Learning To Evaluate A Horse’s Health On Your Own

A brown horse running in a paddock

Horses are prone to accidents, so it is important for owners to know how to recognize changes in a horse’s health and determine when veterinary care is necessary. 

Dr. Amanda Trimble, a clinical assistant professor of equine internal medicine at the Texas A&M School of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, said working with a veterinarian to establish a horse’s “normal” behavior and vitals is the first step in assessing a horse’s health at home. 

“It is critical to establish a good working relationship with your veterinarian through routine wellness checks so that both you and your veterinarian know what your horse’s ‘normal’ is prior to an emergency,” Trimble said. “Being able to detect any changes from their ‘normal’ might make the difference in identifying a sick horse quickly and in calling your veterinarian as soon as possible to intervene and treat your horse.”

Veterinarians can show owners how to complete a distance exam, which is done by observing a horse from a distance.

“Horses are prey animals, so as soon as people enter the stall, their behaviors may change,” Trimble said. “We should specifically look to see if they are alert and responsive to their environment. Some other questions we can ask ourselves include: Are they looking around and moving their ears to listen? Are they interested in their food? Are they interacting with people or other horses? Are there multiple piles of manure in their stall? Are they too skinny or are they carrying too much weight?”

The most important vitals that owners can check after determining that their horse seems comfortable from a distance are respiratory rate, heart rate, and temperature. 

Counting a horse’s respiratory rate can be done during the distance exam or by standing close enough to feel the horse’s breath. Trimble recommends watching the horse’s flanks — which is the shallow area in between the rear legs and the body — or feeling for airflow from the nostrils. Each rise and fall of the horse’s flanks or each exhale through the nostrils is one breath. The normal range of how many times a horse exhales per minute is 8-16 breaths.

“We also want to observe the horse for any increased effort with breathing,” Trimble explained. “Are their nostrils flared? Does it look like the horse is breathing so hard that there is an abdominal effort? Are they taking small, fast, and shallow breaths? Is there a weird sound associated with breathing?”

When measuring a horse’s heart rate, Trimble suggests owners feel for a pulse beside the horse’s eye or along the vein under the jaw. If owners have a stethoscope, they should place the stethoscope’s bell into the left armpit, just behind the elbow.

“Similar to when you are taking your own pulse, light pressure is needed so as to not stop blood flow,” Trimble said. “Once we feel the pulse, we count how many times we feel it over a minute in order to get the heart rate. The normal range for heart rate is 28-44 beats per minute.”

Lastly, owners can check if their horse’s temperature is in the normal range of 99 to 101.5 Fahrenheit. 

“When obtaining rectal temperatures, you should stand close to the horse’s side with a handler (a second person) standing on the same side as you by the horse’s head,” Trimble explained. “You can drape your arm over their hindquarters and then gently lift the tail, peer around the horse’s rear, and insert the thermometer into the rectum. You should always check the thermometer for blood upon removal and label the rectal thermometer ‘horse’ so that it is not accidentally used on a human at a later date.”

Trimble strongly encourages owners to not take a horse’s temperature if the horse is difficult to control or causing trouble, as this can be dangerous for owners and handlers. 

Owners who complete subsequent evaluations on their own should look out for signs that may require a veterinary visit. 

These signs, according to Trimble, include decreased appetite, lethargy, lying down more than normal, rolling, isolating themselves, sudden lameness or stumbling, squinting or closed eyes, discharge from nose, red or purple gums, hives, abnormal sweat patterns, breathing hard or fast, and sudden weight loss. 

Working with your veterinarian to determine your horse’s normal behavior and vitals is the first step in knowing that your horse is healthy. Once you have the knowledge to recognize a healthy horse, you can identify and respond to health concerns as a way to maintain a horse’s overall well-being.

Pet Talk is a service of the School of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, Texas A&M University. Stories can be viewed on the web at vetmed.tamu.edu/news/pet-talk. Suggestions for future topics may be directed to vmbs-editor@tamu.edu.

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