A horse’s respiratory rate (the number of breaths taken in a minute), is a basic vital sign that provides useful information in virtually all cases of injury or illness. Taking an accurate respiratory rate is a very important skill for a horse owner to master.
An increased respiratory rate is seen with exercise, excitement, stress, pain, shock, blood loss or anemia, and certain metabolic abnormalities. Good athletic condition, sedation and anesthesia, and rarely hypothermia or shock can cause a horse to have a lower than normal respiratory rate.
Respiration in a healthy horse is surprisingly subtle, and may be hard to detect without some practice. A normal respiratory rate in a resting adult horse is slow, 6-16 breaths per minute.
There are several ways to take your horse's respiratory rate. Stand quietly at the left shoulder and watch the abdomen move slowly in and out. Count the number of inhalations (outward movements) in 30 seconds and multiply by 2 to determine the number of breaths per minute.
A second method is to listen to the horse's trachea with a stethoscope. To do this, stand on the left side of the horse. Use your left hand to place the stethoscope head in the center of the lowest part of the middle of the neck. Press in and wait there until you hear air passing through the trachea, a hissing sound. Count the number of inhalations (outward movements of air) in 30 seconds and multiply by 2 to determine the number of breaths per minute.
Air can also be felt with each exhalation at the nostrils. Place your hand in front of the horse's nose and count the number of exhalations in 30 seconds and multiply by 2 to determine the number of breaths per minute.
Tips for safety & Success
You can assess your horses respiratory rate in three ways, watching their abdomen, listening to their trachea with a stethoscope, or feeling their exhalations at the nostril.
Try not to double count. Only count exhalations or inhalations, not both. You may not be able to hear respiratory sounds in a healthy adult horse unless you have experience and are in very quiet surroundings.
Horses that are sniffing may give a false respiratory rate.