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Beating the heat, equestrian style

Equine vets give tips for caring for horses in hot weather

GREEN CREEK — It can be frightening to horse owners to see their horses stressed by the heat.

Horses are outdoor animals, and typically handle heat easily if they are allowed to acclimatize. Hard work in hot weather, however, can cause horses to overheat if they are not cared for properly.

Because of their size, horses can take longer to cool off than humans, said Dr. Thann Boyum, a local veterinarian. 

“If you’re hot, your horse is even hotter,” she said. “They have a bigger body mass to cool.”

Boyum said research done for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta changed some of the old-school methods of cooling out horses. She said rinsing a horse off after work is a good way to help them cool.

Apparently, the studies done for the 1996 Olympics showed that cool water does not have adverse effects. The most important thing was to be sure to scrape the water off the horse after rinsing, Boyum said.

“The water will form a film on the horse’s skin that holds heat in,” she said. “Scraping prevents that film from developing.”

Another trick is to put the horse in front of a fan, or at least in the shade, after it has been hosed off and scraped.

Horses should always have access to plenty of fresh, clean water throughout the day. Horses can drink between 5 and 15 gallons of water a day, with that amount increasing to more than 20 gallons in hot weather.

Water should be free access, clean and plentiful.

Horses are outdoor animals, and are usually healthier and happier when outside. Paddocks and pastures should have adequate shade, such as trees or run-in sheds.

Sheds should have good ventilation. If the horse is kept in a barn, it should have a fan to assist with air circulation.

Adequate salt and a good mineral source are also essentials in helping horses deal with heat. Senior Veterinary Consultant for Advanced Biological Concepts Organic Division Dr. Richard J. Holliday warns that the minerals in the red salt-based mineral blocks are not balanced properly for horses.

Holliday said the best approach is to provide free choice mineral supplements of a variety of minerals.

In addition to the free-choice minerals, Holliday recommends a white salt block and Celtic salt, or “Real Salt,” that has not had the minerals stripped out. Electrolytes for horses in hard work is another good supplement for hot weather.

The electrolyte supplement must be designed for horses. Gatorade and electrolyte drinks for humans are not safe for horses, and can cause more harm than good.

Signs of heat stress in horses include a temperature higher than 103.5 degrees, heavy breathing, heavy sweating or non-sweating, trembling or shaking, rapid pulse and erratic heartbeat, and lethargy or restlessness.

Boyum said in such cases it is extremely important to cool the horse quickly with cool — not ice cold — water, both internally and externally. Move the horse to shade, put it under fans and call a vet.

She also recommended thehorse.com as a good resource for more information about helping horses handle the heat.