Horse Vital Signs
By Eleanor Blazer
We bought a new horse.
We also brought "shipping fever" home.
Shipping fever is an all-encompassing word used to describe respiratory infections horses usually get after being transported. Whether the illness is caused by strangles, influenza, equine viral rhinopneumonitis or pleuropneumonia the symptoms are basically the same: elevated temperature, increased respiration rate, congestion, coughing, nasal discharge, depressed attitude and loss of appetite.
Being familiar with normal equine vital signs and knowing how to take them will help catch a sickness early. Vital signs are temperature, pulse and respiration rate.
Temperature - A horse's normal temperature ranges from 99 to 101 F. 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. A foal's temperature generally averages 101 degrees.
Most tack stores 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.
When you are done, shake down the mercury thermometer. Clean the thermometer thoroughly before returning it to its case.
Pulse - An adult horse at rest will have a pulse rate ranging from 30 to 40 beats per minute. Foals will have a pulse rate ranging from 70 to 120, yearlings from 45 to 60 and two-year-olds from 40 to 50.
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 veterinary 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.
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 hear the pulse rate of a horse as he recovers from 10 minutes of loping please visit -
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.
Respiration - 16 cycles per minute is an average respiration rate.
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 an approximate respiration rate of 16.
The respiration rate is the number of times a horse inhales and exhales each minute. (That's two actions for one beat.)
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.
The first clue that our new filly was getting sick was a slight cough. Instead of ignoring it we took her temperature, which was 102.9. Within 12 hours it was 103.9 and she was congested. With early care she quickly recovered. Her training to become a show horse starts soon.
* For information about how to care for horses take the online course "Stable Management" taught by Eleanor Blazer. Earn certification or work toward a Bachelor of Science degree in equine studies.