Knowing how to take your horse’s vital signs is imperative in an emergency, and it’s a skill that you should practice ahead of time. Although there’s a range of vital signs considered “normal” for a horse, it’s important to establish a base line so that you know what’s normal for your individual horse.
A horse’s temperature is typically between 99 and 101 degrees Fahrenheit. A higher temperature, especially during the winter, can indicate fever and infection.
To take your horse’s temperature, secure a string to the end of the thermometer to keep it from getting lost. If you’re using a mercury thermometer, shake down the mercury. Lubricate the tip of the thermometer with Vaseline. While standing close to the horse’s hip, not directly behind him, pull his tail to the side and insert the thermometer into the horse’s rectum. Tilt it slightly toward the ground and hold it there – mercury thermometers need to be left in place for at least three minutes, but digital thermometers are faster and can be removed once the beep signals the reading is complete. Be sure to clean off the thermometer with a paper towel and rubbing alcohol – this is especially important to prevent the spread of disease if the horse is sick.
A horse’s normal resting pulse is about 40 beats per minute. If the horse is very fit, his resting pulse may be lower than that. Any resting rates between 44 and 60 beats per minute are serious, and rates above 80 are critical and require immediate veterinary attention. If you’re taking your horse’s pulse after he’s exercised or while he is excited, then you can expect that his pulse will be a bit above 40 beats per minute.
The pulse is often taken by listening to your horse’s heart behind his left elbow and on the left side of his chest. Using a stethoscope can allow you to hear your horse’s pulse clearly. Place the stethoscope against your horse’s chest, just behind his left elbow. Experiment with the positioning and the amount of pressure you use until you can clearly hear his heartbeat. For the most accurate reading, count the beats (each lub-DUBH counts as one beat) for a minute. Alternatively you can count the beats for fifteen seconds and multiply them by four.
Horses typically take between eight and twelve breaths per minute when resting. With exercise this rate will increase, so take your horse’s respiration rate when he is at ease and at rest.
Because a horse’s respiration rate is so low, it’s best to calculate the breaths taken over the course of a full minute. Watch your horse’s nostrils for flaring, or watch as his sides extend and contract to count each breath. An inhalation and exhalation count as one breath.
If you suspect your horse is ill or injured, then while you take his respiration you should also be on the lookout for any signs of troublesome breathing such as abnormal noises, labored breathing, or excess effort required to breathe.
Mucous membrane color
Your horse’s gums should typically be pink. Familiarize yourself with what your horse’s gums normally look like. In the case of an emergency, pale or deep red gums can both indicate shock. Purple or blue gums are indicative of low oxygen levels and toxicity, and very yellow gums can indicate an issue with a horse’s liver.
Capillary refill time
If you press your finger firmly into your horse’s gums, the area should return to its normal color within 1 to 2 seconds. If the refill time is as long as 3 seconds, this can be a sign of dehydration or shock.
Your horse’s stomach continuously makes sounds as it digests. These sounds are best heard back toward the flanks. Carefully place your ear against your horse’s stomach, just past his last rib. Use caution – this can be a ticklish area for horses. Listen for a minute or so, and you should hear multiple gut sounds. The absence or decreasing of gut sounds is concerning, since it can indicate a problem with your horse’s digestion, including colic.
Take your horse’s vital signs regularly to establish an accurate base line and to keep yourself in practice. Consider posting these, along with emergency contact information, on your horse’s stall door in the event that you’re not present during an emergency. Knowing what’s normal for your individual horse can provide you and your veterinarian with important information in a medical emergency.