Vital signs, are literally the signs of life. You know that they’re important, and you may know what the ideal numbers are, but do you know how to check your horse’s temperature, heart rate, and respiration?
Taking a temperature
To take a horse’s temperature, first cross-tie the horse or or ask a friend to hold him for you. Stand beside the left hind leg, lift the tail slightly to the side with your left hand, and insert the tip of the thermometer a couple of inches into the rectum with your right hand. You don’t need to use any sort of lubricant, but feel free to use a tiny bit a Vaseline if you feel it’s necessary. Keep a tight grip on the thermometer. When the temperature reading is complete (most thermometers beep), remove the thermometer and read the result. Make sure you clean it in between uses.
What it means: A reading of less than or equal to 101.5 degrees F (38.6 degrees C) for a mature horse or up to 102 degrees F (38.9 degrees C) for a foal is considered normal. Higher readings may indicate infection or other illness, and it’s time to contact your vet. Keep in mind that temperatures tend to be a bit lower in the morning and a little higher in the evening or after strenuous exercise. It’s a great idea to track changes in temperature over time if you fear your horse might be coming down with something, say over the course of several hours and/or over several days or weeks.
Feeling for a pulse
The easiest place to feel for a horse’s pulse to check his heart rate is by placing your fingers on the transverse facial artery, located under your horse’s jaw. Stand on your horse’s left side and feel underneath his jawbone for the artery (it will feel like a cord, similar to the width of a small extension cord). Curl your fingers so the artery is between your fingers and the horse’s jawbone. Be sure not to use your thumb or else you’ll feel your own pulse and not the horse’s. Count the number of beats you feel in 15 seconds, then multiply that number by four to calculate the horse’s beats per minute, or bpm.
Another way to regularly monitor heart rate is to use a heart rate monitor such as Hylofit. Thanks to a user-friendly app, Hylofit has the ability to establish a resting heart rate baseline for each horse it’s used on. Since Hylofit is a hands-free device, horse owners can “set it and forget it” by using a surcingle to keep the heart rate monitor on the horse to take a resting heart rate reading. Storing heart rate data in Hylofit’s app helps eliminate headaches and also helps keep each horse’s information separate. Remember: every horse’s heart rate will be a little different, so it’s important to know your horse’s average.
What it means: The normal pulse rate range for adult horses is between 30-40 beats per minute (bpm). Thoroughbreds and warmbloods typically have an average bpm of 36, while drafts and Quarter Horse types often average between 32-34 bpm. Foals and yearlings have much higher pulse ranges, 70-120 bpm and 45-50 bpm respectively. Following moderate exercise, a horse’s pulse rate should increase to 180-240 bpm. It should fall to 60 bpm within 10 to 20 minutes of rest, then slowly return to normal. An abnormally high bpm can also indicate pain, illness, injury, or stress.
Measuring respiratory rate.
Checking your horse’s respiration rate is fairly easy. Make sure the horse is relaxed either in a stall or on crossties. Stand at the horse’s side, facing toward his rib cage. Count the number of breaths (one breath = one rise and fall of the ribs or flank area) over a 15 second period. Multiply the number of breaths by four and you have your horse’s breaths per minute.
What it means: The normal respiration rate for a horse at rest is approximately 8–14 breaths per minute, however a horse’s respiration rate will quickly increase when the horse begins to move. During intense exercise, respiration rate can increase to 120 breaths per minute. Breathing rate should begin to slow towards normal as soon as exertion stops and your horse begins to recover. Fun fact: the ratio of heartbeats to breaths in horses is 4:1, meaning that for every four heart beats, the horse takes one breath.
Keep in mind that every horse is different and it is important to establish what is “normal” for your horse by establishing a baseline reading. You can do this by taking his vitals several times while he is calm and healthy. There are also devices that can help you track your horse’s vitals while at rest and during exercise.