How to Tell If Your Horse Is Healthy

Vet checking the health of a horse

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This is how you identify a healthy horse. A healthy horse has a good appetite, a sleek coat, and is alert. Whether you are looking at a horse to buy or you own one, you’ll want to be able to quickly assess the horse's health for a number of reasons:

  • You don’t want to purchase a sick horse
  • You’ll want to catch any signs of sickness early to avoid the horse from becoming sicker.
  • You’ll be able to give accurate observations when you call your veterinarian since you will know what is normal and what isn’t.
  • You’ll be able to separate the horse quickly from others to minimize the risk of passing on any contagious disease.

There are a few aspects of horse health you need to monitor on a daily basis:

  • The amount of feed being consumed. If a normally greedy eater suddenly slows down you’ll know something could be wrong.
  • The amount of water being consumed. The average horse drinks between 5 and 10 gallons a day depending on the air temperature, activity level and whether the horse’s main diet is grass or hay.
  • The amount of manure being produced. This is more difficult to monitor if your horse is out on pasture, but you can count on cleaning out about 8 piles of well-formed, firm manure (depending on the size of the horse) a day from a horse kept stabled. Runny manure can be a sign of nerves, but can also mean illness.
  • Do a visual check daily for lumps, bruises, scrapes or punctures, runny noses or eyes.
  • Check hooves frequently for cracks, signs of infection (unusually bad smell or secretions), and loose shoes.

Your Horse’s Vital Signs

Before anything goes wrong, you’ll want to become familiar with your horse’s vital signs. Take your horse’s pulse, respiration, and temperature over a few days at different times of the day to find average rates.


The average pulse for a riding horse is between 27 and 43 beats per minute. This value is affected by the fitness of the horse and how agitated it is. Ponies tend to have slightly higher normal values. There are two ways to take your horse’s pulse: with a stethoscope or by pressing two fingers on the large artery that runs under the horse’s cheekbone. Inexpensive stethoscopes can be purchased at medical supply stores. Place the stethoscope just in front of the girth area, just behind the horse’s elbow. Alternatively, press your fingers under the horse’s cheekbone along the large artery that you will feel underneath the skin. Starting at zero, count the number of beats you hear or feel in 15 seconds and multiply that value by four. This will give you the number of beats per minute.


Normal adult body temperature is between 98 degrees F and 100 degrees F. Temperature is taken rectally. A livestock thermometer can be purchased at a tack or feed supply store. It should have a string and clip on it. A thermometer that beeps when it has reached maximum temperature is nice to have, and worth the slight extra expense. An accurate reading with a regular thermometer is reached in about 2 minutes. Don’t let go of the thermometer—and if it disappears, that is what the string is for.


Some horses object to having a rectal temperature taken, so proceed with caution. A tasty snack at the front end might help him forget what is going on at the back end. If you get a nasty reaction to your temperature taking, ask an experienced horse person for help.


An average horse breathes 8 to 16 times per minute. Count the number of breaths per minute by watching the horse’s flanks. It can be a bit tricky to get an accurate count if the horse is sniffing or excited.

Signs of Poor Horse Health

Call the vet at signs of:

  • A wound pulsing blood.
  • Unusual swelling.
  • Seizures.
  • Unusual behavior such as depression, staggering, shivering.
  • Diarrhea that is not a result of nervous excitement caused by things like trailering or competition.
  • Pulse that is over the normal values and is not a result of excitement or exertion.
  • Straining to urinate, coffee or blood-colored urine, or leaking urine.
  • Change in appetite such as refusing to eat, or unable to eat or drink.
  • A puncture wound that is oozing foul secretions or has become swollen.
  • Constipation-straining to produce manure.
  • Agitated rolling, kicking, biting at flanks and sweating that might indicate colic (stomach ache).
  • Persistent cough.
  • Limping, as this could be a sign of a broken leg.