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Is My Horse Sick? | Groundmaster

Is My Horse Sick?

By Claudia Dineen, Runaway Writing 

Often, a horse owner will look at their horse and say, “He’s not acting normal.” But what does that mean?  If you’re a new horse owner or responsible for a high-value animal, it’s easy to panic, overreact,  and incur a large vet bill, only to find out “He’s healthy.  There’s nothing’s wrong!” 

Knowing what’s “normal” and “not normal” for your horse is a combination of time spent observing and getting to know the animal and being able to check those same vital signs your vet would check to get evidence of a problem.  

Knowledge combined with hard evidence about your horse’s health results in peace of mind – knowing that your decision to call or not to call the vet was a good one.  It may also result in time and money saved, or well spent.  

A white horse rolling in the sand

(Source: Pixabay

The people at The Horse have put together a very handy interactive to help you get really good at reading your horse’s vital signs and to know if your horse is truly sick or not.

It’s best to practice checking your horse’s vital signs BEFORE something is “not normal.”  If you’re unsure of your technique or have questions about checking these signs, ask your vet.  He or she will be thrilled to help you!  

What to Check When You Think Your Horse is Sick

From nose to tail, this tool identifies 12 points you should evaluate to determine your adult horse’s “normal” vital signs.  Bookmark this site on your phone and other devices so you can refer to it often.  Remember, some vital signs will be different in newborn foals and young horses.  

  1. Eyes – bright, clear, and free of discharge 
  1. Nose – free of discharge, or clear discharge 
  1. Mouth – the gums and inside of the lips should be moist and pink. Capillary refill time (the time it takes for capillaries in the gums to return to pink after being pressed with a finger) should be under two seconds 
  1. Respiration – the normal respiratory range for horses is 10-24 breaths per minute. You can measure this by watching the horse’s flank move in and out as he breaths, watching nostrils flare with each breath, or listening with a stethoscope as air crosses the trachea 
  1. Hydration – pinch the horse’s skin in the neck/shoulder area and release it. A well-hydrated horse’s skin will snap back to normal in one-two seconds 
  1. Tendons and Ligaments – check for swelling or heat in or around these structures in the lower legs 
  1. Heart Rate – the normal heart rate for horses is 28-44 beats per minute.  Use your stethoscope to listen to the heart just behind your horse’s left elbow. Each “lub-dub” equals one beat. You can also take his pulse on the lingual artery (bottom side of the jaw) 
  1. Overall Body Condition – considers the fat covering your horse’s ribs, shoulder, withers, loin, tailhead, and neck. The normal body condition score is 5-6 on a 9 point scale.  
  1. Gut Sounds – place your ear or stethoscope against both sides of the abdomen – high and low – to listen for gurgling, growls, and occasional roars.  Silence is NOT a good sign 
  1. Hooves – your horse’s feet should be balanced, with a straight hoof to pastern angle. Learn to check the digital pulses (digital arteries at the back of the fetlock). A bounding digital pulse may indicate laminitis. 
  1. Poop – learn what your horse’s manure typically looks and smells like.  Ideally, a healthy horse produces well-formed balls with no real “chunks” of feed left. There should be little odor and uniform color.  
  1. Temperature – taken rectally, a horse’s normal temperature is 99-101 degrees Fahrenheit. Ideally, you want to use a digital thermometer, and be sure to hold the thermometer firmly in place and leave it long enough to register a temperature. 


This blog just covers the highlights of the Vital Signs Interactive Tool provided by  Be sure to spend more time with that tool and your veterinarian learning as much as you can about reading your horse’s vitals.  

Ultimately, every horse owner should spend enough time simply observing your horse. Over time, you will come to know what his “normal” appearance, attitude, habits, and behaviors look like and when “something’s not right.”   

Sometimes, that “something’s not right” is as straightforward as him not coming up for dinner with the rest of the herd; in which case,  you go find him and start checking the signs. Other times, you might just “have a feeling,” so you continue to observe.   

As long as I don’t see blood spurting from a wound, my go-to vitals checklist is generally attitude (not one of the 12, but another data point), temperature, followed by gums, respiration, and appetite (again, another data point).  

Do you have a “checklist” of things you look for to know if your horse is acting normal or not?  Tell us about it in the comments! 



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