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Horse Health: Heat Stress and Hot-Weather Dangers

Learn how to exercise healthily and care for your horse when summer temperatures soar.
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In the summer, when temperatures soar, the hot sun glares and there’s nary a breeze to be found, most horse owners are comfortable in air-conditioned offices or houses. But what about our beloved horses?

Extreme heat can lead to dehydration, tying up, heat exhaustion, colic and even death. Dr. Justin Voge of Hartman Equine in Whitesboro, Texas, and Dr. Elaine Carpenter, formerly of Cave Creek Equine in Phoenix, Arizona, strongly recommend using common sense when determining whether or not your horse is at risk for these conditions.

What temperature is too hot for a horse?

“We advise to not exercise your horse in the heat of the day,” Dr. Carpenter says. “Pick early morning or late evening when it’s cooler to ride or work your horse.”

That said, even in cooler parts of the day during the summer, take extra care to properly warm up and cool down your horse.

“Just be sensible. If it’s hot out and you’re hot, think about how hard you work your horse. A fit horse can handle it better than a horse that’s not fit,” Dr. Carpenter says.

How do you cool down a horse after exercise?

The policy at Voge Quarter Horses is to always rinse the horse after exercise in the summer. It cools them down faster, gets the dirt and sweat off and, then when placed in a well-ventilated stall, keeps them cool longer.

How do you avoid dehydration in horses?

It’s critical to always provide clean drinking water for horses, but in the summer, it can be a matter of life or death.

“In the summertime, we feed a little bit of Morton lite salt every day,” Dr. Voge says.

It’s a combination of salt and potassium chloride designed for human consumption. It can be found at most grocers and helps horses want to drink more.

Electrolytes can also help your horse stay healthy in the heat. Electrolytes can be administered in an oral paste, or mixed in feed or water.

Be careful when you put electrolytes in the water, though,” Dr. Carpenter warns. “Always offer water without electrolytes, as well. Some horses will stop drinking because they don’t like the taste. And you definitely don’t want them to stop drinking.”

What are warning signs that a horse has overheated?

Your horse might need serious medical attention because of the heat. Call the vet right away if your horse has any of these symptoms:

  1. The horse stops sweating. Some horses suffer from anhidrosis, which is the inability to sweat, and a condition that needs to be diagnosed by the veterinarian. In a normal horse, it is a sign of extreme heat stress. If it’s hot out and your horse stops sweating, call the vet right away.
  2. Increased respiratory rate. Anything above 50 breaths per minute warrants a vet call.
  3. Increased rectal temperature. If the horse’s temperature rises above 102 degrees Fahrenheit, call the vet. If the horse’s temperature shoots up right away after a few minutes of exercise, that is a sign that the horse is having trouble cooling itself.
  4. Muscle stiffness. A horse that seems stiff and/or is reluctant to move around may be starting to tie up. Call the vet.
  5. Lethargy. If the horse acts depressed, is disinterested in food or lacks coordination, call the vet.

While waiting for the vet to arrive, stop activity, offer the horse water, rinse the horse with cold water and keep him in the shade and in front of a fan.