What is The Normal Horse’s Respiratory Rate? 

Last Updated on December 28, 2021 by Urska

Do you know what your normal horse respiratory rate (RR) is? If you own or lease a horse, or care for other horses, knowing how to properly take a horse (RR) and knowing their resting respiratory rate is very important.

RR rates can increase and decrease due to fever, stress, pain, suffering, and respiratory diseases. An increase in RR can also be from something as simple as neighing or calling out to a pasture or barn mate, even feeding time; anything that gives the horse the feeling of excitement or happiness.

How To Get The Most Accurate Resting Respiratory Rate

After your horse has had breakfast and they are calm and relaxed in their pen or stall is an ideal time to take their resting RR. Try to avoid doing anything that may get them excited. If your horse usually perks up when you enter the stall with a halter, leave the halter elsewhere and go in without it, you want to keep your horse as calm as possible to get the most accurate RR rate.

Normal Horse Respiratory Rate and How To Determine It

Respiratory Rate using a Stethoscope and a Watch

Having a stethoscope and a watch with a second hand is very helpful when taking the horse’s RR. Try listening to the trachea instead of the lungs, when you count the horse’s breaths. The trachea is closer to the skin so you can hear the air moving through it easily. 

To find trachea you can gently palpate the neck, a bit off-center to the right and between the throat latch and chest. 

You will feel round bands or rings made of cartilage, those are the tracheal rings and they support the trachea. 

Place the stethoscope near the bottom of the neck and the start of the chest and you will hear them breathing. If it’s muffled move your stethoscope around tiny bits at a time until things sound more clear. Using a watch or timer count each full breath (inhale and exhale), for 15 seconds.  

Find a good quality stethoscope on Amazon.

Respiratory Rate by Watching the Rib Cage or Flank

If you don’t have a stethoscope you can still take the horse’s RR.  You will still need a watch or a timer so you can count for 15 seconds. As the horse breathes, you can see their rib cage and flanks rise and fall. You can count each breath on the inhale (rise) or exhale (fall). 

Inhale and exhale are counted as one breath, not as two separate breaths. Failure to count breaths properly will give an inaccurate count. 

Horse Respiratory Rate by Watching the Rib Cage or Flank

Respiratory rate is calculated by taking the number of breaths counted in 15 seconds and multiplying that by 4 and that will give you the average resting RR of the horse.               

Number of breaths counted x 4= Rest RR

To get the most accurate resting RR, repeat this process three more times and then take the average of the three RR totals to get your final resting RR.

The RR for a normal horse in rest will be between 8-16 breaths per minute. Foals will have a higher RR at 20-40 breaths per min for up to three hours after they are born, then it will go to more normal horse RR.

Why a Horse’s Respiratory Rate May Increase or Decrease 

Hot and humid weather may increase a horse’s RR because its internal cooling system has a harder time working efficiently in high heat. This will increase the horse’s RR as their body works harder to cool itself off.

Lunging, riding or other training/exercise done by horse and handler will increase the RR. It is not unusual for a RR to reach 150-160 breaths per minute during intense conditioning, but monitor their recovery time. Within 5-10 minutes the horses RR should be close to their regular resting RR.

Horses RR may increase due to happiness or excitement.

Heaves, also commonly known as Recurrent Airway Obstruction (ROA), will cause labored breathing while the horse is at rest, with excessive mucus in the airways causing nasal discharge, coughing, and will not be able to handle their previous workload. Heaves if very similar to asthma in humans. RR can be increased or decreased based on the severity of the condition.

Fever, other diseases such as the flu or strangles, injuries, anything causing pain or distress can increase a horse’s RR.

Read more about Understanding your horse body language

When to Call a Veterinarian?

With any type of RR change seeking guidance from your Veterinarian is highly recommended. Make sure to closely monitor breathing changes so you can log for future references and/or to give your veterinarian when they arrive to check your horse. Your Vet will be able to check all the other vitals along with temperature to determine the cause respiratory problems your horse may be having.

Conclusion

From horse lover to horse owner knowing how to properly get the RR of a horse and what can cause the RR to increase or decrease is the knowledge we all need to have. Knowing when to be concerned and the triggers that can affect the different vital signs of the horse is going to be what keeps you calm and being able to do what is needed in any type of emergency situation or a routine day at the farm. If you have any questions regarding this topic please feel free to contact me.

FAQs

What is the average respiratory rate of a healthy adult horse at rest?

The normal respiratory rate for an adult horse at rest is 8-15 breaths per minute. When horses are exercised, their breathing rate can increase to 30 or more breaths per minute. 
Respiration is an inhalation followed by an equally long exhalation. Differences in the length of inhalation and exhalation can signal some respiratory problems. Apart from exercise, an increase in the respiratory rate can be caused by heat, humidity, and pain.

What causes respiratory problems in horses?

One of the most common diseases affecting equine respiratory function is strangles. Strangles is a contagious disease that is characterized by a painful swelling of the upper neck, face, and head. The swelling is caused by an inflammation of the lymph nodes that are located near the trachea and windpipe. Strangles can also cause fever, cough, and nasal discharge.
Equine herpesviruses are also very common reason for respiratory problems in horses. Herpesviruses cause a highly infectious viral infection that triggers acute inflammation of the upper respiratory tract. It is characterized by a fever, depression, loss of appetite, and nasal discharge. The horses often have a “stiff” gait, and may exhibit coughing and increased respiratory rate.

Why is my horse coughing and breathing hard?

Coughing is often associated with respiratory tract infections. These are often caused by viruses that invade the upper respiratory tract and may be accompanied by fever and nasal discharge. A number of bacteria can also cause respiratory tract infections. However, the combination of coughing and laborious breathing is most often a symptom of severe equine asthma. Equine asthma is characterized by chronic inflammation of the airways which causes them to become hyper-sensitive to airborne stimuli. The airway lining becomes chronically inflamed, swollen, and thickened. This results in the narrowing of the airways and makes it difficult for the horse to breathe.
There are many different types of stimuli that can trigger an episode of acute equine asthma. These include allergens (both indoor and outdoor), infectious agents such as viruses or bacteria, irritants like dust or smoke, environmental factors like temperature or humidity changes, and even emotional stress. The most common cause of acute episodes is thought to be an allergic reaction to one or more allergens.

How do I know if my horse has asthma?

A number of tests can be used to diagnose equine asthma. These include physical examination of the respiratory tract, auscultation of the lungs, and laboratory tests.
For the physical examination of the respiratory tract the horse should be examined in the standing position. A thorough auscultation of the respiratory tract should be performed using a stethoscope.
A clear or whitish nasal discharge that looks like pus is a very strong indicator of a respiratory tract infection. This can also be accompanied by fever, coughing, labored breathing, and a stiff gait.
A horse with chronic airway inflammation will often have an increased respiratory rate and effort. This is especially noticeable when the horse is exercised.

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