Knowledge of practical and herbal first aid is the best insurance any horse owner can have. A decision can be made quickly whether to call the vet or not and there are essential actions which can be taken while waiting for the vet, or to treat the problem adequately yourself. Fast and appropriate first aid usually prevents complications from setting in and results in faster and more complete healing.

Reading the Vital Signs


For this an observant attitude is required together with a stethoscope, a thermometer and a stop watch. It is a good idea to get to know the individual vital signs of your own horses, which should be recorded on a whiteboard in the feed shed, together with important phone numbers such as your vet and farrier.

Heart Rate

To work out the resting heart rate, listen with the stethoscope to the heart, against the chest just behind the left elbow, counting the beats for 60 seconds on the stop watch. The resting heart rate is when the horse is relaxed, calm and has done no exercise. The normal resting heart rate is 40 beats per minute with some lower and some higher. If a horse is stressed or sick, their normal heart rate may be elevated or lowered, which is why it is important to be able to read the heart rate.

First Aid Victoria Ferguson

Checking heart rate


Digital thermometers are simple to use, ensure the thermometer is registering zero before inserting in the horse’s anus for at least 30 seconds, or remove when the thermometer beeps. Normal temperature is 37.5 degrees, give or take a little for the time of day and the ambient temperature and the breed. An elevated temperature is usually the first warning that infection or inflammation is brewing.

First Aid Victoria Ferguson

Taking Temperature

Respiration Rate

To work out the respiration rate, watch the flank or the nostrils and count how many breaths in 60 seconds, using your stop watch. Do this a few times with a healthy horse as it can be a little tricky. The rhythm is important. In the normal resting horse inspiration and expiration are followed by a pause. Normal respiration rate is 10 – 14 breaths per minute. An elevated respiration rate is a sign of distress. The sound of the intake of the breath is also a factor. Listen with a stethoscope in the middle of the underside of the neck which is the location of the trachea, if the breath intake sounds crackly, then respiratory infection is present.

First Aid Victoria Ferguson

Checking respiration rate

Gut Sounds

To check gut sounds, listen with the stethoscope at the hollow just in front of the hip bone on the off side, which is the site of the ileo-cecal valve between the small and large intestine. This should discharge approximately once every 60 seconds with a loud, gurgling noise distinctive from other gut sounds, once described by a revered vet as “sounds like farting in the bath”! Over or under active gut sounds are both signs of digestive disturbance. The absence of the noise of the ileo-cecal valve discharging is a sign of colic and loud gut noises are a sign of excess gas. So get to know what horses’ normal gut sounds are like to avoid panic.

First Aid Victoria Ferguson

Checking gut sounds

Gum Colour and Capillary Refill

Healthy gum colour is pink, abnormal colours are very pale, red, mauve or whitish-grey. To check for capillary refill, hold your thumb on the gum underneath the top lip for a few seconds, the colour should return immediately, if not this means that circulation is sluggish.

First Aid Victoria Ferguson

Gum Colour


To check hydration pick up a small piece of skin between the thumb and forefinger in the middle of the neck, then let it go quickly, if it falls back into place easily, this is a guide that hydration is satisfactory. If the skin stays sitting up, then the horse is dehydrated.

First Aid Victoria Ferguson

Hydration Check


Any enlargement in the lymph glands is a sign that the horse’s immune system is under attack. The place to check is from the base of the jaw following the gullet up to the base of the ear. They may also be inflamed or sore to touch.

First Aid Victoria Ferguson

Gland Check

Any of the above vital signs which are abnormal are clues to working out what is wrong with the horse and treating appropriately. Get going and empower yourself, and be in the running to win some herbal first aid kits- stay tuned to find out how!