Turn Down the Heat!

Someone turned up the heat and humidity this week, which resulted in the deaths of more than 1,500 beef cattle in South Dakota. While cattle are generally more sensitive to heat than horses, with heat indexes  over 100 degrees this week in many parts of the country, it is vitally important that all animal owners take special precautions.

Here are a few simple ways that you can help your horses stay more comfortable during periods of extremely high heat and humidity:

Adjust Your Routine
Consider giving your horses some time off work during periods of high heat and humidity. However, if that is not plausible, changing your schedule so that you work horses first thing in the morning or later in the evening (thus exercising during cooler, lower humidity times) is the second best option. Provide your horses more frequent breaks from hard work in the course of you riding, driving, or training. Taking walking breaks periodically is a good way to help your horse cool down and regain normal respiratory rates.

Monitor your horses closely during work to verify that they are properly sweating return to normal respiratory function.

Provide Free Choice Water
Make sure your horses have continuous access to fresh water. This may involve hanging and filling additional water buckets for stabled horses and placing and filling additional water tanks for pastured horses. High heat and humidity can cause animals to drink much more than their normal amounts because of water losses due to sweating. It is vitally important that your horse maintain proper hydration during excessive hot weather.

Since water intake can significantly increase, it is really important that owners are diligent in checking their horse's water supply. Automatic watering devices, water tubs, and buckets should be checked at least twice daily and possibly more often (and refilled regularly in order to maintain a continuous water supply) during heat extremes.

Adequate Salt
Horses (and humans) require salt especially during times when we are sweating excessively. Many owners provide free choice access to salt blocks or feed loose salt with their horse’s feed, and for most horses and in most cases that is sufficient. If your horses have free choice access to a salt block, check it regularly and replace it before it runs out.

Excessive sweating also effects the electrolyte balance and you may consider speaking with your regular veterinarian to determine if you need to add supplemental electrolytes to your horse's diet during periods of high heat and humidity.

Shade is a MUST
There can be a huge temperature difference between standing in the sun and standing in the shade on a hot day. Mature trees provide natural shade and also allow horses the opportunity to enjoy any available breeze. Constructed run-in sheds, wind blocks, and barns are also a great source of shade, but might not offer an opportunity for natural air flow, in which case fans should be added.

Keep in mind, when stabling horses that there is a "hot" side of your barn. In the morning the east side of your barn generally will be hottest as the sun is shining on that side. Likewise in the later afternoon, the west side of your barn will likely be hottest. This is especially true if you have windows on both sides of your barn, as the sunlight naturally increases temperatures. Stabled horses that are especially struggling to stay cool might need to be moved to the west side stalls in the morning and the east side stalls in the late afternoon in order to avoid excess heat from the sun.

In the heat of the day, stand inside your horse's stall and then move out to a shaded are in the pasture. Which location is cooler? If it is cooler out in the pasture, then that might be the best location for your horse to be housed during this heat. Likewise if your barn is cooler than the shaded areas of your pasture, then it might be best to keep your horse in the barn during the day. Airflow can most likely be blamed for the difference between temperatures in your barn as compared to your pasture.

Create Airflow
Horses that are pastured, with access to natural shade from trees and other wind blocks, benefit from normal breeze. Stabled horses need to have airflow created by adding fans, which move air into and out of the stalls, and opening windows and doors. It is important that your horses have airflow within their stalls especially during high heat and humidity.

Aisle fans can be helpful to cool your barn, but often do not move air within horse stalls. Floor fans, placed outside of stalls, facing into the stall through stall bars or grates can be helpful, however most farms hang fans either attached to the bars of the stall or high on the stall walls to move air. Check the airflow in your stalls by standing in the stall with the fans on. You should be able to quickly realize the effectiveness of your airflow system and make appropriate adjustments.

When choosing fans for stabled horses be especially careful to select the best fan for the job. Industrial or commercial fans tend to move more air and are tested and built for more long term use and varying conditions than household fans.

As with all electrical equipment, keep the electrical cords and the fans well out of reach of all farm animals. Keep fans free of cobwebs, dust, and loose items that may become tangled in the blades. Check fans regularly to verify that they are in working order, functioning properly, and free of debris.

Monitor Your Horse
Yes, when the ambient temperature is high, your horse will be hot and therefore his temperature may be higher than normal and he may have an increased respiratory rate. He should, however, not be panting. Your horse should produce a lot of sweat, choose to stand in shaded areas, consume more water and salt, and perhaps be slower moving when the mercury rises. All these are normal responses to high temperatures for most mammals.

Failure to exhibit any of these normal hot weather coping mechanisms may be cause for concern.

If your horse is not sweating during hot weather, he may be suffering from anhydrosis or heat stress and you need to try to cool him down and contact your veterinarian immediately.

If your horse is panting or open mouth breathing, you need to try to cool him down and contact your veterinarian immediately.

Tips for Cooling a Hot Horse:

  • Move him to a shaded area with good airflow (natural or created by a fan)
  • Hose him off with cold water, being sure to scrape the excess water off
  • Sponge his neck, heart girth, and under belly area with a 1:1 mixture of cold water and alcohol
  • Stand him in front of a fan and or sponge him with cold water in front of a fan
  • Offer him cold water to drink

Living in high heat and humidity is very stressful for outside animals which can make them vulnerable to disease and heat related ailments. If you are concerned about changes in your horse's behavior or his ability to cope with the heat, it is best to contact your regular veterinarian immediately.

Careful consideration and management of your horse herd during weather extremes is the best tool to maintain their health and wellbeing.

Article reprinted with permission from the Kentucky Horse Council.

Stay on top of the most recent Horse Health news with FREE weekly newsletters from TheHorse.com. Learn More

Free Newsletters

Sign up for the latest in:

From our partners