Check Your Horse’s Vital Signs

Here’s a clip-and-save summary of how to assess your horse’s basic state of health.

Credit: Jennifer Paulson Determine your horse’s capillary refill time by pressing on his gums and noting how long it takes for the color to come back. This and other checks point to your horse’s health status.

Whenever your horse is sick or injured, check his vital signs at rest to assess his overall health status. This how-to summary is adapted from The Comprehensive Guide to Equine Veterinary Medicine, by H&R’s consulting veterinarian, Barb Crabbe.


Why check: A rapid heart rate can indicate pain (as from colic), anxiety/stress, exertion, or a fever. A slower-than-normal rate can indicate shock, hypothermia, poisoning, or simply good athletic condition.

How to check: Place a stethoscope against your horse’s chest up under his left elbow. Count the number of “lub-dubs” in 15 seconds, then multiply by four to determine beats per minute.

Normal range: 28 to 44 beats per minute.


Why check: An elevated temperature can indicate pain, infection, heat exhaustion, or exertion. A below-normal temp can indicate shock or hypothermia due to exposure to cold weather.

How to check: Activate a digital thermometer; dab its tip with a lubricant. Gently insert the tip in your horse’s rectum to a depth of 2 inches; hold in place until it beeps to indicate the reading is complete.

Normal range: 99.5 to 101.5 degrees F.


Why check: A raised respiratory rate can point to fever, pain (as from colic), shock, heat exhaustion, or difficulty breathing because of an abnormality in the lungs or airways. Nervousness and exercise will also speed breathing. A below-normal rate could indicate shock, hypothermia, the effect of a drug, or simply good athletic condition.

How to check: Count the number of breaths taken in a 30-second period by observing the rise and fall of your horse’s chest or the flaring of his nostrils. Multiply by two to determine the breaths per minute.

Normal range: 10 to 18 breaths per minute.


Why check: Gum (mucous membrane) color is a quick indicator of whether blood is being effectively pumped through your horse’s body. White or very pale gums can indicate shock or anemia. Dark or purple gums may indicate severe shock or toxemia (the heart isn’t pumping effectively, and blood is pooling in these distant vessels in the gums).

How to check: Raise your horse’s upper lip in order to observe the gum tissue just above his teeth.

Normal range: Gums should be pale pink.


Why check: A very slow capillary refill time can indicate shock (your horse’s circulation isn’t functioning as it should). If the refill time seems very fast, it’s most likely normal.

How to check: Raise your horse’s upper lip and press firmly with your thumb against the gums above his teeth. Then take your thumb away and count the number of seconds it takes for the blanched area you created to return to its normal pink color.

Normal range: Blood should return within 1 to 3 seconds.


Why check: Louder and more frequent sounds than normal can mean your horse is experiencing a mild colic due to intestinal spasms or gas accumulation. No sounds means there’s no gut movement, which may indicate shock or a severe colic episode with a shutdown of the digestive tract.

How to check: Listen with a stethoscope for at least one minute at each of four different locations on your horse’s flank: one high and one low on each side.

Normal range: On average, you should hear two to four small gurgles per minute, and one larger rumbling every two to three minutes. (These guidelines will vary from horse to horse, and may be loudest just before feeding time.)


Why check: A strong or “throbby” pulse indicates inflammation in your horse’s foot or a disruption of the blood flow.

How to check: Squat and place three fingers of your hand on the inside of your horse’s fetlock joint, resting your thumb on the outside of the joint. Apply gentle pressure with your fingers, sliding them around a bit until you feel a small cord-like structure slip beneath your fingers—the digital artery. Note the strength of the pulse there.

Normal range: If the pulse is weak and hard to find, it’s probably normal.

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