By Jesse Bussard
The temperature is heating up and days are getting longer. Along with this comes the desire of many horse owners to spend more time riding their horses. Who doesn’t love a trail ride on a warm, sunny day?
It’s important to remember that summer’s hot weather along with high humidity can pose a serious health risk for horses. Incidents such as colic, dehydration, and respiratory distress are just a few of the more serious conditions with can result because of warm summer weather. Even more potentially fatal circumstances are heatstroke and exhaustion which can possibly lead to death.
Thankfully there are several ways you can help your horse beat the heat and stay cool and healthy. Of utmost importance is providing water at all times. Be sure horses have access to fresh, cool, clean water at all times. An average horse can consumer over 25 gallons of water a day when temperatures rise above 70°F.
Shade is also a necessity. Horses should have an area that offers escape from the sun. This could be a run-in shed, a grove of trees, or free access to a barn. This is especially important for horses that have large areas of white hair (with pink skin), as they are highly prone to sunburn if left in direct sunlight without protection. If a shade structure in a pasture is not an option, limiting turnout to nighttime hours or early morning may be the best management strategy. Sunscreen and fly masks and sheets that provide protection against UVA/UVB rays also provide some protection for light-sensitive horses.
When exercising horses in hot weather, riders should keep electrolytes handy to replenish nutrients lost during excessive sweating. This is especially important for heavily exercised horses when the combined temperature and humidity exceeds 140°F. Serious loss of electrolytes leads to fatigue, muscle cramps, colic, and more. Electrolytes are available in dry powder supplement or oral paste forms, both providing adequate replenishment of nutrients. If schedules allow, it may be better to work horses during early morning or late evening sessions when it is cooler.
After exercise, horses should be cooled out properly. This means giving their body adequate time to lower the core body temperature. When finished riding, horses should be allowed to walk on a loose rein. Offer small sips of cool, not cold, water and allow the horse to walk slowly. This will allow muscles to relax. Muscles are prone to stiffening if the horse is made to stand; moving muscles dissipate heat much better than stationary ones.
Sponging or hosing down the horse after a workout is a great way to help speed up the decrease in body temperature. Concentrate on getting cool water in contact with the areas of the horse’s body where large blood vessels are most prominent such as the inside of the legs, the belly, and neck. This will cool the blood as it passes near the skin surface, in turn helping to slowly decrease the horse’s core body temperature. Avoid spraying the horse’s face or getting water in their ears.
Lastly, if horses are to be stabled during hot weather, it is important to maintain adequate ventilation in barns. This can be provided with appropriate stable fans, leaving barn doors and windows open, and installing misting fans in stalls. Run-in sheds with open-end designs also promote airflow.
These are just a few of the multitude of steps owners can take to help horses deal with summer weather. It is important to know the signs and symptoms of heat stroke in horses in the case of an emergency. Consult with your veterinarian to learn what symptoms to look for and additional tips on how to keep your equine happy and healthy through this summer season. With responsible horse care and some extra vigilance when temperatures rise, horses and their owners can experience a safer, more enjoyable summer time.