Bring on summer! It’s a stunning time of year to get out there and enjoy the sunshine on your back along a trail ride with your trusty companion.
But wait, your horse starts breathing heavily, their heart is racing, and they become lethargic.
These are the signs of serious heat exhaustion which could leave your horse fighting for its life if you don’t take the right steps.
Luckily, we’re looking at how to keep horses cool in hot weather. You’ll learn what to look out for, how to treat overheating, and how to prevent it altogether.
So, grab the sunscreen and let’s head on out into the sunshine!
What Does Heat Exhaustion Look Like?
Faster heart rate
Normally a fully grown healthy horse will have a heart rate between 28-44 beats per minute.
It’s best to keep track of what is normal for your horse. You’ll need to keep a record of your horse’s heart rate naturally when not under stress, so you can monitor when the heart rate increases or decreases.
Take note, when overheating, the heart will pump blood to the skin’s surface which may create a much louder thud.
High body temperature
The normal body temperature of an adult horse is 37.5°C – 38.5°C. A horse’s body temperature can increase by about 0.5°C – 1°C to regulate heat.
However, anything more than that is a cause for concern. If your horse’s temperature reaches 40°C, it’s time to call the vet, no matter the weather.
If your horse’s internal cooling system isn’t working and it’s a hot day there is a high risk of severe heat stress and heat stroke.
Just like us, horses sweat when they’re hot. The sweat evaporates from the skin, cooling the horse from the outside in. A working horse in high heat can lose as much as 7-15 litres of sweat in an hour.
Experienced horse owners will know how much sweat is normal for their horses while working and when the weather is warm.
Now, if you notice your horse excessively sweating or not sweating at all when the weather is hot, it’s time to spring into action. If your horse isn’t sweating on a hot day, they are severely dehydrated and need treatment immediately!
Extreme heat can make any animal feel tired and a little miserable if they can’t get up to their usual antics. If your horse is looking a little low, that’s okay, and hopefully, once night falls they’ll perk up a bit.
But if your horse looks out of it, staggers, or can’t seem to pep up even a little, it could indicate overheating.
If left untreated, your horse is at risk for collapse, so you need to monitor their body language throughout the day if it’s hot out.
Normally an adult horse has a respiratory rate of around 8-12 breaths per minute. This can increase slightly when exerting themselves.
Where you need to take note is if the respiratory rate increases despite your horse resting in the shade.
Your horse will breathe faster to cool itself down as it forces more air into the body. So, if your horse is breathing heavily and quickly it’s an indication of possible heat exhaustion.
How to Keep a Horse Cool in Summer
Access to clean water
Your horse should have easy access to clean water year-round; it is a basic need for all animals.
Ensure there is enough water to keep your horse cool and hydrated throughout the day. Horses can drink upwards of 50 litres of water per day in hot weather.
Horse water should be relatively cool (7°C – 16°C). The only way to keep the water cool is to keep it out of the sun and replace it if it begins getting warm. There is no point in trying to cool your horse with warm water.
It’s essential to keep water tanks clean in the summer because warm weather also brings algae and mould growth. If you wouldn’t drink the water yourself, you shouldn’t force your horse to drink it either.
When it’s very hot your horse will likely take a few gulps of water every few minutes. Always ensure you have enough water for each horse to last until you know someone will be back again to check on water levels.
Electrolytes are what balance the fluids and minerals in the body, ensuring that it has what it needs to function. This includes providing muscles with the needed fluid to work optimally.
When your horse sweats the electrolytes go with it. So, if there’s nothing to maintain that balance and replace what’s being lost, your horse is going to get dehydrated.
To combat this you can add electrolytes directly to your horse’s water. Most are okay with the taste, but just in case, ensure that you have ample clean water as well.
Stables should remain well-ventilated throughout the year. Even though the stable provides shade, if there isn’t ventilation it may be just as bad, if not worse, than your horse standing in the field without protection.
