Checking Vitals for Horses

One thing that is very important to do on a regular basis is to check your horse’s vitals. Checking vitals tends to not be a common thing to practice or know about. That is, right up to the point that either you notice or somebody points out to you, something is off on your horse. Then taking vitals becomes the highest priority.

Taking vitals means you are measuring heart rate, intensity of the pulse, breathing rate and intensity, and the temperature of your horse. These are the basics and if you don’t know how to do them, hopefully this is a good reminder to figure it out and get practicing.

There are many good and practical reasons to get good at this, the first and foremost obviously is that you want to be able to do it quickly and efficiently when there is an actual problem. You should be able to get the job done without any concern on if you are doing it right. Practice, practice, practice.

You also want your horse to be able to handle you taking their vitals. Like picking their feet, brushing and washing them, the same concept applies that there should be no concern if you are moving their tail out of the way to put a thermometer inside them to take their temperature. For a horse that isn’t used to it, or never experienced the relatively simple procedure, it can be very concerning. I would imagine that some people may even get kicked. While you’re back there, it’s a good idea to see if your horse is ok with you pulling it’s tail to each side and down. It’s a level of comfort they should get to for both yours and their safety.

The easiest vital to take is breathing. There are a couple of things to remember when you’re watching your horse breathe. First is, if they are in pain or have been heavily exercised, they will have labored breathing. You should theoretically know if your horse has been exercising and in the case that it has been standing around for a while, this type of breathing indicates your horse is in pain. Not to be confused with sniffing or being overly alert. So don’t show up with carrots and sweets in your pockets or you’ll have trouble getting this vital.

A normal horse will breathe somewhere between 8 and 12 times a minute. If all is normal, you’ll have to watch the abdomen as it goes in and out as the horse inhales and exhales. If it doesn’t quite seem obvious, put your hand on them. Here is a quick video of what labored breathing looks like. If your horse looks like this, call a vet.

The next vital you should be able to take easily is the temperature. The best way is rectally with a simple thermometer and about 2 minutes of time depending on the thermometer type. This is where your horse may get concerned and try to move away. Practice enough so that your horse thinks this is just another thing that you do regularly, like picking feet. Always hang on to the thermometer so that it neither drops nor gets pulled into the horse. After about 2 mins you should have the temperature of the horse for a basic mercury thermometer. Digital ones are faster.

A horse should have a temperature of about 99.5 to 101.5, depending on it’s current state and the weather around. If it’s gone above 102 then take note, above 103 and further past 104 are generally cause to talk to your vet. Some horses get “a bug” and will spike between 103 and 104 for a day or two. They won’t eat or drink much and be quite lethargic even. Any longer than a couple of days of this and veterinarian action should probably be taken. Inside of that is personal judgement.

Next up is heart rate. Simple enough if you have a stethoscope. Listen up just behind the elbow on the chest wall and you should here a clear beat. Each “lub-dub” is a beat and there should be about 35 to 40 in a minute. Standing there for a minute is sometimes hard for some horses so you can time out 15 seconds and multiple by 4 if need be. If you don’t have a stethoscope, practice with your hand in the same spot. If not, there are a few points on the body to read the pulse. Under the jaw, under the tail at the tailbone and of course, each foot should have a good digital pulse. In fact, taking the pulse at the foot can also help you discover if there is a bounding pulse, which will be felt more strongly. A bounding pulse in the foot indicates trouble in the foot, like laminitis or founder.

Outside of that, listening for gut sounds is a good idea. You should hear some gurgling going on every 10 to 15 seconds or so. If you hear nothing for a while and the horse has a temp and breathing is labored, likely your horse has colic. Call a vet. Gut sounds are important to listen for regularly and in most cases don’t even require you put your ear to them. Healthy ones are a bit noisy.

If you suspect your horse is not drinking, taking a check on their dehydration level is a good idea. Pull up their upper lip, if they’ll let you, and look at the gums. They should be pink, shiny, moist and slippery. Press your thumb on them to make them white and take it off. They should return to pink pretty fast. Anything longer than a few seconds and there is likely trouble. 1 second is normal. If you can’t get to your horse’s mouth, you now have something to put in your “need to practice” book, but until then you can also pinch their skin. The neck area is good. If it stays pinched up for more than a few seconds, there is trouble. Generally it should go back to it’s normal state really quickly. This works on humans too, try it the next time you feel really thirsty.

To conclude, vitals are very important to be able to take and keep track of. Many times a horse may look normal but if you go to check them out, they may be having trouble. A lethargic, overly tired, “lazy”, not eating or not drinking horse can likely have something going on. When in doubt, take vitals and check with past records. If you find something out of place, you now have something to start your conversation with your vet with. It always helps them to know what you have found to start a preliminary diagnosis until they can show up.