Help Your Horse Beat the Heat, Avoid Heat Stress

Long summer days give us more time with our horses, but along with them come scorching heat indexes. Adjusting to the heat is no new task for horses or horse owners, but it’s important to be sure you’re prepared to help your barn sail through the summer easy breezy.

Horses often naturally adjust without help, but it is worth using caution and aiding in the process due to the fatal potential of heat-related illnesses should a horse overheat. Paying close attention to weather forecasts, horse behavior patterns, and vital signs will help you plan accordingly before heat and humidity wreak havoc in the barn.

Whether at rest or working, the horse’s fastest way to cool down is by sweating. The body rids extra heat generated by either exercise or heat and humidity via sweat glands. Sweat evaporates to decrease body temperature, helping the horse cool off.

Always providing fresh, clean water—no matter the time of year—allows horses to adjust their water consumption as needed to replace fluids lost by sweat. To encourage horses to drink more, provide salt blocks or supplement salt to increase thirst. If horses are exercising regularly and sweating throughout the summer, I encourage owners to supplement their diets with electrolytes. You can add them to feed or water but, if you opt for the latter, be sure to provide an additional water source in case the horse prefers plain water.

Increased humidity and temperatures can slow down or halt sweat evaporation, making it harder to cool off. Cold water hosing can help lower a horse’s core body temperature. Monitoring horses’ sweat patterns is important. If a horse’s sweat production wanes or he does not sweat, call a veterinarian to discuss treatment options. Equine anhidrosis is a nonsweating condition and can become an ­emergency in extremely hot weather.

Exercise induces a rapid rise in body heat. So, even when a horse has adjusted to increased ambient temperatures or humidity at rest, be sure to monitor exercise closely and plan rides for the coolest times of day. More demanding exercise generates more body heat, so it’s important to make gradual increases in session length/intensity to condition horses in heat and humidity. Additionally, whenever possible, haul horses during the coolest times of day.

As temperatures increase, keep in mind that the horse’s core body temperature might be elevated during rest and exercise. Keeping record of what is normal for a horse during different seasons can be helpful.

Ensure good ventilation in barns so indoor air does not become stagnant. Open windows and doors, along with ceiling fans and box fans, can help create airflow and cool temperatures indoors. Every horse should have access to shade throughout the summer days—you must provide this with a stall, shed, or tree. An alternative to turnout areas without shade is nighttime turnout during the summer.

Recognizing Heat Stress in Horses

Following suit with many equine conditions, prevention is key. However, being able to recognize signs of heat stress might save a life if a horse becomes overheated. They include:

  • Sweating profusely or not at all;
  • Weakness, lethargy;
  • Stumbling;
  • Labored breathing;
  • High respiratory rate that does not return to normal;
  • High heart rate that does not return to normal; and
  • High rectal temperature that does not begin to decrease.

Heat stress can lead to heatstroke and death if left untreated. If you notice signs of heat stress, call a veterinarian ­immediately. In the event a horse overheats, you can help by:

  • Removing any blankets, pads, saddles, or boots;
  • Cold water hosing and removing, excess water with a squeegee tool or sweat scraper;
  • Bathing with isopropyl alcohol, which can help dissipate heat faster than water or sweat;
  • Providing a cool, well-ventilated area with shade and/or a fan to decrease ambient temperature;
  • Offering cool water to drink;
  • Recording rectal temperatures in 15-minute increments; and
  • As you would in any emergency, remaining calm and not giving a horse further reason to stress.

With some advanced planning to beat the heat, I hope you are able to enjoy long summer days with your horses.