To ensure there is ventilation:
- Open the stable doors
- Get some fans running
- Try to keep stables in shaded areas where there are trees.
Grab the clippers
Some horses are more blessed in the hair department. While it might look fabulous, it can be a nuisance when the hot summer months roll around.
Clipping your horse in summer is a good idea to help keep the coat ventilated. Sweat plus a thick coat equals serious itch; which isn’t pleasant for anyone.
If you need some guidance, here is a comprehensive guide to different types of horse clips. Just be sure to keep the sun cream on hand so your horse’s skin is safe when they’re basking in the sunshine.
How to Cool an Overheated Horse
Stop all activity if you think your horse has heat stress!
If you’re on your horse you need to dismount and get all the horse tack off to start cooling your riding partner off.
Summer is a fantastic time to ride, but it comes with the risk of overheating your horse. If you want to ride when it’s hot, avoid riding in the heat of the day. Early morning is good and there’s nothing wrong with a good old night ride.
If you’re a beginner and aren’t sure about tacking, here is a guide on how to tack up your horse. Understanding the different components comes in handy when you need to get them off quickly to keep your horse cool.
Grab the water
Make sure your horse has quick access to clean and cool water. Providing this as soon as your horse is overheating or shows signs of heat stress can prevent the situation from getting worse.
Don’t be surprised if your horse gulps the water down like it’s going out of fashion. Your horse will know how much it needs to drink to get its hydration levels back up.
Provide some shade
Imagine you’ve got a sunburn…ouch!
Now imagine someone putting you in direct sunlight on a scorching hot day with no shade. Doesn’t sound too great, does it?
During the summer your riding companion needs access to plenty of shade. If they are overheating and there is no protection from the sun it’s like turning the oven on, turning it up, and expecting the food to get cooler.
Remember, the sun moves throughout the day, so you want proper shading like a stable or field shelter so your horse can get out of the sun when they need to.
It’s always best to try to keep shelters under trees to prevent them from overheating from the inside out. Adequate cool air flow here is important too.
Time to soak
There’s an old wives’ tale that horses don’t react well to sudden temperature changes. This is a MYTH!
If you have a hot horse, spraying them with cool water is one of the best things you can do to prevent heat stroke.
Using a hosepipe or buckets of cool water, wet your horse’s neck, legs, rump, and head. Keep the flow continuous, wiping away the water from the coat as you go to prevent the water from becoming heated from your horse’s skin.
If your horse has heat stress, using ice water is also an option. Just be sure you keep it away from the rear. Focus on hot areas like the neck, ribs, and back.
Having a fan in a shaded stabling area can be a serious help for horses suffering from heat stress. Once your horse has been soaked in cold water, the fan can accelerate the cooling down process dramatically.
Contact the vet
If your horse’s temperature goes above 40°C or the signs of heat exhaustion don’t alleviate after ten minutes of trying to keep your horse cool, call the vet immediately!
Without the proper care for heat stroke or heat stress, your horse can die!
While it’s an awful thought, horse owners need to know the dangers of not properly caring for horses in hot weather.
Can I acclimatise my horse to hot weather?
Acclimatising your horse to hot weather is recommended. It can take up to three weeks, so patience is a must. Acclimatising means you slowly build up your horse’s tolerance to extreme heat. Start with small stints of low-exertion exercises outside and slowly increase the duration. Still, keep an eye out, even the most acclimatised horse shouldn’t overexert during peak heat.
Should I use sun cream on my horse in the summer?
There are horses sun creams available that are recommended for light horses. White horse breeds have little pigmentation leaving them more susceptible to UV and skin diseases. Applying sun cream throughout the day can keep your horse protected.
What can I use to protect my horse from UV rays?
Sunscreen isn’t always possible if your horses are galivanting in the sunshine. Fly rugs are a brilliant alternative. They are lightweight coverings with ventilation to protect your horse from direct sunlight.
What are the best riding times in summer?
To keep your horse cool, early mornings and evenings are the best times to ride.