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How to Take Your Horse's Vital Signs

How to Take Your Horse's Vital Signs
By Brittani Kirkland
When evaluating a horse’s health status, its vital signs should be taken, assessed, and recorded. Evaluation should occur both when the horse is healthy, to establish baseline measurements and monitor overall health, and when the horse appears to be sick, to determine if there is a deviation. Regular practice taking vital signs can help you become comfortable with the tasks and desensitize your horse to it. Temperature, pulse (heart rate), and respiration (breathing rate), also referred to as TPR, are three key vital signs that should be assessed. In addition, the horse’s gums (a mucous membrane) should be evaluated to assess dehydration and tissue blow flow.
Below is a table listing the vital signs typically taken, the normal ranges of those signs when a horse is healthy, and the items you will need in order to take measurements. The values listed are for adult horses at rest. Horses recently exercised would have higher values. Additionally, rate may vary based on the horse's size, with larger horses often having lower rates and smaller horses often having higher rates. Always assess the individual horse, establishing what that horse’s averages are before illness is suspected.
Vital Sign AssessedNormal Range for Healthy, Adult HorseItems Needed



Thermometer, lube, and timer (some thermometers may have one built in)


28-44 beats per minute

Timer, stethoscope (if preferred)


10-24 breaths per minute


Mucous membranes

Wet, pink, shiny gums

No items needed

Capillary Refill

1-2 seconds for color to return

No items needed

Skin pliability

1-3 seconds for skin to return

No items needed

Note. Values from the American Association of Equine Practitioners.
Temperature, Pulse, and Respiration
How to Measure a Horse's Temperature
To take your horse’s temperature, you will need either a digital or mercury thermometer and lube. The thermometer should be covered in lube, inserted into the rectum, and held there for an allotted time (anywhere from 15 seconds to 3 minutes depending on the thermometer – see device instructions).
When inserting the thermometer, be sure you are in a safe position, with the left side of your body directly beside/against the horse’s hip. Be sure to gently lift and shift the horse’s tail for insertion.
How to Measure a Horse's Temperature
Hold the thermometer in place until the thermometer reading is complete, then remove it to look at the displayed temperature. If using a mercury/glass thermometer, you should clip it to the tail to prevent shattering if the thermometer were to fall to the ground from being pushed out. Using a digital thermometer is the safer and easier method.
How to Measure a Horse’s Pulse/Heart Rate
A horse’s pulse can be taken two ways: by listening to the heartbeat with a stethoscope or by palpating (feeling) an artery. Most find it easier to use a stethoscope and listen to the heartbeat, but palpation is also a viable option if a stethoscope is not available.
To use a stethoscope, place the earpieces into your ears with the earpieces pointing forward. Then place the chest piece (diaphragm) behind the horse’s elbow on its left side. Listen closely for a “lub-dub” sound and count how many times you hear this sound for thirty seconds. Each “lub-dub” counts as one. Multiply the number by two to identify how many beats per minute.
How to Measure a Horse’s Pulse/Heart Rate
If you prefer to palpate an artery to check the horse’s heart rate, you may feel one of three arteries: the maxillary artery (under the jawbone), radial artery (on the inside of the knee), or the digital artery (just below the fetlock). You will need to place middle finger and either the index or ring finger on one of these arteries ensuring you can feel the “pulse” of blood flow. Count how many times you feel this pulse over a period of thirty seconds. Multiply the number by two to determine how many beats per minute. If the horse won’t stand still during the assessment, you can shorten the measurement time to fifteen seconds and multiply by four instead. While this is not ideal it is a viable option if needed.
Be patient when assessing the horse’s pulse
Be patient when assessing the horse’s pulse/heart rate. You may not feel/hear it at first as it is significantly slower than you might expect.
How to Measure a Horse’s Respiration Rate
Respiration is determined by counting the breaths the horse takes in one minute. It is best to look at the horse’s flank when evaluating this, counting how many breaths the horse takes in and out over a thirty-second period and multiplying it by two. It is not recommended to look at the nostrils to assess breathing rate because it is difficult to see and movement from smelling may easily be mistaken for breath.
Mucous Membranes and Capillary Refill Tests
Looking at a horse’s gums, which are mucous membranes (tissues lining an area that secretes mucus), can help determine the horse’s hydration and tissue blood flow. To do this you can run your fingers across the horse’s gum to ensure they are wet and smooth rather than dry and tacky. Also, look at the color of the gums, which should be pink. Pale or dark red gums are abnormal, and a veterinarian should be contacted.
A capillary refill test
A capillary refill test should be done to evaluate tissue blood flow and hydration. To do this, place your thumb on the horse’s gum applying slight pressure to make the color disappear from underneath the finger (about three seconds). Release and count how quickly the pink color returns. In a healthy horse, this will occur within 1-2 seconds. Anything slower than this could indicate that blood circulation is delayed because of a health issue.
Safety is important when evaluating the horse’s gums
Safety is important when evaluating the horse’s gums. Be cautious that the horse does not bite you while you are performing this evaluation. The horse may raise its head and move backwards to avoid having its mouth examined, so select a safe location (perhaps a stall or wash rack) to maintain control of the horse.
Skin Pliability
You can also tent the horse’s skin to check for dehydration – this is known as a skin pliability test. To do this, pinch a fold of skin on the horse’s shoulder or neck up into a “tent” shape. When you release the skin, the skin should return back to normal, flat against the body within about 1.5 seconds. If the skin takes longer than 3 seconds to return to normal, the horse is dehydrated and you should contact your veterinarian.
Skin Pliability
Assessing your horse’s vital signs is a relatively simple process and should be done regularly. You do not need many items to take these measurements and most can be evaluated within a minute. Be safe and cautious while taking measurements and keep record of these values for each horse.
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