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Horses & Heat Waves | 5 Strategies for Horse Care

In this article, you’ll learn 5 strategies for caring for horses when extreme heat and high humidity- like the kind experienced for days on end when a heat dome settles over your farm. We all expect a little heat as a trade-off for the sun and fun of summertime, but extreme heatwaves are becoming more common and can threaten the health of our horses.

To care for your horse during extreme heat, you’ll need to alter your riding schedule, reevaluate how hard you exercise, find ways to draw heat out of your barn, drink enough to stay hydrated, and build the fitness needed to thrive with your horse even during an extreme heat wave.

For people who live in hot and humid climates, heat waves are just a normal aspect of the season. However, if you are new to one of these areas or live somewhere that deals with these kinds of temperatures less often, it is a good idea to have a plan on hand for keeping your horse cool and safe. High humidity and heat can be very dangerous for everyone, especially if you or your horse are not used to it. Horses are pretty adaptable and will generally self-regulate their activity levels to keep cool, but they still need support in self-regulating on very hot days.

Ride When It Is Cool

If you plan to go horseback riding during extreme heat, limit your rides to the cooler parts of the day or areas with lots of shade. Early in the morning or later in the evening will be the best time to ride as it will generally have lower temperatures. Having a shady place to ride will feel much better than riding in direct sunlight and will be helpful in keeping both you and the horse cool. Make sure to pay careful attention to the temperature and humidity levels throughout the day and plan accordingly. Some days may not be safe at all to ride.

TIP: High humidity traps heat in the air. Because of this, temperatures will take a nosedive after sundown in low humidity locations. Here in the south, however, temperatures after sundown during a heat wave drop very slowly. For this reason, riders in humid climates should I’m to ride early in the day, while riders in arid environments may be equally comfortable with morning or evening rides.

Don’t Overwork Your Horse in Extreme Heat

When the weather is hot, horses left to their own devices will usually self-regulate their activity levels to avoid overheating. They won’t play, get active, or even play out herd dynamics and aggression when it’s very hot- they know to seek shade and stay still.

It’s good to honor their inclination, even if you must ride. The last thing you want to do when the weather is hot and humid is to force your horse to move a lot. They will sweat, which helps to cool them down; however, it can be overdone.

Instead, use training time on hot or humid days during a heat wave to focus more on lateral work, groundwork, or anything similar that would not be classified as “high energy.” Setting up an obstacle course can also provide a low-energy option while working on fundamentals. If you are doing more forward work, make sure to take walk breaks often to allow your horse (and yourself) to cool down, hydrate, and catch their breath.

Fan, Hose, & Use Night Turnout to Manage Heat

Utilizing large industrial fans is the best way to keep the temperature down and increase airflow in a barn. While industrial fans are ideal for this, any bit of added airflow from an open door, window, or smaller fan is better than nothing.

You could also set up a hose or use a spray bottle behind the fan to provide a misting. Rinsing your horse off is a good way to help them cool down as well, especially after a workout in a heat wave. If your horse lives outside or gets turned out during the day, it is vital that they have access to shade, whether that be from trees or a shelter, so they are able to stay out of direct sunlight. Turning them out at night is another option, especially if there is not a lot of access to shade during the hottest parts of the day.

Woman washing a horse with a hose on a summer day during a heat wave.

Stay Hydrated

It is extremely important that horses stay hydrated, particularly during a heat wave. Always make sure your horse has access to fresh, clean water. This will most likely require checking water levels at least twice a day, although depending on the size of the water trough and the number of horses drinking from it, you may need to check it more or less often. You may also need to provide a larger or additional water source if your horses may be at risk of emptying their water source before you are able to check on it.

If your horse does not drink enough on its own, setting out salt blocks for them will also encourage your horse to drink more while providing them with electrolytes.

Ride Regularly to Build Heat-Tolerant Fitness

Keeping your horse in shape throughout the year will help them to handle the high humidity and extreme heat of a summer heat dome much better. This can be done by making sure they get worked consistently, build muscle, and keep a healthy weight. Frequent turnout instead of being cooped up in a stall all day will also ensure they keep moving around continuously throughout the day, which will help with their overall fitness.

In addition to frequent turnout, regular workouts year-round will help your horse build and maintain muscle. According to veterinarians, staying away from large amounts of grain in their diet can help with overall health, which can support horses in coping better with a heat wave. Grains that are high in sugar (like sweet feed and some wholesome looking pelleted feeds) can lead to health and fitness issues when consumed in excess.

Red Flags of Heat Stroke in Horses:

One red flag to watch for is if your horse is not sweating enough when it should be. This can be a sign of anhidrosis, and it can lead to hyperthermia and heat stroke because, without sweating, the body is unable to cool itself down properly. Horses, like humans, will sweat when they are hot. This helps their body to regulate temperature and stay cool.

Another sign to look out for during a heat wave is rapid shallow breathing and an elevated heart rate when the horse is either at rest or has had enough time to cool down after a workout. If their breathing has not normalized it could be a sign the horse is struggling to cool itself down, which can potentially lead to heat stress.

Final Thoughts

High humidity and heat can be very dangerous for horses and humans alike. However, there are many ways to help mitigate these dangers and keep your horse comfortable and cool during the hot weather. These five tips will go a long way to keeping you and your horse safe. The most important thing is to pay close attention to your horse, and have a plan going into the summer months to prepare for hot weather.

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