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The respiration range in a horse is 8 to 16 breaths per minute. Each inhale together with exhale counts as one breath, and the rate in and out should be steady. Respiration speeds up during exercise, in the presence of fever or when a horse is in pain. If the respiration is rapid in a horse that has been at rest, or if the pace of the inhale versus the exhale is unsteady, consult a veterinarian. To count breaths, watch your horse’s flank or ribcage for one minute. If you are having trouble identifying the breaths, you may want to watch his nostrils instead or lay your hand against the horse’s side.

Capillary Refill Time

Capillary refill time indicates the level of blood circulation and can help you determine whether the horse might be in shock. To test capillary refill time, hold a horse’s lip up and press a finger on his gum for a couple of seconds, long enough to leave a white mark. Remove your finger and watch to see if the white spot disappears in 2 seconds. If the spot remains longer, the horse may be dehydrated or in shock; proceed to check the mucous membranes.

Mucous Membranes

The color of mucous membranes also indicates the level of blood circulation, or may indicate various serious medical conditions such as liver disease. The horse’s gums, the inside of his nostrils, and the lining of his eyes should be pink and moist. If they are very pale pink, very yellow, bright red or grayish blue, speak with your veterinarian as a serious condition may exist.


At times, you may find it helpful to assess whether your horse has consumed enough water. To check for dehydration, pinch some skin on your horse’s shoulder. When you let go, the skin should slip back into place in about a second. If the skin stays pinched and only slowly returns to place, then the horse may be dehydrated. The longer the pinch mark remains, the more dehydrated the horse may be. You should encourage the horse to drink and consider administering electrolytes. If the horse is both dehydrated and in distress, consult a veterinarian.

Gut Sounds

Gut sounds emanate from a horse’s intestines and stomach, and should always be present. If you do not hear gut sounds, it may mean that activity in the horse’s digestive system has stopped, indicating potential colic. Get to know your horse’s normal gut sounds—the gurgling and growling—so that you’ll recognize any abnormality should the need arise. Some horses have very loud gut sounds that are easily heard by laying an ear against the horse’s barrel, near the flank. Others have gut sounds that are more difficult to discern, and the use of a stethoscope may be in order. Always listen for gut sounds on both sides of the horse’s barrel; you’ll often notice more noise on one side than on the other.

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