Sum­mer horse-care strate­gies

Here are seven ways to help your horse cope with the stresses that hot weather can bring.

EQUUS - - Contents - By Chris­tine Barakat

Here are seven ways to help your horse cope with the stresses that hot weather can bring.

Sum­mer may be the best sea­son to be a horse owner. Longer days mean more time for rid­ing, horses with sleek sum­mer coats clean up eas­ily and dress­ing for barn chores doesn’t in­volve rain gear or long un­der­wear. Un­less you live in an area of ex­treme heat, this time of year can be ideal for en­joy­ing your horse.

But sum­mer isn’t the eas­i­est time to be a horse. The blazing sun, ag­gres­sive in­sects and drought-hard­ened pas­tures com­mon dur­ing this sea­son can take a toll on equine com­fort and health. It falls to you to an­tic­i­pate, iden­tify and ad­dress po­ten­tial prob­lems even as you make the most of the warm weather. Here are seven ways you can help your horse cope with sum­mer stresses, mak­ing the months ahead more en­joy­able for ev­ery­one.


Not sur­pris­ingly, sum­mer is the sea­son when de­hy­dra­tion in horses is most com­mon, as fluid loss through sweat­ing out­paces wa­ter in­take through drink­ing. A de­fi­ciency in fluid lev­els can in­ter­fere with a horse’s abil­ity to cool him­self and lead to se­ri­ous health prob­lems.

To test a horse for de­hy­dra­tion, grab a fold of skin at the point of his shoul­der (not the neck as you may have been taught years ago) and pull it out­ward. Let the skin go and count the sec­onds un­til it is flat again. In an ad­e­quately hy­drated horse, the skin will snap back in one to two sec­onds. Any longer could in­di­cate de­hy­dra­tion, so make sure he has fresh wa­ter avail­able. A de­lay of more than six sec­onds war­rants a call to your vet­eri­nar­ian.

“You can lead a horse to wa­ter, but you can’t make him drink” isn’t just an apho­rism---it’s a prac­ti­cal truth. If your horse doesn’t seem to be drink­ing, find out why. First, make sure he has ac­cess to clean, appealing wa­ter at all times. Check buck­ets and troughs at least twice a day, and test your au­to­matic wa­ter­ers just as of­ten to en­sure they are de­liv­er­ing am­ple wa­ter on de­mand. Most horses with con­tin­ual ac­cess to clean wa­ter will drink enough to stay hy­drated re­gard­less of the weather. On the other hand, if you hover next to your horse’s wa­ter bucket wait­ing for him to drink you may make him anx­ious enough to avoid it. In­stead, pro­vide wa­ter then walk away. If he doesn’t ap­pear to be in dis­tress, give him an hour or two be­fore start­ing to worry. That much time won’t make a dif­fer­ence even if he is slightly de­hy­drated.

No mat­ter how con­cerned you are, don’t try to force your horse to in­gest wa­ter with a hose or sy­ringe. You won’t get him to take in enough to im­prove his hy­dra­tion level and there’s a very real risk of get­ting wa­ter into his res­pi­ra­tory sys­tem.

Stand­ing wa­ter can be­come smelly and un­ap­peal­ing, so limit the amount in your pas­ture troughs to a three-day sup­ply. An in­di­vid­ual horse will, on av­er­age, drink about 12 gal­lons per day, so put out about 36 gal­lons per horse for a three-day pe­riod. Part­time turnout means the amount of wa­ter needed could drop by as much as a third. Of course, you never want to let the troughs run dry, so you’ll still need to check them twice daily, clean­ing as nec­es­sary and top­ping off the avail­able sup­ply.

En­sure that your whole herd has

Con­trary to pop­u­lar be­lief, hos­ing down a hot horse with cool wa­ter will not cause muscle cramps, colic or lamini­tis.

ac­cess to the wa­ter in their pas­ture. Dom­i­nant horses may chase older or lower-rank­ing herd mem­bers away from troughs or lurk men­ac­ingly enough to pre­vent them from even ap­proach­ing. If you sus­pect horses are be­ing bul­lied away from wa­ter, the sim­plest so­lu­tion may be to add an­other trough, some dis­tance from the first, as an al­ter­na­tive. Fail­ing that, move the bully to his or her own space leav­ing the rest of the horses free to drink as they please.


Horses are built to con­serve heat and they aren’t par­tic­u­larly good at reg­u­lat­ing their body tem­per­a­tures, which means they can quickly go from “hot” to “over­heated.” A horse’s nor­mal body tem­per­a­ture is be­tween 99 and 101 de­grees Fahren­heit. It in­creases when a horse ex­er­cises, of course, but it can also climb when he’s just stand­ing in the hot sun. When a horse’s body tem­per­a­ture reaches 104 de­grees, his meta­bolic sys­tem can­not func­tion prop­erly. At just one de­gree higher, 105 de­grees, or­gans be­gin to shut down and cir­cu­la­tory col­lapse is a very real pos­si­bil­ity. A heat-stressed horse sweats pro­fusely (or not at all, but more on that later) and may even pant like a dog in an ef­fort to dis­si­pate heat. He will also ap­pear dull and list­less---un­in­ter­ested in his sur­round­ings and gen­er­ally mis­er­able.

