Horse Vital Signs
By Eleanor Blazer
     "My horse is sick, can you come out?" pleads Bob.

     "Sure", replies the vet. "What's wrong?"

     "I don't know - he's just standing there."

     "Did you take his temperature?  What's his heart and respiration rate?" asks the vet.

     "I don't know.  How long before you can be here?

     Poor horse, poor Bob and poor vet.

     If Bob knew how to check vital signs, the vet would have an idea of the seriousness of the sickness and the horse may get treated more quickly. 

    Horse vitals signs are temperature, heart rate (pulse) and respiration rate.


      • Foals, yearlings, and stallions: 101 - 102 degrees F.
      •  Average adult horse: 99 to 101 degrees F.

      * Temperature can be a degree higher in the afternoon, after meals or while in a stressful environment.

      *In order to determine your horse's average healthy temperature take a reading for three days in a row, at the same time each day.

       A healthy horse's temperature can vary by as much as 3 degrees and should be evaluated in consideration to recent exercise, ambient temperature, and the condition of the horse, including whether or not he has been clipped or is wearing a blanket or sheet. 

       Most tack stores today sell plastic digital thermometers which work very well and usually "beep" when they are done.  The old mercury type thermometer also works well-if you remember to "shake down" the mercury before taking the horse's temperature.

       The most accurate way to establish the temperature is rectally. 

       Tie a clothespin to one end of a 12-inch string and the thermometer to the other.

       Lubricate the thermometer with Vaseline, move the horse's tail to one side and while you stand slightly off to the side, gently insert the thermometer into the rectum.  Angle the thermometer slightly toward the ground.  Attach the clothespin to the hair on the dock of the tail.

       A digital thermometer will usually be ready to read within a minute, but a mercury thermometer should be left for at least 3 minutes.

       The digital thermometer is easy to read, the mercury thermometer takes a bit more practice; you have to roll it with your fingers until you can see the strip of mercury. 

       The thermometer reading should fall within the normal range or slightly higher.   A temperature of 105 or 106 is very high and demands immediate attention.   If the reading is very high, you may want to try again as a "double check" for accuracy.  Then call the vet.

      When you are done, shake down the mercury thermometer.  Clean the thermometer thoroughly before returning it to its case.


       • Foals: 70-90 beats per minute
       • 6 -12 months: 45-60 beats per minute
       • 2 years: 40-50 beats per minute
       • Adult horse at rest: 30-45 beats per minute
       • Adult horse at a walk: 80 bpm
       • Adult horse at a trot: 120-140 bpm
       • Adult horse at a canter: 160-200 bpm
       • Adult horse at a gallop: 200 plus
       • Maximum heart rate: 220-250 beats per minute

       * These rates are an average. Physically fit horses will have a lower heart rate at rest, more stamina, and a faster recovery rate after exercise.

      * A well-conditioned, exercised horse's heart rate should recover to about 70 beats per minute after a 10-minute rest.

      Anytime you see a horse at rest with a pulse rate higher than the highest indicated for the age of the horse, you can consider the horse to be in distress.   Consider medical attention.

      A horse having just exercised will have a higher pulse rate.  The important thing to note then is the recovery time-how fast does the horse return to normal?   A healthy, well-conditioned horse should after strenuous exercise return to near normal within 15 minutes, depending on the ambient temperature.  If it is a very hot day, the horse may take longer to cool down, so his pulse will remain elevated for a longer period of time.   Awareness and observation of conditions should help you make decisions.

      Please visit to listen to a horse's heart rate, as he recovers after ten minutes of loping.

      If you are using a stethoscope, place it on the horse's girth area just behind the left elbow.   You will hear the heart beat-it takes two sounds, lub then dub, to count as a single heart beat.   If you don't have a stethoscope, I recommend you get one so you are very accurate.  The stethoscope will also come in handy when listening to gut sounds.

      To find the horse's pulse with your fingers, you can locate the artery just under the left inner side of the jawbone toward the front.  Other convenient locations are at the back of the fetlock joint (digital pulse) or just below the elbow on the inside of the forearm.

      Use your index finger and press firmly against the artery.  Count each surge of blood through the artery for 15 seconds, and then you can multiply by 4 to determine the number of beats per minute.

       You should practice locating the digital pulse.  A bounding digital pulse can be a sign of laminitis or an abscess.  Become familiar with what is normal.  A bounding digital pulse will feel harder and firmer.  Practice until you can locate it.


       • Average rate, at rest: 8-15 breaths per minute

       • Depending on the exercise, recovery to the normal rate should be within 15 - 20 minutes.

       A healthy adult horse at rest will have a respiration rate just a bit lower than half his pulse rate.  A horse with a pulse rate of 32 should have a respiration rate of about16 beats per minute.

       The respiration rate is the number of times a horse inhales and exhales each minute.  (That's two actions for one beat.)

       Sixteen cycles per minute is an average respiration rate.

       The best way to determine the rate is to place your hand on the side of the rib cage and count the number of breathes taken in one minute.   The average watch with a second hand will do the timing very nicely.  Another way to find the rate is to stand back from the horse and count the in and out motions of the rib cage, or the opening and closing of the nostrils.  Count and time in the same manner; two actions for one count.

       The respiration rate will climb with stress, excitement or exercise.  And as with the pulse rate, the recovery time is an important factor in determining the horse's actual condition.

       If you have a stethoscope, place it on the horse's windpipe to listen to his breathing.  If you hear strange sounds-something which sounds restricted, rough or raspy-the windpipe may be blocked by mucous or the horse may have allergies or heaves.   Have the horse examined by a veterinarian.

       Vital signs reflect the general health of the horse and can indicate whether he is distressed in any way. Recording the vitals signs and comparing the readings to his normal rates can be helpful in monitoring his condition.

        The vet saw Bob's horse, found nothing wrong (all normal vital signs) and charged Bob for a farm call and added an "emergency charge."

        Bob decided to learn to take "vital signs." 

       For information about horse care take the online courses " Stable Management " and " Nutrition for Maximum Performance " taught by Eleanor Blazer.  Earn certification or work toward a Bachelor of Science degree in equine studies.

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Eleanor Blazer

   * Features easy-to-read calibrations and a large sturdy ring for handling. "Normal" temperatures for horse, cow, sheep, pig and dog listed right on the thermometer for easy comparison. Made to provide long and accurate service, comes in a plastic case. 5"L, displays F and C.

   * Oral & rectal thermometer measures temperature in 2 minutes. Auto shut-off, 100 hr battery life. Comes with high-impact plastic storage case.

    *Single head stethoscope features chrome ear piece, silver chest piece and 22" Y-tubing. 30"L overall.

    * 9th Edition. Comprehensive, reliable source of information for the veterinary professional. Includes the latest discoveries, facts and practices in animal health management. 2,700 pages. © 2005.

Made In U.S.A.

   * Littman Classic II Special Edition stethoscope with two-sided chestpiece offers high acoustic sensitivity for superior performance.

   * Traditional bell combines with a patented tunable diaphragm that conveniently alternates between low– and high-frequency sounds without turning over chestpiece.

   * Compact, durable design features comfortably angled, anatomically correct headset; excellent acoustic seal and comfortable fit with patented Snap Tight soft-sealing eartips; patient-friendly, non-chill rim and diaphragm; and 21" single-lumen Y-tubing. Includes extra pair of eartips. 28"L overall. 3 year warranty.