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                           The Respiratory System
                            Organs of the Horse


Horse Vital Signs

Checking the vitals in a horse focuses on five different sections with regards to the horse’s health. These are not the only ways in which to determine if a horse might be ill but give a good indication. The five areas that can be checked include:

Circulation and Dehydration

The capillary refill rate can be assessed at an area on the horse where mucous membranes can be observed. It is generally observed in the horse’s mouth. The rate at which the capillaries refill when pressed upon by a finger help to determine the circulation of blood in the horse.

The handler should be able to press on the pale pink gums of the horse and have them turn from white when pressure is applied back to a salmon pink within two seconds. If it takes longer than 2 seconds, this can indicate dehydration or a circulatory issue.

A skin pinch test can also be an indicator of a horse’s dehydration. To carry out a skin pinch test, the handler is assessing whether or not a horse’s skin is pliable – as should be the case in normal circumstances.

Taking a pinch of the horse’s skin on the neck and releasing it should result in the skin returning to its normal position almost immediately. If the skin remains pinched or returns slowly to the neck, the horse is considered dehydrated.

Heart and Respiration Rates

For a mature aged horse at rest, the pulse or heart rate is considered normal if in the vicinity of 28 – 40 beats per minute. This can be assessed by feeling for the pulse behind the elbow at the girth or brisket area or perhaps under the horse’s jaw, pressing a finger against an artery. A stethoscope can also be used to monitor the heart rate.

If short on time, counting the amount of beats in a 15 second interval can be multiplied by four or for 30 seconds and multiplied by two. It’s worth noting that fear, excitement, pain or recent exercise can lead to an increase in heart rate. Younger horses will also have a higher heart rate.

The horse’s respiration rate refers to the amount of breaths it takes over a minute period. This can be assessed by watching the nostrils of the horse or the flank area. The normal respiration rate for a horse at rest is 8 – 16 breaths per minute.

A Horse’s Temperature

The temperature of a horse at rest is considered normal in the vicinity of 37.5 to 38.5 degrees Celsius. This is around 99.5 – 101.5 degrees Fahrenheit. The temperature is taken rectally with a thermometer. When taking a horse’s temperature, it’s worth making sure that the thermometer is inserted to the side of the horse’s rectum so as not to be put into manure which could raise the temperature.

Obviously if weather temperatures are particularly high or a horse has been exerting itself, these can be causes for a higher than normal temperature. Pain and illness however can also lead to a rise in temperature.

These five vitals are worth the horse owner knowing to help recognize illness in any equine. They aren’t however the only way to determine potential issues. Being keen to recognise differences in a horse’s behavior and eating and drinking patterns are also worth noting. The more time spent observing horses, the more one is able to pick up on any inconsistencies.


Horses: A Guide to Selection, Care and Enjoyment by J. Warren Evans. Second Edition, ISBN 0-7167-1971-1. Printed in the United States of America, published by W. H. Freeman and Company, New York.

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