How to Manage Horses in Hot Weather
By: Nicole Mandracchia
I grew up in New Jersey, which has its moments of extreme temperatures. Every couple of years, we will have a summer that has several weeks of extreme heat (90+ degrees) and high humidity. It makes you immediately regret your choice to be outside. The minute you go to feed the horses in the morning, you are already dripping sweat and dreaming of a cold shower!
But for people who live in other parts of the country, like Florida, the Carolinas, etc., this extreme heat is normal for them in the summertime. Temperatures can reach over 100+ degrees every day for months straight, making shade and relief from the heat hard to find. I didn’t realize how much heat affected performance until I had worked in Florida for several winters. There, I learned many tricks to surviving the high temperatures.
” Be aware of your horse’s sweating and breathing as you’re working him. Horses that are not fit, are obese, or are older are more susceptible to overheating.”
Here are several tips to managing horses in hot weather:
- Water, water, water! Horses should have access to as much water as they want, both in their stalls and outside in their paddocks. Hot weather creates a great breeding ground for algae and fungus to grow in the water buckets in stalls or water tubs outside, so make sure that you are scrubbing them out frequently. The taste of the algae or fungus deters some horses from drinking, so paying attention to this is extremely important. If you have a horse who isn’t a big drinker, adding a scoop of electrolytes to one of his water buckets will help. Make sure you leave one bucket without electrolytes so he can pick which one he wants.
- Creating better air flow. If you have stalled horses, make sure you put up fans on their stalls or bigger fans in the aisle to keep the air constantly moving. Stagnant, humid air is difficult to breathe in, and it will cause horses with COPD or allergies to struggle with normal breathing. Fans are also beneficial for horses with Cushings (PPID) disease; these horses have an inability to shed their long coats like normal horses and therefore have difficulty lowering their internal temperature in heat. Trace clips and full body clips also help reduce overheating in Cushings horses.
- Change your turnout routine. If your barn has the capability, turning your horses out overnight reduces the amount of time they spend outside in the hottest hours of the day. The hottest part of the day is generally from 11am-4pm, depending on where you are located. Night turnout also cuts down on the number of insects that are around, which eliminates excessive bug bites and unnecessary running to “escape” the bugs. Horses must be introduced to night turnout gradually over several weeks’ time, and barn managers and owners should pay attention to the weather forecasts every night so they’re not turning horses out in thunderstorms. In addition, horses on night turnout should always have friends either turned out with them or near them so they do not panic about being outside alone. If you can’t do night turnout, make sure to put your horses out early in the morning and bring them in before it becomes too hot.
- Add to the wardrobe! If you cannot do night turnout, then you should make sure your horse has a fly mask (with ear covers) to keep flies from attacking their eyes and sensitive ears. Spraying fly spray before putting them outside also helps, and putting a fly sheet on them will keep the flies off, cut down on the amount of sun bleaching on their coats, and prevent sunburn. **Note: fly sheets can make horses sweat, so make sure you’re not turning your horse out at the hottest part of the day with a fly sheet on. Or if you decide to do this, make sure your horse gets a hose after he comes in and his fly sheet has a place to dry overnight. Wet fly sheets are a breeding ground for fungus, which can cause skin fungus and irritation. Fly sheets should be washed at least once a week so that dirt and mud do not cause excessive skin irritation.**
- Protect their noses! Horses that have light-colored or white noses are extremely susceptible to sunburn. Pay close attention to this and if you notice your horse’s nose turning bright red or blistering, apply sunscreen to this sensitive area or use a fly mask with a longer nose so that this part of the horse is not exposed to the sun.
- Provide shade and salt blocks outside. For horses who live outside 24/7, giving them a place to cool down is essential. Build a run-in shed near the water trough to make sure horses have a place to hide in the hottest part of the day. At one barn I worked at, we installed battery-powered fly systems in the sheds that went off once or twice an hour. This requires you to check the cans frequently to make sure they are not empty. If you do not have a run-in, make sure that the horses have effective tree cover. **Note: check your state animal protection rules before planning anything—many require shelter for animals who live outside.** To encourage your outside horses to drink, add a large salt block in a ground feeder somewhere near the water trough. If you have more than 4-6 horses outside in one field, you may need to provide two or three salt blocks.
- Pick the coolest part of the day to work your horses. Yes, this may mean getting up at 5:00am to be out at the barn by 6:00am to ride as many as you can before 9 or 10am. It could also mean going out on your trail ride early before the heat of day. As someone who has done this many times in her life, I promise you this is worth it for both you and your horse! If early riding isn’t a possibility for you, then plan to ride after 5 or 6:00pm. By this time, the temperature is (hopefully!) starting to cool down.
