Tips For Avoiding Heat Stress In Horses
Heat stress within a horse can result in a wide variety of outcomes, from poor performance to death. The rapid progression from the first stage of dehydration to the
final stages of extreme heat stroke can take owners by surprise. Learning to recognize the signs of heat stress is the first step to protecting your equine partner.
Article by Ryan White
There are three typical stages to heat stress in a horse: dehydration, heat
exhaustion and heat stroke. Recognizing the accompanying signs for each stage can help you respond appropriately as you seek to cool your horse and return it to normal functions.
Stage 1: Dehydration — Whenever a horse excessively sweats, it is
susceptible to dehydration. As the horse continues to perspire, it will eventually lose fluid from its cells, which can lead to severe dehydration. Be
on the lookout for the following symptoms: elevated body temperatures, dark urine, a dull expression or general lethargy, and excessive sweating on
nonworking horses. It is important to note, if your horse refuses to move after a workout, it might be experiencing muscle pain or cramping,
commonly referred to as tying up. If this is the case, immediately call your veterinarian, try to encourage your horse to walk in the shade or in front of
a fan, and try to cool your horse by applying lukewarm/cool water to its jugular. The water temperature should gradually be transitioned to cold, and excess sweat should be scraped from its body.
There are two simple tests that can be conducted to better determine if your horse is dehydrated:
1. Skin-pinch test: Grasp a fold of your horse's skin at the point of the
shoulder. Hold the skin for a few seconds and release it. If your horse is well hydrated, its skin will flatten in less than one second. However, if your
horse is dehydrated, it will take longer for the skin to flatten.
2. Capillary refill test: Press gently on your horse's gum directly above the
upper incisor. If your horse is well hydrated, the pink color will return in two seconds or less. If your horse is dehydrated, it will take a longer time for the natural pink color to return.
Stage 2: Heat Exhaustion — After your horse has become dehydrated,
it will begin to lose control over its body. It is important to note that a horse with a lot of heart will keep trying to work, even though it is being pushed
past its limits. As such, it is vital to monitor your horse carefully during extremely hot weather conditions. A general rule of thumb is as follows: If
you must constantly stop to take water breaks when riding, then it is too hot to ride your horse for extended durations. Additionally, it is never a
good idea to ride a horse that is dehydrated or suffering from heat exhaustion. Instead, take the time needed to help your horse rehydrate, before you even consider saddling up.
Warning signs for heat exhaustion include:
1. Body temperature higher than 104 degrees Fahrenheit.
2. A thickening of sweat that is accompanied with the skin being hot to the touch.
3. A skin-pinch touch that takes longer than six seconds to flatten, or a capillary refill time of more than several seconds.
4. Dark or discolored gums.
5. Blood excreting from the horse’s nose.
6. Rapid or shallow breathing, accompanied with reduced intestinal sounds.
An inability for your horse to catch its breath, even after it has been cooled, bathed or placed in front of a fan.
7. A depressed posture, extreme lethargy, lack of focus and increased stumbling.
Stage 3: Heat Stroke — Heat exhaustion can rapidly become heat
stroke. Monitor your horse's temperature carefully to ensure that it does not rise to 106 degrees for a prolonged period. If your horse sustains a
high temperature for 15 minutes or longer, the consequences can be very serious. It is important to try to cool your horse and contact your veterinarian before your horse reaches this stage.
Be on the lookout for the following symptoms of heat stroke:
1.Stumbling or difficulty moving (even when being led with a halter and lead rope on level terrain).
2.Listlessness, anxious, irrational or erratic behavior.
3.Disoriented, oblivious, depressed, or an inability to recognize the origins of sounds or movements. For example, your horse might not look at you
when you speak, or react when you move your hands by its face.
4.Collapse. In an extreme case of heat stroke, your horse might collapse or
begin to convulse. Due to brain damage, it is very hard for a horse to recover from this stage of heat stroke. Additionally, your horse might begin
tying up, or develop liver or kidney failure, colic or laminitis as a direct result of prolonged cases of heat stroke.
Help Your Horse Get Cool and Protect It During Summer Heat
If your horse is experiencing any of the above stages of heat stress, you will
need to take immediate steps to properly cool your horse. As with any potentially dangerous situation, it is always a good idea to involve your veterinarian early in the process:
1. Stop riding, remove tack, and hand-walk your horse in a shaded area or in front of fans. As your horse begins to cool down, you can offer it water.
2. Give your horse a bath with lukewarm water. Apply the lukewarm water to its entire body. Scrape away the excess water. Next, apply cooler water
to its legs and directly to its jugular. Be careful not to apply cold water directly to your horse's back or upper neck. When your horse is
overheated, cold water to the latter body areas can increase the likelihood of tying up.
3. Use a curry comb or your hands to massage your horse's muscles.
Massaging your horse's muscles can help to prevent it from tying up.
4. Monitor your horse's body temperature for several hours until it reaches
101 degrees or lower. If its temperature exceeds 104 degrees and won't reduce, immediately call a veterinarian.
5. At the recommendation of a veterinarian (or with the assistance of a
veterinarian) give your horse intravenous fluids.
During periods of extreme heat, it is a good idea to follow these
1. Add electrolytes to your horse's water or feed during hot weather.
2. Monitor your horse's intake of water to ensure that it is naturally
replenishing its fluids. On average, a horse should consume a minimum of 5 gallons of water per day. However, during hot summer days, the number of gallons consumed can more than double.
3. Ensure that your horse has access to shaded areas when it is turned out. Use fans in the barn to keep the air circulating when your horse is indoors.
4. Improve your horse's fitness level and keep its hair shorter, so that it can more easily tolerate high temperatures.
5. Incorporate rest periods of slow walking in shaded areas during regular
Know the Signs Before It's Too Late
The best thing you can do during the summer heat is to carefully monitor your horse's behavior. You should know what "normal" behavior is —
including body temperature, heart rate recovery, and the average daily water consumption for your horse. Finally, actively watch your horse for
any of the above signs of heat stress; you can greatly reduce the likelihood that your horse will become dehydrated or experience heat stroke.
Consult the following guide for more information on how owners and riders can help their horses avoid heat stress.
Author bio: Raised on a working cattle ranch in Hawaii, Ryan White has
over 30-plus years of experience in the rodeo industry. White has spent his life dedicated to rodeo, as well as being an avid surfing enthusiast. White
represented the first Hawaii high school rodeo in 1988, and was a state champion team roper and six-time California Circuit finalist. His need for
innovation and creativity have undoubtedly been the driving force behind the immense success.