If you be­lieve your horse has heat stress, act quickly. Call your vet­eri­nar­ian right away, but take ac­tion as you wait for his or her ar­rival. Move the horse to a shady area, prefer­ably with a breeze, and be­gin to hose or sponge him down with the coolest wa­ter avail­able. The idea that putting cold wa­ter on a hot horse causes muscle cramps, lamini­tis or colic is a myth, so don’t worry about that. Fo­cus your cool­ing ef­forts on ar­eas where ma­jor blood ves­sels run close to the skin, such as the armpits, head and throat­latch area. After you drench the horse, scrape him dry and hose him down again. If you can stand him near fans as you work, even bet­ter.

At the height of a sum­mer af­ter­noon, a shady spot can pro­vide wel­come respite for horses. Make sure your run-in shed is large enough to ac­com­mo­date your whole herd---and that dom­i­nant horses aren’t keep­ing oth­ers out. You may find that a sec­ond shel­ter is nec­es­sary to give each horse the op­por­tu­nity to get out of the heat.

Make sure your run-in sheds are large enough to ac­com­mo­date your whole herd.

The best sheds are deep enough to pro­vide shade even as the sun moves across the sky.

Horses have a knack for find­ing the most com­fort­able lo­ca­tion in a pas­ture on a hot day, whether in a run-in shed or un­der a stand of trees, so give them sev­eral shady op­tions and trust their in­stincts. If you choose to leave a horse in his stall dur­ing the day, make sure the barn is prop­erly ven­ti­lated with an ad­e­quate cross breeze; other­wise it will sim­ply be a hot and stuffy space that he can’t es­cape.

Fans can be a boon for horses in hot weather, pro­vid­ing a re­fresh­ing breeze while help­ing to keep in­sects at bay. Many horses will learn to stand di­rectly in the air­flow of a fan, max­i­miz­ing its ben­e­fit. Be care­ful, how­ever, when choos­ing your fans. For ex­am­ple, avoid box fans de­signed for home use. They are un­safe for the dusty barn en­vi­ron­ment---they can eas­ily short out and cause a barn fire. In­stead, in­vest in agri­cul­tur­al­grade fans and mount

them se­curely, out of reach of cu­ri­ous horses. In ad­di­tion to in­di­vid­ual stall fans, large floor fans---again de­signed for agri­cul­tural spa­ces---placed at the end of aisle­ways can keep air cir­cu­lat­ing through the build­ing.


The air qual­ity in­dex (AQI) is an im­por­tant con­sid­er­a­tion for peo­ple with res­pi­ra­tory disor­ders dur­ing the sum­mer months. This in­dex, an in­di­ca­tor of ground-level ozone, par­tic­u­late mat­ter, heat and hu­mid­ity, runs from 0 to 500 with cor­re­spond­ing color codes. Higher val­ues are as­so­ci­ated with more pol­lu­tion and greater health con­cerns. On days when the AQI is high, chil­dren, the el­derly and in­di­vid­u­als with asthma or other health prob­lems are ad­vised to limit their phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity. AQI con­sid­er­a­tions also ap­ply to horses. Here’s what each color means and how to ad­just ac­cord­ingly: Green (AQI from 0 to 50) means the air qual­ity is

As a horse sweats, he loses elec­trolytes, the min­er­als nec­es­sary for most of the body’s elec­tro­chem­i­cal pro­cesses.

good and all ac­tiv­i­ties for all horses are ap­pro­pri­ate.

Yel­low (AQI from 51 to 100) in­di­cates mod­er­ate air qual­ity. Limit horses with acute heaves or those re­cov­er­ing from res­pi­ra­tory ill­ness to slow walks.

Orange (AQI from 101 to 150) in­di­cates the air is un­healthy for horses with a his­tory of heaves, even if they aren’t in the midst of a flare-up. Limit the ac­tiv­ity of these horses.

Red con­di­tions (AQI from 151 to 200) are un­healthy for any horse. Ride only at a slow walk or skip rid­ing al­to­gether. ( Pur­ple or ma­roon con­di­tions---AQI from 201 to 500---are even worse.)

Even if they aren’t go­ing to be rid­den or other­wise worked, check on horses with a his­tory of res­pi­ra­tory trou­bles dur­ing the heat of the day to en­sure they are breath­ing com­fort­ably. If a horse ap­pears to be stressed or hav­ing trou­ble breath­ing, move him into a cooler en­vi­ron­ment if pos­si­ble and call your vet­eri­nar­ian.