- Be observant. Be aware of your horse’s sweating and breathing as you’re working him. Horses that are not fit, are obese, or are older are more susceptible to overheating. If your horse starts to blow excessively or sweat profusely, creating a white foam, it might be time to end your ride or drive. Know the horse you’re working as well—if he naturally runs hot, don’t work him as long as the horse who runs cooler. Both of these horses will be more susceptible to overheating. Make sure you cool and walk your horses out before getting off—they should not be struggling to breathe or blowing hard. I’ve noticed over the years that people do not pay enough attention to this and it takes the horse twice as long to cool down. Once tack or harness has been removed, horses should be hosed or sponged off, depending on how hot they are. You can use cold water to hose him off; it will not cause muscle spasms or heart attacks like many people believe. **Note: horses may need to be hosed off more than once if they have been working hard, i.e., a horse competing in the cross-country phase of eventing, a Grand Prix, or a marathon in driving.** At the end of their hose, excess water should be scraped off of their coat using a sweat-scraper, the back of a comb, or your hand. This is another thing I do not see a lot of people do anymore; they just let them drip-dry. Leaving excess water on a horse’s coat can lead to unintentional overheating, as the extra water traps the body heat close to the horse’s body and does not allow it to evaporate with the water. This stops the cooling process, and it can cause a horse to begin sweating or overheating again. My definition of cool is when you cannot see raised blood vessels on either side of the horse’s neck and he is no longer blowing or struggling to catch his breath. He also doesn’t look distressed or irritated. Once you have cooled down your horse, place him in front of a fan to dry. If he’s still blowing, take him for another handwalk. You can also take the horse outside to handgraze if he is cool. **Note: horses who are prone to “tying up” need to be cooled down longer in extreme temperatures (hot or cold) or else they are more susceptible to tying up. These horses may need to be handwalked after being untacked.**
- What to do with non-sweaters. Normal horses use sweat “to remove 65-70% of the excess heat from their body” (KER). Horses that have anhidrosis do not sweat normally or barely sweat at all. Anhidrosis can be more common than most people think because it is hereditary. A non-sweating horse is more prone to overheating or heatstroke. Symptoms of anhidrosis are little to no sweating while working, puffing or panting while exercising, increased heart rate, lethargy, and an increase in body temperature (KER). If a horse has been diagnosed with anhidrosis, the rider must be aware of the air temperature and the amount of humidity present in the air before working that horse. “If the sum of the temperature and humidity is less than 130, exercise normally. Greater than 150: be cautious, especially if the humidity is greater than half of the total. Greater than 180: use extreme caution, since normal cooling out becomes almost impossible” (KER). You should try to ride a horse with anhidrosis at the cooler parts of the day. There is no cure for anhidrosis, but it can be managed through proper diet, awareness of temperatures/humidity, and supplements.
- Food time! Remember to wait at least an hour before feeding your horse grain once you’ve worked him. He can have hay after he has been hosed and cooled down, but he should not have grain immediately.
- Pay attention. If your horses come in from turnout covered in sweat, take them for a handwalk to cool off or hose them down. This will help them regulate their internal temperature. If you notice one of yours sweating while he’s standing in his stall, walk and hose him. Make sure he has water in his buckets when you bring him back. Horses can experience heatstroke if they are standing in a hot stall or trailer for extended periods of time. If you are unsure if your horse is still hot, take his temperature and his pulse. If his temp is above 103 degrees after you have hosed him, he’s still sweating, and he has an elevated pulse (higher than 28-44 beats per minute), you may need to call your veterinarian to help.
Knowing your horse or the horses you are caring for will help you immensely in deciding how to manage each one. I’ve had horses who do fine in heat and then I’ve cared for some who need extra help staying cool. On those days, I make sure to pay attention and watch their behavior to know if they need an extra hose or more time in front of a big fan. Remember, they can’t just go take a shower or jump in a pool to cool off like we can, so we have to be extra aware!
These are the websites I used for reference:
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About the Author
Nicole Mandracchia (aka “Smiley”) has been immersed in the horse show world for 17 years. She rode and showed in Zone 2 as a junior, attended Centenary College in Hackettstown, NJ, and was the captain of the IHSA team. Nicole has groomed and ridden for several top professionals in the industry, including: Robin Rost Brown, Val Renihan, Missy Clark and John Brennan’s North Run, and Amanda Steege. She has spent a majority of that time traveling up and down the East Coast following the A-rated circuit, including Florida and all the indoor finals. Nicole is also a frequent blogger for The Chronicle of the Horse. In addition, Nicole helped run a successful A-rated and C-rated horse show series in Augusta, NJ, from 2012-2017. Nicole has won four grooming awards in her career: at The Sussex County Farm and Horse Show (2013), The Capital Challenge Horse Show (2018), WEF (2018), and The National Horse Show (2019). Nicole’s most memorable indoors’ experience was at The 2018 National Horse Show when both of the horses she was grooming claimed a tricolor in their respective divisions (Lafitte de Muze was champion in the Green 3’6″ Green Hunter division and Zara was reserve champion in the 3’6″ Green Conformation Hunter division). Nicole owns a Dalmatian named Maddie and her boyfriend Lee also works the horse show scene as an in-gate starter. Writing is a passion of hers and she enjoys sharing tips, funny stories, and advice on anything horse-related!