Vital Signs

If your horse does not look Bright, Alert and Responsive (BAR) then you will need to check his vital signs (Temperature, Pulse and Respiration – TPR).

The following information should be used as a guide for a resting horse. This means that all rates are preferably taken in the morning, before exercise and in a low stress environment.

Heart Rate and/or Pulse Rate should be taken first as other procedures may cause stress and raise the heart rate. Every horse is slightly different and the ‘resting’ heart rate, respiration and temperature may vary between horses, so it is wise to know what is ‘normal’ for your horse before an emergency arises. If you know what is normal for your horse you will be able to see changes at an earlier stage rather than waiting until these vital signs have moved into the ‘extremely bad’ range. You will need a watch with a ‘seconds’ hand or better still a stopwatch.


Heart Rate. A resting adult horse should have a heartbeat range from 28 to 48 beats per minute. More than 60 beats per minute in an adult resting horse is abnormal and anything over 80 is really bad. Care should be taken as foals have a quicker heart rate of 70 to 90 beats per minute. Horses doing strenuous exercise can reach 200 beats per minute but this is rare and extreme.

health01 thmYou can take your horse’s heart rate by putting your ear to his body behind the left elbow. Just remember that the heart makes a ‘lub dub’ two-beat sound and you should only count it as one beat. Your vet will use a stethoscope, which will be far more accurate.

heath06 thmThe Pulse Rate of a horse is different to a horse’s Heart Rate and can vary a lot, however it can be used as a good indication that your horse has a problem. The best and most reliable place to count a horse’s Pulse Rate is at the jaw, as it is the closest pulse point to the heart.

health05 thmBreathing (Respiration) Rate. A resting adult horse should take 10 to 14 breaths per minute. This will increase if the horse is exercised or overheated. Foals also have a faster breathing rate. You can measure the breathing rate by using a stethoscope on the trachea, which is located on the underside of the neck. You can also stand back and watch the horse’s ribs expand and contract with each inhale and exhale. Remember, it is important that you count either the exhales or the inhales, not both. Sick or stressed horses sometimes, but not always, have an increased breathing rate.

Temperature. Normal temperature for a resting adult horse is 37.5°C to 38.5°C or 99.5°F to 101.4°F. This is the internal body temperature of the horse so it needs to be taken inside the rectum by inserting a special thermometer into the anus. You cannot take a horse’s temperature inside it’s mouth, ear or behind the elbow. If you are using a normal human digital thermometer you will need to hold the end while it is inserted – you don’t want it disappearing up the rectum!

To start taking the temperature, first lubricate the anus with some petroleum jelly. Stand on the left-hand side, resting against the horses left hip. Using your left hand, hold the horse’s tail up near the dock and ease the tail over to the side. With your right hand, slowly insert the thermometer into the anus and the rectum. Leave enough of the thermometer exposed so that you can keep a firm hold. When it beeps, carefully remove the thermometer and read the display. If your horse’s temperature exceeds the maximum temperature range by 1.5°C or more it is serious and you should call your veterinarian.

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Again, foals as well as horses exercising will have higher temperatures, however the normal temperature range for an adult resting horse is quite narrow and sick horses can quickly reach very dangerous levels. A high temperature should always be treated seriously.

Note: We have used both Celsius and Fahranheit temperature measurements because both scales are used. The Celsius scale is more widely used, with Fahrenheit only used in the USA and Belize for non-scientific measurements.

CELSIUS is a temperature scale that was developed by Anders Celsius in 1742. From 1744 to 1954, 0°C was defined as the freezing point of water and 100°C was the boiling point of water. After this time it was slightly modified so that it could be directly related to the Kelvin (K) scale.

FAHRENHEIT is a temperature scale that was developed in 1724 by Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit. On this scale the freezing point of water is 32°F and the boiling point of water is 212°F.

The above information is only general in nature. If you believe that your horse has a problem, please call your veterinarian as soon as possible.

How to take your horse’s TPR

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