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Care of Horses in Hot Weather

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Managing horses during hot weather can be a challenge for horse owners. Horse owners need to provide extra care during hot weather in order to decrease stress and maintain health and well-being of the horse. Normally, horses cool themselves by sweating and a horse that is working hard in a hot environment can lose 7 to 15 liters of sweat per hour.

Heat stress has a negative impact on feed intake, and most horses will not voluntary consume as much feedstuffs on hot days, similar to humans and other livestock. The change in metabolism, coupled with the likely reduced feed intake, can result in body weight loss, most specifically muscle protein. It is critical to track feed intake and body condition and weight during hot weather, especially for thin, older, and younger horses. If body condition or weight loss is observed, contact an equine nutritionist or veterinarian for assistance

To help reduce the effects of heat and keep horses comfortable:

  • If possible provide turnout during cooler times of the day (early in the morning, late at night, or overnight).
  • Provide relief from the sun through access to shade from trees or buildings.
  • Watch for signs of sunburn, especially on white or light-colored areas; use masks and sunscreen.
  • Ensure access to clean, cool water at all times. Depending on feed, an adult horse in a cool climate will normally drink 22 to 40 liters of water each day while at rest, and much more while working or in hot conditions.
  • Water buckets and tanks may need to be cleaned more regularly in hot weather as algae and bacteria grow rapidly in warm water. 
  • Free choice access to salt will encourage drinking. Loose salt is preferred over a salt block.
  • Consider providing electrolytes to horses that have been sweating heavily or are expected to do so. Only use electrolytes that are formulated for horses.
  • Reduce riding intensity and length; heat stress can affect any horse but is especially common in older, obese and out of condition horses. Young foals also tend to be more prone to heat stress and dehydration.
  • Clip horses with long hair coats (i.e. horses with Cushing's disease) to enhance cooling.
  • Transport horses during the coolest part of the day and ensure that trailers are well ventilated and offer water frequently..
  • Horses with anhidrosis have little or no ability to produce sweat; these horses are prime candidates for heat stress.

It is recommended to avoid riding a horse when the combined temperature and relative humidity are excessive. If a horse must be ridden during hot and humid weather, or you live in an area where hot and humid weather is prevalent, it is essential to:

  • Adjust your schedule (ride early in the morning or late at night).
  • Keep the work light and include frequent breaks that allow the horse to cool down and regain a normal respiratory rate. Do not work the horse beyond its fitness level. 
  • Watch for normal sweating.
  • Create airflow and work the horse in shade when possible.
  • Provide access to cool, clean water at all times and offer water frequently during work. There is no reason to withhold water from a hot horse.
  • Call a veterinarian immediately if your horse stops producing sweat, breathes heavily, or becomes lethargic, distressed or uncoordinated.

To cool an overheated horse, spray or sponge the horse's head, back, neck, rump, and legs with cool water and immediately scrape the water off, repeating continuously until the horse is cool. This is an effective cooling method because heat is transferred from the horse's muscles and skin to the water, which is then removed to cool the horse. It is critical to scrape the warmed water off immediately, or the water may serve as insulation and might actually increase the horse's body temperature.

Adding ice to the water will increase the speed of cooling for very hot horses, Ice baths have been found to reduce core body temperature and lower heart rates after intense exercise, and horses were also observed trotting more freely after an ice bath. If a horse is prone to tying up, do not directly apply ice water to the large gluteal muscles in the hind end, but focus on areas where blood vessels are more superficial (i.e. head, neck, back and rib area). Finally, do not place a sheet or blanket on the horse while trying to cool it. Rugging will block the evaporation of water from the skin and is not recommended during hot and humid conditions.

Prolonged exposure to high temperatures can result in heat stress, heat stroke, and complications such as dehydration, muscle spasms, and colic.

Signs of heat stress include a rectal temperature greater than 103°F, increased heart and respiration rates, profuse sweating, droopy ears, signs of fatigue, and dehydration with a prolonged skin tent of several seconds when the skin of the neck or shoulders is pinched. Horses worked hard in extreme heat and/or humidity may go on to develop signs of heat stroke, a very serious overheating condition in which rectal temperature rises above 106°F.

Signs of heat stroke include rapid heart and respiratory rates that do not drop within 20 minutes of stopping exercise, whinnying and distress, marked dehydration with dry mucous membranes and a prolonged skin tent of 4 to 10 seconds, marked muscle weakness, incoordination, and collapse.

Articles sourced from University of Minnesota

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  • Horse Care
  • Hot Weather
  • Water
  • Sweating

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