Per­spi­ra­tion cools a horse through evap­o­ra­tion---as wa­ter is con­verted from a liq­uid to a gas, it ab­sorbs en­ergy from its sur­round­ings. In this case, that en­ergy is in the form of heat from the skin and the air just above. (In­ter­est­ingly, only horses and pri­mates cool them­selves pri­mar­ily through sweat­ing.) When work­ing in warm weather, horses pro­duce about one gal­lon of sweat every 15 min­utes. Sweat­ing be­gins on ar­eas cov­ered by tack, then spreads to the chest, neck and be­tween the hind legs. After a work­out, it’s nor­mal for a horse to sweat pro­fusely, but a horse who sweats even when stand­ing still may need some help stay­ing cool and will ap­pre­ci­ate be­ing hosed down. Sweat ap­pears on the head, flanks and top of the rump when a horse is ex­tremely hot and may be at risk of heat stress.

A horse who does not sweat as much as his herd­mates in the same en­vi­ron­ment---or who doesn’t sweat at all---may have an­hidro­sis, a dan­ger­ous fail­ure of his ther­moreg­u­la­tory sys­tem. This con­di­tion in­creases the risk of heat stress and stroke, even in weather that doesn’t seem that hot. The cause of an­hidro­sis isn’t fully un­der­stood, but it is thought to be re­lated to pro­longed stim­u­la­tion of the sweat glands in hot and hu­mid con­di­tions.

A horse with an­hidro­sis needs a lot of help stay­ing cool. This means no work in hot weather and con­fine­ment in­doors, near fans, with re­peated cool baths dur­ing the day. Some own­ers and vet­eri­nar­i­ans re­port that nu­tri­tional sup­ple­ments can help, but of­ten the only so­lu­tion is mov­ing the horse to a cooler re­gion. Many an­hidrotic horses func­tion well in more mod­er­ate cli­mates and may even be­gin sweat­ing again after sev­eral years.

As a horse sweats, he loses

De­ter­mine the suit­abil­ity of foot­ing by lis­ten­ing to your horse’s hoof­beats. Soft ground will muf­fle them. But if each of your horse’s steps “rings,” the ground may be too hard to be rid­den over at speed.

elec­trolytes, which are min­er­als nec­es­sary for most of the body’s elec­tro­chem­i­cal pro­cesses. Elec­trolytes also play a key role in the move­ment of fluid in and out of cells, the ab­sorp­tion of nu­tri­ents and the reg­u­la­tion of the body’s fluid bal­ance.

For­ages and com­mer­cial feeds typ­i­cally con­tain am­ple elec­trolytes, so a horse can re­plen­ish his stores through a reg­u­lar diet. If a horse has been sweat­ing for sev­eral hours, how­ever, an elec­trolyte sup­ple­ment can help speed his re­cov­ery. Re­mem­ber, the cause of the sweat is ir­rel­e­vant: A horse who sweats on the lo­cal trails is los­ing just as many elec­trolytes as one who sweats while run­ning bar­rels.

Elec­trolytes are avail­able as oral pastes or pow­ders to top-dress on grain or add to wa­ter. Which­ever form you choose, fol­low the man­u­fac­turer’s direc­tions and make sure fresh wa­ter is avail­able to the horse after ad­min­is­tra­tion.


Just as time in the sun can leave your shoul­ders burnt and ten­der, your horse’s skin can be dam­aged by ul­tra­vi­o­let (UV) ra­di­a­tion. Most vul­ner­a­ble is pink skin on a horse’s face that has only a sparse cov­er­ing of hair, such as the muz­zle or around the eyes. A horse’s sun­burnt skin be­comes in­flamed and sore, just as yours does, and con­tin­ual ex­po­sure can lead to can­cer­ous growths, par­tic­u­larly around the eyes. You can pro­tect your horse’s skin from sun­burn and skin cancer by ap­ply­ing sun­screen for­mu­lated for an­i­mals daily or fit­ting him with a UV-block­ing fly mask that has flaps ex­tend­ing down over the muz­zle.

Sun­light can trig­ger a se­ri­ous skin con­di­tion called pho­to­sen­si­tiv­ity. This re­ac­tion causes blis­ter­ing of the skin, fol­lowed by the for­ma­tion of tight, thin scabs that slowly peel away in a painful process. This re­ac­tion can oc­cur in pink skin any­where, so on a loudly col­ored pinto it can in­volve a large por­tion of the body.

