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The heat is on! Tips for keeping your horse cool in summer

by Michelle Holtmeyer
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We all look forward to the summer, of course. However, for horse owners, summer brings its own challenges in the form of heat, lush grass and biting insects. We’ve collected some top tips to help you cope.

Why heat is so dangerous for horses

Horses on the steppe developed to cope with extremes of heat and cold. However, horses overheat ten times faster than humans. The horse’s normal temperature is between 37 and 38 degrees. A rise to 41 degrees increases the temperature in the muscles to 43 degrees.

During temperatures like this is when the body’s own protein starts to break down. The consequences can be serious: a fall in blood pressure, colic and even renal (kidney) failure. On hot and sultry summer days, exercise with caution.

How do I recognise dehydration or heat stroke in my horse?

Just like a person, a dehydrated horse will look tired and weak. It will have the same circulatory problems. Like people, they will recover from exertion only slowly and with difficulty. They will sweat profusely and may sway when walking. Their temperatures will be raised and the pulse weak and fast. Fortunately, there’s an easy way to test for dehydration.

Gently “pinch” the skin on the shoulder of the horse so that a fold is formed. If this fold does not flatten within three seconds but remains standing up, the horse is dehydrated.

Top tips for keeping horses cool in the heat

Horses should always have access to a supply of fresh, clean water. Automatic waterers in the field are a huge bonus but they still need to be checked regularly and cleaned out if leaves or debris get into them.

It should go without saying: don’t ride when it’s blazing hot, particularly at midday. It’s not good for either of you. It’s better to exercise during the cooler morning or evening hours. Plan your day around riding to take advantage of these fresher, quieter times.

Always ensure there is enough shade and shelter. If there’s no shade or field shelter in your horse’s field, it’s best to bring them into the stable during the heat of the day to rest in a cool space. Then they can go out during the night when it’s cooler and the flies have dispersed. Another bonus is that the sugar levels in the grass are lower at night and it’s safer for laminitics.

Fly sheets are a good way to protect against biting or stinging insects. However, heat can build up under them, so check your horse regularly to make sure they’re not overheating. On excessively hot days, it may be better to leave the fly rug off.

Take a tip from zebras. Researchers have discovered that the zebra’s stripes are the reason they aren’t as bothered by biting insects as other animals. Zebra-striped fly sheets will help keep those pests off your horse too.

Ouch! Horses get sunburned too! It can be a big problem for horses with pink noses and those with paler skin around the eyes. There are sunscreen products available that have been developed especially for horses. Some fly sheets, rugs and masks protect against UV as well as insects.

If your horse is showing signs of heatstroke or exhaustion, get them away from the burning rays as fast as you can. Give them a wash down with cool water rather than spraying with very cold water through a hose, since this may send them into shock. Walk them gently until they cool off and keep them in the shade. If the horse still shows signs of distress, call the vet.

When you are hosing down a hot horse, use the spray nozzle on the body and the stream on the legs. Make sure the water temperature is no more than 15 degrees below the outside temperature. A brief spray or hose down does very little. You should continue for at least 10 minutes. A shorter hosing time has exactly the opposite effect that you want to achieve – it makes the leg warmer, not cooler.

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