’s vital signs often and establish a baseline.  Get a notebook and work it into your routine.
    • In some illnesses (like Lyme Disease) experience a low grade fever which may be a normal reading for another horse.  If you know what your horses “norm” is then you’ll have more accurate healthcare diagnoses.  Without this frequent record you may miss those low grade fevers.
    • By keeping on a normal routine your horse will become used to you poking and prodding so it should have no issues with you when doing so when it’s ill.
    • Practice makes perfect.  If you routinely check your horse’s vitals you’re going to have more accurate readings because you’ll be better and more effective in obtaining the right data.
    • Muscle memory is the best way to combat the stress induced “freeze” or “panic” modes.  Once you become comfortable obtaining your horse’s vitals it will be second nature to take them regardless of your stress level.
  • Common mistakes to avoid include:
    • Double-counting heartbeats.  One heartbeat is one “thu-thump.”
    • Getting too close while counting respiratory rate.  If your horse sniffs at something your count will be higher than normal.
    • Removing the thermometer too soon.  This can cause low readings.

Earlier I mentioned that I was dealing with an emergency.  I had nearly finished with this article to the timing is ironically impeccable.

Come back for the next article, which will be published tomorrow to get more information on our little experience.

In the meantime, practice your vital signs!

Some additional Reading

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s