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.
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.
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.
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.