Equine First Aid - Vital Signs

Do you know how to assess your horse’s vital signs?

Not only is it a good idea to know what is normal for your horse, it is important information to pass on to your vet should your horse become unwell or have an accident.  

What are the vital signs to assess?

Breathing,  Temperature  &  Pulse (heart rate)

These are the body’s most basic functions.

Other body signs that can be assessed are:

Hydration & Capillary Refill Time (blood circulation)

Note:  There are normal ranges given below for vital signs, but there will be variation between individual horses depending on age, size & fitness.  Hence the importance of knowing what is normal for your horse.

1. Breathing / Respiration Rate

  1. Observe your horse’s flank / abdomen area

  2. Count each time it expands

  3. To obtain the number of breaths per minute count for 20 seconds & multiply by 3

  4. Also listen & note anything else such as unusual noises, laboured/erratic breathing, nostrils flaring, etc

A normal respiration rate is usually between 8 - 16 breaths per minute when at rest.

2. Temperature

With clean hands take a clean thermometer.   

  1. Apply petroleum jelly to lubricate the bulb area of the thermometer. Remember to turn it on

  2. Stroke the tail softly to bring awareness to the area.  Then gently lift the tail to the side

  3. Very carefully insert & rotate the thermometer half way into the anus

  4. Hold the thermometer at a slight angle to keep the silver bulb sensor in contact with the anus wall

  5. Leave for 1 minute or until you hear a beep indicating it has finished taking the temperature

  6. Carefully remove the thermometer. Do not touch the bulb sensor. Read the temperature 

  7. Thoroughly disinfect /clean with warm soapy water the bulb sensor area before returning to the First Aid kit

A normal temperature is usually between 37.5°C - 38.5°C when at rest.

3. Pulse (heart rate)

  1. Find your horse’s pulse by pressing your fingers against an artery in any of the locations shown. Feel around for the soft blood vessel

  2. Be patient when feeling for a subtle pulse

  3. To obtain pulse rate per minute, count the pulse for 20 seconds & multiply by 3

    A normal pulse rate is usually between 28 - 44 beats per minute when at rest.

4. Hydration

  1. Gently pinch your horse’s skin on their neck

  2. When released the skin should return to normal within a few seconds.  

    Note: sunken eyes on a horse can indicate dehydration

5. Capillary refill time - test

  1. Say hello to the horse & softly stroke their muzzle to bring awareness to the area

  2. Gently lift their upper lip & press on the gum with your finger/thumb close to the teeth for a few seconds

  3. Remove finger/thumb & observe colour. The gum should return to the normal pink colour within

    2 - 3 seconds.  

    Any longer indicates low blood pressure/poor circulation


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