EQUUS ‘Farm Calls’ episode 19: Equine physical exams

Dr. Alison Gardner discusses the importance of learning to perform a physical exam on your own horse.

“I tell my vet students that the best way to tell how sick a horse is, is through a physical exam and assessing the temperament of the horse,” said Alison Gardner, DVM, DADVS, DACVECC (LA).

She said with the veterinarian shortage, horse owners might not be able to see their usual vet for an emergency, so owners need to be able to relate physical and “attitude” differences for the sick horse. “Keep records like deworming and vaccination handy,” said Gardner.

In Episode 19 of the EQUUS “Farm Calls” podcast, we talked to Gardner about equine physical exams and offer you tips on getting these important factors right whether you are at home, on the trail or at a show.

Gardner is a DVM and a diplomate in the American College of Veterinary Surgeons—Large Animal, and a diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Emergency and Critical Care—Large Animal. She is an assistant professor in Clinical Equine Surgery, Department of Veterinary Clinical Science, at The Ohio State University.

As horse owners know, TPR (temperature, pulse and respiration) are the foundations of a physical exam. Gardner said taking a rectal temperature is important, but if your horse isn’t used to this, the first few times take it slow and have someone else hold the horse.

She said a normal adult horse temperature is 99.5-101.5 degrees Fahrenheit. “If the horse is acting normal, then a lower temperature is usually OK,” said Gardner.

If neonates younger than four weeks old have a rectal temperature over 102.5 degrees Fahrenheit, then that foal has a fever.

Gardner said horse owners need to learn how to take a horse’s pulse. The easiest place is to feel for pulse is at the artery under the jaw.

“The heart rate is important, especially in colic cases,” said Gardner. “It tells you how sick the horse is.”

Garder recommended taking the heart rate with a stethoscope under the left elbow. “The higher your horse’s body condition score, the harder that might be to hear,” she noted. “So you can use a $20-$30 stethoscope.”

The resting heart rate of a healthy adult horse is 28-48 beats per minute (BPM). She said older horses will probably have heart rates in the 30s.

“You worry about pain if the heart rate is 48-60 beats per minute,” she stated. “If the horse is severely dehydrated or has cardiovascular compromise, over 60 beats per minute is a concern.”

Garder continues in the podcast to talk about respiratory rates (normal and what to be on the lookout for in compromised or sick horses), digital pulse, lameness grades, mucous membrane health, dehydration pinch test, jugular refill time, gut sounds and more!


Horse owners probably know the “attitude” of their horse better than anyone. They know if the horse is “off” even before the horse shows clinical signs that a veterinarian can pinpoint.

Being able to tell the attending veterinarian—especially if it is a practitioner who has never seen your horse before—what is normal and abnormal for your horse is critical in getting to the heart of any issue.

This episode was brought to you by our partners at Farnam, the makers of Weight Builder Equine Weight Supplement.  Adding and maintaining weight on a horse that’s a perpetual ‘”hard keeper’”can be a challenge.  Help your horse reach his ideal weight and performance demands by feeding a high-quality fat supplement for a concentrated source of easily digested calories.  Visit Farnam.com to learn more.




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