Is My Horse Healthy? How to read your horse’s vital signs

We all have a different opinion of what defines a healthy horse, some say they should be leaner while others say they should carry a bit of extra weight on them. There are also those who say it depends what the horse is used for, a top-level competition horse, for example, should be much leaner than a retired horse. While there is definitely some truth in that there’s also a baseline of what is classed as a healthy horse and what isn’t. It’s important to know your horse and understand what’s right for him as well as what’s wrong.

Do you know what your horse’s vital signs are and what’s normal for him? While a lot of people will know what they are there will always be a large number of new owners that, understandably, don’t know so I thought I’d put this guide together to help.

What should a horse’s vital signs be?

Every horse is different and their vital signs will vary from another horse but that said there is a healthy window that they should be in. There are four main parameters that are used to gauge a horse’s health, they are TPR (a group that covers temperature, pulse or heart rate and respiration or breathing), mucous membranes (the gums) and capillary refill time. 

Newborn Foal Adult
Temperature (°F/°C) 100 -102.1 / 37.7-38.9 99.5-101.5 / 37.5-38.6
Pulse (bpm) 80-100 60-80 24-40 (32 – 36 average)
Respiration (bpm) 60-80 20-40 8-12
Mucous membranes Moist and pink in color
Capillary refill time Two seconds or less

How do I take my horse’s vital signs?

It’s important to know what your horse’s vital signs are but it’s also important to know how to take their readings.

  • Temperature – To take your horse’s temperature use a little bit of lubricant on a rectal thermometer and insert it into his anus. If your horse’s temperature is too high then he has a fever but if it’s too low then he could be susceptible to hypothermia, in either case, you should call the vet.
  • Pulse/heart rate – If you have a stethoscope you can listen to your horse’s heart but if you don’t have one then you can place two fingers on the facial artery which is at the bottom of the jaw in a ridge behind the last tooth. Count the number of beats over a 15 second period then multiply that by four. To get a more reliable reading it’s best to repeat this three times, add all three readings together and divide by three.
  • Respiration/breathing – You can either use a stethoscope to listen to the air moving across your horse’s trachea or you can watch his chest moving. An inhale and an exhale are counted as one breathe. You should also listen to the sound of your horse’s breathing, either with the stethoscope or by placing an ear about 7 inches above his elbow. His breaths should be clear with no crackling or squeaking sounds.
  • Mucous membranes – Move your horse’s lips so that you can see his gums, you should check both the top and bottom gums and they should look moist and by pink in color. 
  • Capillary refill – Firmly place a finger on your horse’s gum, when you release your finger count the number of seconds it takes to return to its normal pink color.

Other important signs to gauge your horse’s health

Other signs that can, and should, be used to gauge a horse’s health are: gut sounds, hydration, posture and appetite while visual checks of the eyes, nostrils, manure and overall condition will also help gauge your horse’s health. It’s always a good idea to know what is normal for your horse in every way, this can help with a proper diagnosis. For example, knowing what your horse’s gut sounds like will help if you suspect he may have a problem with his digestive system.

  • Gut sounds – Place a stethoscope or your ear against the side of your horse’s abdomen and listen to his gut. It should sound like it’s gurgling and growling and sometimes roaring. Repeat on the other side.
  • Hydration – After pinching your horse’s shoulder and neck his skin should return to normal within two seconds. The longer it takes to more dehydrated he is.
  • Appetite – It takes time to know what your horse’s normal appetite it like but when you do you’ll quickly notice any change in it.
  • Ears – The ears should be alert with ears forward.
  • Eyes – The eyes should be clear, bright and free of discharge with eyelashes pointing away from the eye.
  • Nostrils – The nostrils should be free of any colored discharge, if there is discharge it should be transparent.
  • Manure – Should be well-formed ‘balls’ and shouldn’t contain any noticeable chunks of food except plant stems.
  • Condition – A healthy horse should score 5 or 6 on the Henneke horse body condition scoring system (see next page).

My foal’s temperature is low (below 98°F / 36.6°C)

Newborn foals are far more venerable than even a one-month-old foal is so you need to be careful of their temperature being too low. If it does drop below 98°F / 36°C then you need to call a vet straight away. At this temperature, they can easily suffer from hypothermia so while you’re waiting for the vet it’s important to keep them as warm as possible. The best way of doing this is to rub them with warm towels or blankets, this will help to dry their coat but also to encourage their blood flow which will naturally increase their temperature.

How do I know if my horse’s weight is right?

There isn’t a set weight that your horse should be, instead, there’s a healthy range that his weight should fall within. His actual weight will be determined by his height and build but the table below will help give you an idea of what a healthy weight (in kgs) for your horse will be, or if you want to know the weight range for a particular breed you can find that here.

Pony Small Horse Lightweight Horse Mediumweight Horse Heavyweight Horse
10hh 170-200

11hh 200-240

12hh 230-260

12.2hh 250-310

13hh 250-340

13.2hh 280-380

14hh 320-400 360-450

14.2hh 350-400 380-480

470-530 400-470 450-500
500-580 440-500 470-520

480-560 560-630

520-590 590-650 650-720

How do I work out my horse’s weight?

There are a number of different ways to work out your horse’s weight, the most accurate method is to use an equine weighbridge. This is a specialized device that your horse stands on, his weight is then automatically calculated. Despite their 100% accurately weighbridges do have a big drawn back though, they’re not portable! This means that in order to use one you’ll need to take your horse to it which can be problematic for a lot of people.

The other ways to find your horse’s weight are thankfully much easier, you can either use a weigh tape or calculate his weight.

Weigh tape

To measure your horse this way you need to use a weigh tape that can be picked up cheaply from any good tack shop or online. Once you’ve got a tape hold the end with zero on it in one hand then, with your horse standing evenly, put the other end over his back and then under his belly. Making sure it’s wrapped around his girth and snug, line the zero up with the rest of the tape. The number the zero lines up with is your horse’s weight.

Calculating your horse’s weight

You’ll need to measure your horse’s heart girth and body length in inches but once you have that you can use this simple equation to calculate his weight in lbs: heart girth x heart girth x body length ÷ 330 = your horse’s weight. This only changes if your horse is a weanling or yearling. If your horse is weanling then divide by 280 instead, but if he’s a yearling then divide by 301. If you want to use inches instead of centimeters then divide it by 11800 rather than 330, this will also give you the weight in kgs. To convert lbs to kgs divide by 2.205 (and if you want kgs instead of lbs multiply by 2.205).

To get your horse’s heart girth you need to place the tape around 4 inches behind his foreleg, over the highest point of his withers and then back under his belly. To get his body length the measure a straight line from the point of his buttocks to the point of his shoulder.

Page 2 – Henneke scoring system

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