Why Checking Your Horse’s Pulse is Important

Girl With Horse

A horse gallops with his lungs, preserves with his heart, and wins with his character.

–Federico Tesio (1869-1954)

February is when we think about love. We see symbols of Cupid piercing hearts with his magic arrow, and to we horse-passionate fools, we think of how much we love our horses. We imagine Pegasus, the Greek mythological divine white stallion, flying through the air carrying Cupid. It can’t be helped. We insert horses into every aspect of our lives – as did the ancient Greeks! It is part of the contract we sign, in bold lettering at the very top when we agree to become a horse owner: HORSES WILL RULE YOUR LIFE. Sign below.

And we do so without hesitation. And we have no regrets. But much deeper than the love we have for them is our need to understand them, to study them, to know how to care for them, the best way to feed them, exercise them, see both their physical and emotional needs.

Something we don’t talk much about is their heart – or heart health. According to Dr. Gregory L. Ferraro, horses rarely suffer heart attacks or degenerative heart diseases so common to humans. He does caution that trainers and owners should know how to correctly take their horse’s vital signs especially when your horse is exerting energy in excess of their normal work. Understanding and knowing how to assess your horse’s general condition by correctly taking and evaluating their pulse and respiration is easy and an invaluable technique in protecting your horse’s heart.

Bill Thomas, DVM, explains that, horses are expected to “perform work or athletic feats” with a rider that can have impacts on his condition, no matter what breed of horse you have so it’s important to have some basic knowledge of how to evaluate your horse’s heart condition through pulse and respiration, and don’t forget to check the color of your horse’s mucous membranes so you have a good, general picture of your horse’s health status.


Normal respiration for a horse at rest is 8 to 15 breaths per minute, and will increase to up to 120 to 140 breaths per minute with work. The heart rate should drop significantly after 10 minutes and go back to normal around 30 minutes to an hour of rest depending on how hot it is outside

How to Check Your Horse’s Pulse

Beneath the jaw, or under the tail of the tailbone, or at the side of your horse’s foot. Most horses won’t stand still long enough for you to count the pulse for a full minute. To simplify, you can count for 15 seconds and then multiply the result by four.

Why Checking Your Horse’s Pulse is Important

Knowing your horse’s resting heart rate and pulse strength can help you to distinguish whether or not your horse has a problem/

This measures the rate and strength of your horse’s heartbeat. A resting horse has a pulse of 38 to 40 beats per minute. When exercising, a horse’s maximum heart rate can exceed 180 beats per minute. However, in resting, if your horse’s heart rate is over 80 beats this can be a sign of a serious problem. If a calm horse has a pulse that is consistently over 60, it can also be a serious problem.

Most commonly, an elevated heart rate in horses is cause by colic, or intestinal pain. These elevations can be mild to severe, and the amount of increase can be a sign of the severity of the horse’s pain.

If the pulse is weak or soft, it can indicate other problems that the heart isn’t pumping forcefully enough and can be a sign of equine heart disease.

If you’re interested in improving your horse’s physical conditioning, you may wish to make note of the horse’s rate of pulse return after exercising, to it’s normal resting pulse. This measurement is the singe best indicator of the horse’ s fitness. Being able to check your horse’s pulse is an excellent way to monitor the effectiveness of your horse’s training and fitness regime.

How to Check Your Horse’s Respiration

Three Ways To Check

Your horse’s inhalations should take roughly the same among of time as its exhalations.

  1. Watch your horse’s nostrils move as he breathes.
  2. Watch your horse’s torso for the movement of the ribcage and belly.
  3. Listen at your horse’s trachea or windpipe – called “auscultation.”

You have no doubt observed your veterinarian auscultate various areas of your horse using a stethoscope as seen in the photos below. If you don’t have a stethoscope, you can do the same thing by simply placing your ear against your horse’s neck to listen for the sound of the air moving through the trachea or lungs. However, caution should prevail if you horse is ill, injured, or stressed obviously as he may be less tolerant of your nearness.

Again, if you can listen for 15 seconds and multiply the number of respirations by four to achieve the number of breaths per minute. Normally your horse should breath between 8 and 10 times per minute.

If your horse shows a high respiratory rate, it can indicate several things. Pain, excitement, stress, fever, or infection can all cause an increase in the respiratory rate.

By learning how to measure your horse’s pulse and respirations, becoming familiar with his resting, healthy measurements, and knowing his usual gum color and gut sounds, you will be more familiar with his basic health condition. More importantly, you’ll be much more likely to be able to spot a problem and can notify your veterinarian early, potentially avoiding more serious, and costly issues from developing.

When you can tell your veterinarian these vital signs over the phone during a consultation or emergency, your veterinarian will have a more complete picture of what is happening with your horse. This means you will receive more accurate and helpful treatment for your horse.

Sources: The Equine Heart by Bill Thomas, DVM The Horse Report, Volume 24, Number 4-October 2006


by Nicole Chastain Price

Nicole Chastain Price is a trainer and rider who holds her USDF Bronze, Silver and Gold Medals, and is a USDF Certified Instructor Trainer through First Level and an USDF "L" Graduate with Distinction. She competes her Lusitano stallion, Esbelto CL, in Dressage and was the USDF HOY All Breeds Champion IALHA at Training Level Open in 2014. She also competes in Western Dressage and Ranch Sorting and hopes to start competing in Working Equitation. Nicole is the Grand Meadows Sponsorship Coordinator.