Hot Weather Hazards For Horses

Here are some ideas to help you keep your horse cool during those hot summer days.

Summer has finally arrived, giving way to the hotter temperatures of summer, bringing with it some hot weather hazards for horses. Riding your horse in the early morning or later in the evening is a simple way to help reduce the stress on him during hot weather. Besides riding your horse to the nearest pond, or pulling the garden sprinkler out to the pasture, here are a few more ideas to help keep your horse cool during the hot days of summer:

  • Provide ample fresh, clean water.
  • Check daily that buckets or troughs are not contaminated with bird droppings, insect larvae, or algae growth and try to keep the water cool. Some horses may not want to drink warm water.
  • Ponies and foals may have trouble reaching to the bottom of a shallowly filled trough. Make sure everyone in your paddocks can reach the water.
  • Sponge or hose down the large blood vessels along the inside of the legs, belly, and neck. Don’t spray the horse’s face or get water in its ears—sponge them down gently.
  • If you must work your horses hard, try to schedule your session for early morning or late evening when it is cooler.
  • After riding or driving in hot weather, cool your horse down slowly. Loosen girths or belly bands immediately after a work out. Offer sips of cool—not cold—water and walk the horse slowly. Muscles are more apt to stiffen if the horse is allowed to stand, and moving muscles dissipate heat better than stationary ones.
  • Consider using electrolytes if your horse is sweating hard, such as when the combined humidity and air temperature exceeds 104 degrees Fahrenheit or your horse will be working hard (a long trail ride or competition). Electrolytes replace salts lost in sweating. They are similar to human sport drinks. You can put electrolytes in the horse’s feed, or use a large-ended syringe to squirt them into the horse's mouth. Use electrolytes made for horses. Electrolytes made for other livestock may be unsuitable.
  • Make sure there is a place for your horse to avoid the sun, either a building or a shade tree he can get to easily.
  • Clip horses with heavy coats. Be careful not to clip too close however, since exposed skin can sunburn.
  • Apply zinc oxide cream to horses with pink noses to prevent and treat sunburn.
  • Mid to late summer weather often means that grass growth slows down and pasture quality declines. Make sure your horse is getting enough fodder and consider supplementing with hay if necessary. Horses need energy to stay warm and cool. Adjust your feed mixture if your horse begins to lose condition in hot weather.
  • During very hot weather, consider keeping your horses stabled during the day, and let them out at night.
  • If your stable becomes hot and stuffy, consider setting up a fan. Make sure the horse cannot reach the cord or fan itself, it can’t be tipped, and that it is plugged into a ground fault interrupt electrical receptacle if there is any chance of electrical wiring coming into contact with moisture, such as a spilled water bucket or a curious horse’s mouth. A well-vented stable is essential for your horse's good health, especially during summer temperatures.
  • If hot weather brings clouds of biting insects that keep your horse pacing and stomping, try using fly sprays, masks, and sheets. Water-based fly sprays may be less harsh on the coat hairs, as oil-based ones can cause bleaching and irritation during extreme temperatures.
  • Whether you are at home riding or competing, a bucket full of ice water and old towels can help refresh you and your horse. Place them over your horse’s neck and your own. A drop of lemon, mint, or citronella essential oil on the people towels is an energizing touch.
  • Take care of yourself. If you get overheated and tired, you may not be able to take care of your horse effectively. And you could miss warning signs that your horse is showing signs of heat stress.
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Heat Stroke

Heat stroke can happen to horses whether they are working hard, standing in stuffy stables, or traveling in trailers. Call a veterinarian and take immediate action if your horse exhibits any of these symptoms:

  • Elevated respiration in an inactive horse (normal range is 4 to 16 breaths per minute).
  • Elevated pulse in an inactive horse, pulse that does not drop after several minutes, or climbs once exercise has stopped.
  • Profuse sweating or no sweating at all.
  • Elevated body temperature above 103F.
  • Irregular heart beat known as ‘thumps.’
  • A depressed attitude.
  • Dehydration. Test for this by observing your horse’s flanks. If they look caved in, he is probably dehydrated. Pick up a pinch of skin along your horse’s neck. If the skin snaps back quickly, the horse is sufficiently hydrated. If the pinched area collapses slowly, the horse is dehydrated.
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Sweet Itch

This is an allergic reaction to bites from midges (culicoides), characterized by severe irritation along the mane and tail. When horses rub against things to scratch an itch, there can be hair loss and sometimes infected skin abrasions. Veterinary treatment with corticosteroids may provide temporary relief, but long-term steroid treatment has associated side effects including laminitis, while antihistamines can cause drowsiness. An insecticide such as Benzyl benzoate may be prescribed, but care should be taken when applying this to areas of broken skin as it can worsen the irritation. The following may help prevent, or at least lessen the occurrence of sweet itch:

  1. Avoid stabling horses near stagnant water, manure or compost heaps.
  2. Consider stabling during the higher risk periods of dawn and dusk.
  3. Mesh screens on stable doors and windows will keep midges out.
  4. A protective anti-sweet itch rug may help, particularly if you cannot reduce turn-out.
  5. Use an insect repellent, preferably containing DEET (diethyl toluamide) which is very effective although some midges will still bite.

Urticaria

This is localized skin swelling, which varies from small rashes to larger, fluid-filled plaques over the body. Urticaria can be caused by an allergy to something such as fly bites, or the contact or ingestion of a particular plant the horse is sensitive to. Larger swellings often worsen as the days progress, but usually resolve without veterinary intervention; however drug treatment may be necessary if the swelling fails to subside. If the swelling affects your horse’s ability to breathe, seek veterinary attention immediately to avoid serious complications.

Fly bites

A reaction to saliva from a biting fly can result in a lump or rash with irritation and soreness. If the horse rubs the affected area, it can become infected. Cleansing with saline or antiseptic solution and removing crusty scabs, followed by the application of a mild antiseptic cream such as E45 will help. Only extremely severe allergic reactions require veterinary treatment. Consider the same prevention tips as for sweet itch.

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