Hot fun in the summertime can lead to heat exhaustion for both people and horses. Summer weather can bring blazing hot temperatures and suffocating amounts of high humidity to the paddock, trailer, show ring, riding trail or pasture. Horses are the only other mammal besides us that can cool off through sweating. When the sweat doesn’t evaporate during hot weather activities and without proper precautions, horses can be at risk for heat exhaustion. Heat exhaustion occurs when a horse’s body temperature begins to exceed 104 F and your horse becomes dehydrated due to excessive sweating. Without prompt attention, this can easily lead to heat stroke and much more serious health concerns.
According to Kevin Kline, Ph.D. and Professor of Animal Sciences at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, only 25% of the energy used in a working horse’s muscles is converted to actual muscle movement. The remaining 75% becomes waste heat that is difficult for the horse to dissipate in hot and humid conditions.
Luckily, there are some simple ways to help keep your horse healthy, comfortable and active during the summer while reducing the overall risk of heat exhaustion.
#1—Access To Clean, Fresh Water Is First And Foremost
“Clean water should always be available; an average horse needs five to seven gallons of water per day in cool weather, while in hot weather, requirements for maintenance and to compensate for losses in sweat may prompt intake of 20 gallons or more per day,” said Nancy Loving, DVM, an equine practitioner in Boulder, Colorado. “Horses in a herd should have access to a couple of water sources spaced a distance apart so dominant horses don’t prevent a thirsty, more timid horse from drinking.”
Horses doing vigorous work can sweat nearly four gallons of water per hour under high temperatures and high humidity. Horses should be allowed to drink their fill of cool, fresh water as often as they want. Old myths die hard and some horse owners may have heard the advice of only allowing an overheated horse to drink a few swallows of water at a time. According to Kline, a typical horse’s stomach can hold between 2 and 4 gallons of fluid without being distended. So, even though a horse’s stomach is small compared to other animals of its size, one or two sips of water at a time is overly restrictive when the hot horse is rapidly losing water trying to keep itself cool.
Keep in mind the temperature of the water is also important. Ice cold drinking water is typically refused. Horses prefer cool or temperate water to drink.
Automatic equine waterers (preferably insulated) are the best option to provide fresh water on demand. Automatic waterers are very energy efficient, reduce water waste and can also provide the added benefit of eliminating standing water in tanks that can breed disease carrying mosquitoes. Thermal caps, easy to clean stainless steel troughs, elegant styling and finishes are just a few options available in automatic equine waterers today. There are also now specialized portable, insulated equine waterers available that use a garden hose connection to provide water on demand—in the paddock, stall, or wherever you need water.
If you are using buckets or static stock tanks, you will need to refill them as quickly as the horse drinks and make sure to clean and scrub regularly to keep your buckets or tanks clean and free from algae, mosquitoes, insects and debris. For bucket users, it is recommended that you check the water levels at least three times a day in hot weather to provide adequate hydration.
#2—Know The Heat Index And Plan Accordingly
Calculating the heat index will alert you to the conditions when you should stop exercising or working your horse. To calculate the heat index, add the temperature in Fahrenheit and the percentage of relative humidity.
- Green Light: If the sum is below 120, there should be no problem exercising a horse.
- Yellow Light: If the sum is between 130 and 150, the horse will sweat but should not experience problems if there is plenty of water to replenish fluid lost during sweating.
- Red Light: When the heat index exceeds 180, do not exercise a horse because the horse’s heat dissipation systems will not be adequate to prevent heat exhaustion.
#3—Ice, Ice, Baby: Ice Water Baths Proven To Work
Extensive research conducted during 1995 at the University of Illinois and University of Guelph and at the 1996 Olympic Summer Games in Atlanta proved conclusively that horses working under hot and humid conditions were better able to maintain core body temperature within an acceptable range or even reduce it during rest periods after intense phases when ice water baths were used. In other words, you don’t have to wait for warning signs, you can use ice water baths as a preventative measure.
Ice water is preferred, but at the very least, use the coldest water you have on hand to continually douse your horse and then scrape it dry between activities to help decrease heart rates and core temperatures.
#4—Provide Shade And Keep The Air Moving With Fans And/Or Good Ventilation
During hot or extreme temperatures, it is imperative for your horse to have access to a fan or proper ventilation in stalls, barns or paddocks. Simple box fans can do the trick and misting fans are even better at keeping your horses cool. Fans can also help keep annoying flies away from your horses.
Loving also encourages equine owners to provide turned out horses access to shade such as a stand of trees or a well-ventilated loafing shed as a respite from the brutal rays of the sun.
#5—Pay Attention To Your Feeding Schedule
Heat generated by the digestion process can add to the overall temperature of your horse. During hot weather it is best to adjust feeding times to minimize this effect.
Nutrition specialists recommend either feeding horses three to four hours before exercising or waiting at least two hours afterwards.
The Bottom Line: Use Common Sense, Provide Plenty Of Fresh Water And Enjoy The Summer
Chances are if you’re hot, your horse will be too. Plan ahead with these five tips to help keep your horse comfortable and get out and enjoy time with your horse this summer.
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