Normal Vital Signs

It’s essential that every horse owner know his or her horse’s normal, healthy resting temperature, heart rate, respiration (breathing) rate, and other vital signs and have trained the horse to allow handling for assessment of vital signs. For help on how to take your horse’s vital signs, watch our video how-to. If your horse’s resting vital signs are not in the normal ranges below, call your veterinarian to see what might be wrong. Remember that very hot and humid conditions may alter these normal values, so speak with your veterinarian.

Click any point on the horse to learn more about vital signs.
Healthy horse eyes are clear and bright, with eyelashes perpendicular to the corneal surface (not pointing downward) and free of discharge; deviation from this could indicate pain. Learn about Eye Problems
A healthy horse's nostrils are free of discharge, or discharge is clear. Alert your veterinarian if you notice a greenish, yellow, or white “snotty” discharge. This could indicate a respiratory and/or infectious disease brewing.
The mucous membranes, which line the mouth and gums, should be moist and pink. Normal capillary refill time (the time it takes for capillaries in the gums to return to pink after being pressed with a finger): 2 seconds or less.
Normal respiratory rate: 10-24 breaths per minute. Measure the respiratory rate by watching the horse's flank move in and out (each inhale or exhale is one breath), watching the horse’s nostrils flare with every breath (do not place your hand or anything near his nostrils), or using a stethoscope to listen to the breaths as the air travels across the trachea when the horse inhales and exhales. This should sound clear. Learn More
A hydrated horse will pass the skin tent test: Pinch his neck/shoulder skin and release; generally, the skin should snap back to normal in a one or two seconds. Any longer indicates dehydration. Learn More
Normal heart rate: 28-44 beats per minute. Use a stethoscope to listen to the heart on the left side of the horse, just behind the elbow in the girth area. If a stethoscope is not handy, you can take the pulse from the lingual artery (which has a circumference similar to a No. 2 pencil), which is on the bottom side of the jaw where it crosses the bone. Take the pulse for 15 seconds then multiply that number by four to determine heart rate in beats per minute. Learn More
Illustration: Robin Peterson, DVM
Tendons and ligaments are tough, strong bands of soft connective tissue—collagen-rich materials that hold various body structures together. Tendons connect muscles to bones, whereas ligaments connect bones to other bones. Heat or swelling in or surrounding these structures indicate injury. Learn More
While it’s difficult to define the “ideal” hoof, a horse’s feet should be balanced, with a straight hoof-pastern angle (a straight line down the front of the pastern and hoof wall); easy breakover (the toe is not too long and is squared, rounded, or rolled to allow easier movement); adequate heel support (if shod, the shoe extends to the end of the hoof wall to support the back of the leg to the heels); and a hairline (at the coronary band) that is level with the ground. Watch for a bounding digital pulse (the pulse as felt in the digital arteries at the back of the fetlock), which can indicate laminitis. Learn More
Check your horse’s body condition by visually and manually assessing the fat covering his ribs, shoulder, withers, loin, tailhead, and neck. Ideally, a healthy horse is about a 5 or 6 on the 1-9 scale. Download Body Condition Score Poster
Illustration: Robin Peterson, DVM
Listen to your horse’s gut sounds by placing your ear or, preferably, a stethoscope, against both sides of the abdomen, high and low. A healthy horse’s gut sounds should be gurgling, with gaslike growls, "tinkling" sounds (fluid), and occasional "roars." Prolonged silence indicates an abnormality and could indicate colic. Learn More
A healthy horse should produce well-formed fecal balls with noticeable forage stems but no real “chunks” of feed, a fairly uniform color, little odor, and no mucous covering. A small amount of liquid either immediately prior or following a bowel movement might also be normal. Learn More
Normal temperature: 99-101°F; 37.2-38.3°C. Take your horse’s rectal temperature using a digital thermometer that’s been dipped in a small amount of lubricant. Make sure you hold the thermometer in place or clip a string attached to the thermometer to the tail. Video: How to take your horse's temperature
Temperature99-101°F (37.2-38.3°C)99.5-102.1°F (37.5-38.9°C)
Pulse28-44 beats per minute80-100 beats per minute
Respiration10-24 breaths per minute20-40 breaths per minute
Mucous membranesMoist, healthy pink color
Capillary refill time*Two seconds or less
Gut soundsGurgling, gaslike growls, “tinkling” sounds (fluid), and occasionally “roars”

*Time it takes for the gums to return to pink after being pressed with a finger


Common Vital Sign Mistakes

  • Not leaving the thermometer in long enough (false low temperature reading)
  • Taking vital signs on a nervous horse (horses’ pulse and respiration rates can increase dramatically if they are nervous)
  • Allowing the horse to sniff your hand to measure respiration rate (they will sniff far more quickly than their regular breathing rates)
  • Double-counting heartbeats (lub-dub=one beat)
  • Not regularly practicing on your horse to know what is normal!