Stay Cool: Helping Horses Adjust in Extreme Heat

The heat wave that swept across the U.S. this week broke temperature records and strained power grids as people cranked up the air conditioning in an attempt to keep cool. Horses also suffered in the extreme temperatures, prompting a shut-down at several tracks and stopping carriage rides in New York's Central Park.

With searing heat and smothering humidity come special health concerns for horses. Phoebe Smith, DVM, Dipl. ACVIM, of Alamo Pintado Equine Medical Center, Los Olivos, Calif., reports that the center saw an unusually high number of colic, dehydration, and respiratory distress cases during the week of triple-digit temperatures in their normally cool valley.

On the other coast, Ray Sweeney VMD, Dipl. ACVIM, of the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center, reports seeing weanlings in respiratory distress due to heat.

"Any time it's uncomfortable for people, that's the time to be alert," says Sweeney, who recommends paying special attention to weanlings already fighting pneumonia, geriatric horses, and any animals with a heavy hair coat, such as those with Cushings. Additionally, a horse that already has an elevated temperature due to an infection will be at additional risk in hot weather.

Signs that indicate a veterinarian's visit is necessary include lethargy, a rapid pulse, heavy breathing, and a body temperature above 105°F. If your horse displays these symptoms, Sweeney counsels immediate action, including a cold-water bath and placement in front of a fan to help your horse start to cool down while waiting for your veterinarian to arrive.

Smith also suggests misting fans, and washing with a 50-50 mixture of rubbing alcohol and cold water to maximize your horse's comfort in extreme heat.

"Here, where there is lots of wide-open space and little irrigation, bringing them in under a shelter is far better than staying out in baking heat," Smith says.

If a horse is to be turned out in an area without shade or needs to be exercised, Smith says to do so as early as possible in the morning, and provide shade and rest during the hottest part of the day.

So, if the temperature is tempting you to kick back and take it easy, let the same apply to your horse.

"In general, if horses are healthy overall, have access to shade and water, and aren't forced into exertion, they do well," Sweeney says.

Keep it Simple

In extreme heat, Sweeney recommends the following:

  • Make sure your horses have access to plenty of water
  • If they are turned out, be sure there is shade available
  • Consider putting a fan in their stalls when they are inside
  • Exercise judiciously so that horses do not become overheated
  • If your horse does show signs of overheating (breathing rapdily, rapid pulse,
    lethargy, depression) hose him off with water and use a fan to cool him down

About the Author

Erin Ryder

Erin Ryder is a former news editor of The Horse: Your Guide To Equine Health Care. She owns a portly gray gelding named Duncan and dabbles in several equestrian disciplines, with an emphasis on dressage.

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