Most adult horses at rest have a normal body temperature between 99°F and 101°F. Normal temperature can vary from one individual to the next, but the normal temperature of an individual horse can also change depending upon the season. In general, horses have higher temperatures in the summer and lower ones in the winter. Age can also affect the horse's normal temperature. For instance, young foals have a decreased ability to maintain body temperature, their normal temperature range is from 99°F to 102°F.
Exercise or excitement can also raise a horse's temperature. During intense exercise, core temperatures can increase as much as 2°F to 4°F. The equine body responds to increases in core temperature by sweating. Sweating helps cools the body and keeps it from reaching critical temperatures. In general, a temperature over 106°F during exercise is cause for alarm, as is an elevated temperature that doesn't drop by a degree or two within thirty minutes of ending an exercise session.
An accurate equine temperature is usually obtained rectally. Either a plastic digital or glass thermometer can be used. It's advisable to tie a string to the thermometer. Many veterinary models have a hole or loop just for this purpose. For added safety, a clip can also be used to attach the string to the horse's tail. Digital thermometers will need cleared prior to use, while the glass thermometers need the mercury shaken down.
Prior to insertion, the thermometer should be lubricated with petroleum jelly, mineral oil or other non-toxic lubricant. Equestrians are advised to stand beside the horse's hindquarters, not directly behind the animal, when taking a temperature. After moving the tail aside, gently insert the thermometer into the rectum. For safety reasons, it's preferable to have an assistant hold the horse during this procedure. Digital thermometers will beep when done. Glass thermometers need left in place for at least 3 minutes in order to obtain an accurate reading. At-rest temperatures above 102°F in adult horses could indicate an infection, while temperatures below 98°F could be due to shock. In either case, the horse should be monitored for changes in condition and the veterinarian notified.
Pulse rate can also be determined by listening to the heart with a stethoscope. To do this, place the stethoscope on the horse's left side directly behind the elbow and count each lub-dub as one beat. The normal resting heart rate or pulse for an adult horse ranges from 28 to 40 beats per minute. Young horses have higher pulse rates than adults, with foals ranging from 70 to 120 bpm. The resting heart rate for a yearling is between 45 to 60 bpm and for a two-year old, 40 to 50 bpm is normal.
A horse's pulse rate will increase if he is excited, nervous and during exercise. In the absence of these situations, pulse rates above 40 bpm for an adult horse is reason for further investigation and possible veterinary intervention. Resting pulse rates in the 40 to 60 bpm range are considered serious, but may be explained by an elevated temperature. However, a rate above 80 bpm indicates a critical condition.
Respiration is measured as the movement of air in and out of the lungs. Adult horses at rest have a normal respiration rate of 8 to 12 breaths per minute (bpm). Foals under six months of age will have higher respiration rates, generally in the 15 to 20 bpm range. Exercise, excitement and environmental conditions such as temperature can increase respiration. Thus, a faster rate is not necessarily indicative of illness, but is used in combination with temperature and pulse rate to assess the horse's overall condition. In addition, the type of respiration can be just as important as the rate in determining health issues. Labored, shallow, irregular or raspy breathing can indicate disease or distress.
The easiest way to measure a horse's respiration rate is to watch the movement of the rib cage or the nostrils as the horse breathes. Each inhalation and exhalation is one breath. Alternate methods include feeling the horse's breath on one's hand or using a stethoscope. The latter method is also useful for detecting mucous in the windpipe, allergies or heaves. While an elevated respiration rate during exercise is to be expected, the respiration rate should never exceed the pulse rate. This condition is called inversion and indicates the horse is in distress.
Whenever one or more vital signs registers in the abnormal range, the horse should be monitored. If resting temperature, pulse and respiration values are in the serious or critical range or if the TPR values don't improve or continue to worsen after exercise ceases, a veterinarian should be consulted.
Remember, learning how to take your horse's temperature, pulse and respiration is an essential part of horse ownership, but doing it regularly will also give you the confidence to do it quickly and accurately in an emergency situation.
A stethoscope can be used to take the horse's heart rate. Each lub-dub is one beat.
Every time the horse's heart beats, it sends a surge of blood through the circulatory system. The rate of the heartbeat or the pulse can be measured by counting these surges in an artery that lies close to the surface of the skin. There are three arteries on the horse's body that are commonly used to measure pulse rate. The first is the maxillary artery located on the inside edge of the horse's left jaw. The second is the radial artery which is located on the inside of the back of the knee beneath the chestnut. Lastly, the digital artery is found below the fetlock on the inside of the ankle. In a healthy horse, the digital pulse is normally faint. A strong digital pulse is symptomatic of lameness or founder. To obtain the pulse, firmly press a forefinger against the artery. Use a clock with a second hand to count the beats in a fifteen second period, then multiply that number by four to determine the beats per minute (bpm).
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The information contained within this article does not constitute medical advice. Please consult your horse's veterinarian for further information on equine temperature, pulse and respiration and the diagnosis of health issues.
Your horse doesn't quite seem himself and you're wondering if you should call the vet. But what do you tell the vet's office? Is this a real emergency that requires immediate veterinary assistance? Only your vet can tell you that, but you can help the vet make the right decision by relaying some very important information.
Your horse's temperature, pulse and respiration rates plays a key role in determining the seriousness of your horse's condition. These three vital signs are measurements of bodily functions and they usually fall within an average range for most horses. However, it's normal for some individuals to have slightly higher or lower values. Ideally, equestrians will periodically take their horse's TPR to establish a normal range of values for that particular animal.
Changes in the horse's vital signs may signal a health issue. If only one vital sign is outside the normal range, there may not be a cause for concern. However, the greater the deviation is from normal and the more abnormal vital signs there are, the more likely the horse's condition is serious. Relaying this information to the vet's office may improve response time in an emergency. It also allows the vet to begin treatment earlier, sometimes by relaying instructions over the phone to the owner. In addition, having vital signs at the start of treatment helps the vet monitor the horse's response to the treatment.
Monitoring the horse's temperature, pulse and respiration also helps equestrians assess their horse's athletic condition. How quickly the horse's vital signs return to normal after exercise is a good indication of his level of fitness. A physically fit horse will return to his normal resting TPR within 10 to 15 minutes, while an out-of-condition horse may take up to 45 minutes. By tracking recovery time, equestrians are better able to condition their horses for physically strenuous and endurance events.