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Oklahoma State University
Center for Veterinary Health Sciences

Healthy Animals - Healthy People

Is It Too Hot to Trot?

Wednesday, September 21 2016

grey horse with a braided mane

Riding horses in hot temperatures is often unavoidable, especially in southern states like Oklahoma.  It is our job to make sure we don’t overdo it and subject horses to heat stress.

When exercising horses in the heat, it is important to be aware of not only temperature but humidity as well. If the combined temperature and humidity is over 150, horses will need assistance in cooling.  If temperatures and humidity are expected to reach 170, it may be best to plan early morning riding or forego intense work.

It is important to recognize the signs that horses may be overheating during work.  Flared nostrils and heaving flanks indicate the horse is breathing hard, often due to the increased heat load.

Allow the horse to rest and watch carefully for a reduction in breathing rate and intensity.

Horses primarily cool themselves through sweat.  Normal sweating patterns include along the neck, flanks and between the hind legs.  With intense exercise or extreme temperatures, horses may be completely covered in sweat.  These horses need to be cooled.

It is important to know how to check the heat load on your horse.  Practice these techniques before you need to use them.

Keep a rectal thermometer with you and train your horse to accept it. Body temperature will increase with exercise. Temperatures of 104⁰ to 106⁰ F are common for some events.  However, horses with these temperatures need to be cooled carefully.   If a horse’s temperature is over 106⁰, take immediate action.

Check your horse’s heart rate, either with a stethoscope or manually.  When allowed to rest, heart rates should noticeably begin to drop.  Within 15 minutes, the horse’s heart rate should be back to 40 to 50 bpm.

Check their hydration status by checking capillary refill time. When pressed, the gums should flush back pink within one to two seconds.  You can also check by a skin pinch test.  Pull the skin out on the neck or shoulder. It should snap back immediately.  If it is sluggish, your horse needs water.

To aid your horse in cooling, remove all tack and equipment.

Use a sweat scraper to remove excess sweat. This will aid in cooling. Cool running water can greatly aid in cooling. Apply the water primarily along major blood vessels like the neck, chest and inside of legs. Blood will cool as it passes through these areas and then return to the trunk of the body to help dissipate the heat load. Continual application of cool running water will prevent the warming of the water on the horse’s skin. Otherwise, use a scrapper to remove the warm water and increase the rate of evaporative cooling.

When riding, you may not always be near running water.   A squirt bottle can be used to apply cooling water along the major exposed blood vessels—the neck and chest.  The water bottle can be refilled from streams, lakes or stock tanks.

If you do not have access to running water, use a sponge to wet the major blood vessels, again on the neck and chest.  Alcohol can be added to the water to increase evaporation and aid in cooling.

Offer your horse water in the cool down period. It is a myth to not allow hot horses water.  Don’t forget that both the horse and rider need to stay hydrated.

Walk your horse…ideally in the shade to cool them down. Walking your horse while cooling them down encourages blood flow to muscles and skin—both of which are good for recovery.

If you simply tie up your horse after hosing or sponging them off, their heart rate may drop too quickly.  An elevated heart rate actually helps to clear metabolites of exercise out of the muscle and bring blood to the surface vessels again to help in cooling.

How do you know when to return them to the stall or pasture? The respiration rate should be back to normal. You should not see flaring nostrils and you should see the areas of sweating or where you hosed the horse off have begun to dry.

Don’t forget to allow your horse a source of salt.  Sweating depletes electrolytes which must be replenished.  Salt can be added to your horses feed to ensure it consumes enough.

Remember riding horses in the heat may be a necessary part of summer in Oklahoma; however, be sure horses and riders always have access to water. Try to avoid excess work in hot tempertures.