Checking Your Horse’s Vital Signs – Step by Step

Know how to measure your horse’s temperature, pulse, respiration rate, hydration status and blood pressure. Presented by Dr. Roberta Dwyer of the University of Kentucky’s Gluck Equine Research Center, and

Taking note of your horse’s vital signs on a routine basis is an important part of keeping a healthy horse. And if your horse just seems off, or if there’s a real emergency health issue, being able to relay your horse’s vital signs to your veterinarian can be a great help in the pre-visit moments. This establishes a baseline to help your vet understand what may be going on with your horse.



Check Your Horse’s Vital Signs: “T-P-R” — Temperature, Pulse and Respiration

How to Take Your Horse’s Temperature

First up is checking the temperature, which is done rectally. Dr. Dwyer begins by explaining that while taking a horse’s temperature is not hard, it can be difficult if the owner has not practiced with the horse about staying calm and relaxed with any procedures involving working around the tail or hind end. The digital thermometer is the way to go. Lubricate the thermometer to ease entry, and remove once the thermometer signals the temperature is done.

Normal temperature readings for a horse at rest:

  • Adult horse: 99-101°F
  • Foal: 99.5 – 102°F

Take Your Horse’s Pulse and Heart Rate

Using the stethoscope is the easiest way to check the horse’s pulse. An inexpensive stethoscope will do, along with a watch with a second hand. The video illustrates locating the heart just behind the elbow. Listen for the rhythm of the heartbeat, then start counting the beats for 15 seconds and multiply by 4 for a full minute’s heartbeat count.

Normal pulse / heart rate for a horse at rest:

  • Adult horse: 28-44 beats per minute
  • Foal: 90-120 beats per minute
  • Newborn foal (not 36 hours old): 70-150 beats per minute

Taking the Horse’s Pulse without a Stethoscope: 

Dr. Dwyer shows how to find the facial artery that runs underneath the horse’s jaw area, and by feeling with your fingers, you count the number of beats (pulses) within the artery, counting for 15 seconds – and multiply times 4.

We also learn how to find and check the horse’s pulse through the digital arteries found in the horse’s lower leg, near the fetlock.

Check Your Horse’s Respiration:

The first way Dr. Dwyer shows to check respiratory rate is to simply watch the flank area as the horse breathes – and count the number of breaths in 30 seconds or up to a minute.

Alternatively, you can watch the nostrils flare for every intake of breath.

Normal respiratory rate for a horse at rest:

  • Adult horse: 12-15 breaths per minute
  • Foal: 30-40 breaths per minute
  • Newborn foal: 60-80 breaths per minute

Check Hydration – Skin Pinch Test

The skin pinch test helps us judge dehydration in the horse. By taking the skin in the middle of the horse’s neck you can determine how well the horse is hydrated. Upon pinching the skin, the pinched area should disappear within two seconds. If the pinched skin stays raised, count until it goes back down, and let your veterinarian know these results.

One More Vital Measure of Your Horse’s Vitals Signs: Blood Pressure

The horse’s blood pressure can be checked by noticing the color of the horse’s mucus membranes. Look at the pink color of your horse’s upper gums. Dr. Dwyer shows us how to press down on the gums with a finger – when the pressed area is blanched (turns white), remove your finger and count 2 seconds, and the pink color should be restored. If the pink color does not reappear in 2 seconds, count until it does. You are actually measuring the capillary refill time which estimates blood pressure.

If the gums are not pink at all (without pressing upon them) – but are white, or even red or yellow – this is a sure sign something abnormal is happening with your horse. Dr. Dwyer emphasizes here that you need to know what the “normal” color of pink is for your horse, to effectively measure your horse’s blood pressure with this test.