Two types of pho­to­sen­si­tiv­ity oc­cur in horses, each with dif­fer­ent un­der­ly­ing causes: Pri­mary pho­to­sen­si­tiv­ity typ­i­cally re­sults when a horse eats a plant that con­tains a pho­to­dy­namic com­pound that re­acts to the UV rays in sun­light. When these com­pounds cir­cu­late in the blood near the sur­face of un­pig­mented (pink) skin, the re­sult­ing chem­i­cal re­ac­tion dam­ages tis­sue. Plants that cause pho­to­sen­si­tiv­ity in­clude al­sike clover and Saint John’s wort. In se­condary pho­to­sen­si­tiv­ity, a horse has a dam­aged liver that can­not fil­ter out pho­to­dy­namic com­pounds, lead­ing to the same re­ac­tion.

You’ll want to iden­tify pho­to­sen­si­tiv­ity as soon as pos­si­ble to pro­vide re­lief for your horse. At the first sign of

Horses have a knack for find­ing the most com­fort­able lo­ca­tions in a pas­ture on hot days. If you leave your horse in his stall dur­ing the day, make sure the barn is prop­erly ven­ti­lated with an ad­e­quate cross breeze.

crust­ing on pink skin, check to see if the crusts stop where dark hair be­gins. If they don’t, chances are you’re deal­ing with some other skin con­di­tion. If the crusts are lim­ited to white patches call your vet­eri­nar­ian right away.

Treat­ment for pho­to­sen­si­tiv­ity starts by tak­ing the horse off pas­ture that may con­tain al­sike clover or other pho­to­toxic plants and keep­ing him in­doors, shielded from the sun, un­til his skin heals. In se­vere cases, your vet­eri­nar­ian may pre­scribe cor­ti­cos­teroids to help com­bat the in­flam­ma­tion and/or draw blood to check his liver func­tion. Do not pick the scabs off the horse. Not only will this be painful, but it can lead to in­fec­tion.


You’re well aware of the sprays, masks and sheets you can use to pro­tect your horse against in­sects, but don’t for­get that he comes nat­u­rally equipped to deal with bugs. Do what you can do to max­i­mize his nat­u­ral fly-fight­ing re­sources. For in­stance, al­low his fore­lock to grow long enough to whisk pests away from his eyes with a toss of his head. Like­wise, a tan­gle-free tail will com­bat flies bet­ter than a braided one, so clean and comb this nat­u­ral fly swat­ter reg­u­larly and min­i­mize the use of tail bags and wraps that in­hibit its move­ment. Dust and mud are an ef­fec­tive bar­rier against in­sects so al­low, and even en­cour­age, your horse to roll reg­u­larly, even if it un­der­mines your groom­ing ef­forts. Fi­nally, turn your horse out with a friendly com­pan­ion. Horses will of­ten buddy up to keep away flies in sum­mer, stand­ing head-to-tail so they can swish flies from each other’s faces.


Dry con­di­tions com­bined with con­tin­ual stamp­ing at flies can lead to hoof cracks dur­ing the sum­mer. Keep up with reg­u­lar far­rier ap­point­ments to catch and ad­dress fis­sures be­fore they be­come prob­lem­atic. Small hair­line cracks that ex­tend only par­tially up the hoof are typ­i­cally not a con­cern, but wide cracks or those that reach the coro­nary band can cause long-term hoof in­sta­bil­ity or af­fect new hoof growth. Treat­ing cracks may in­volve spe­cial­ized trim­ming and shoe­ing tech­niques, pos­si­bly com­bined with feed­ing a hoof sup­ple­ment.

Al­though slick mud isn’t likely to be a prob­lem, you still need to be mindful of the con­di­tion of foot­ing dur­ing the sum­mer months. Sun­baked, parched ground can be­come as hard as con­crete, a sur­face you’d never con­sider gal­lop­ing your horse across. Un­for­giv­ing foot­ing can lead to hoof bruises and con­cus­sion in­juries and/or con­trib­ute to the devel­op­ment of arthri­tis.

A good way to de­ter­mine the suit­abil­ity of foot­ing is to lis­ten: Soft ground will muf­fle hoof­beats, so if each step “rings,” it’s a good bet that the ground is too hard to be rid­den over safely at speed. Stick to a walk un­til the foot­ing im­proves. If your horse is prone to hoof bruises dur­ing the sum­mer months, hoof pads or boots can pro­tect his feet. Talk to your far­rier about the best op­tion.

Pretty much all of us look for­ward to sum­mer rid­ing, re­gard­less of our pre­ferred dis­ci­pline or eques­trian ac­tiv­ity. But don’t get so caught up in the fun that you over­look the phys­i­cal chal­lenges horses face in warm weather. With care­ful man­age­ment, you can keep your horse healthy and happy, al­low­ing you both to get the most from the sea­son.

THIRSTY: The av­er­age horse drinks about 12 gal­lons of wa­ter a day.


EASY DOES IT: If you de­cide to ride dur­ing hot, hu­mid weather, stick to a slow walk.

VUL­NER­A­BLE: Pink skin on a horse’s face is par­tic­u­larly sus­cep­ti­ble to sun­burn.

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