Managing Horses In Hot Weather

Managing horses in hot weather is not usually a problem in Ireland – since unfortunately we don’t get that much hot weather.

image cartoon horse and sunglasses
(Image reproduced from

The problem is that when we do get a bout of sun, horses can suffer because owners are caught unawares and horses are suddenly left exposed to the effects of the heat.

This article looks at some of the risks that horses can face in hot weather including;

  • Heat stroke
  • Sun burn
  • Insects and Sweet Itch
  • Dehydration

The article also looks at some of the usual practices we do with our horses in cooler weather, that may need to be adapted as the heat moves in.


Risks of Equine Heat Stroke

Heat stroke occurs when the horse’s body is unable to cool itself down quickly enough. It is often brought on by exertion or exercise carried out in hot weather and results in the horse showing the following symptoms;

  • Rapid pulse and heavy breathing
  • Lethargy
  • Stumbling
  • Redness of the tongue and mouth area
  • Excessive salivation
  • Collapse

It is important to treat any suspected heat stroke condition as soon as possible. This can be done by applying lots of cold water directly to the skin and especially along the big vein network in the neck, using a sponge to aid cooling as quickly as possible.

It is probable that a vet will be needed in order to administer electrolyte solution to replace the salts lost to the horse’s system through the sweating. Sometimes in less severe cases electrolyte solutions can be administered in feed or water.

Horses should not be moved except into a shady spot until they have been stabilised, and should be given a period of rest of up to 5 days to allow their system to fully recover.


Sunburn And Horses

Horses can become sun burnt or develop an increased sensitivity to light. This can cause them to become heady shy or reluctant to put on a bridle or saddle depending on which area of the body has been exposed and affected.

Pale horses with pink skin areas tend to be affected the most, and horses that have less pigmentation around delicate parts of the body such as the muzzle, ears and ears. Coloured horses can also be affected in the whiter areas of their body especially along the back.

Avoidance is the best practice and this might involve using any of the following, depending on the vulnerability of your own horse to the effects of the sun.

  • Stabling sensitive horses during the day
  • Applying suncream (although this needs to be done regularly to be effective)
  • Providing plenty of shelter in fields such as trees and hedging to escape the direct sunlight
  • Using fly sheets and/or face masks to protect areas affected by the sun.


Insects And Sweet Itch

Along with the sun the warmer weather also brings out the flies and other insects. Some horses are more susceptible to the aggravation and bites of insects than others.

Not all horses appreciate you using insect repellent, but other techniques include using garlic licks with their diet or adding apple cider vinegar to their feed. Both techniques are supposed to annoy insects as the products are believed to be released through the skin after digestion.

There is an article here on Managing Sweet Itch which provides more information on ways to protect horses against insects and some homemade insect repellents.


Water Supplies

Most horses that are turned out in Ireland don’t have to worry too much about access to water because the ground is usually so wet. Puddles, streams and wet grass can all provide access to water as well as drinking troughs provided by the owners.

water droplets on grass
Irish plants often contain a high level of moisture due to the high rainfall.

This moisture doesn’t stay long as it quickly drains away deep into the ground, which isn’t a problem because there is nearly always a fresh supply of rain to keep it topped up.

However periods of sun can cause the surface to harden over, meaning that access to the deeper levels of moisture is harder and surface puddles can quickly dry up.

Water troughs therefore need to be kept topped up and with the increased heat horses will also drink more. This can make a noticeable difference in the amount of water that needs to be supplied by the owner.


Signs of Dehydration in Horses

Spotting that your horse is dehydrated is very important to prevent further risk of injury or collapse. The following signs are commonly used to test hydration but they need to be considered against your horse’s normal pattern of behaviour or response.

  • Increased heart rate – a horse’s resting heart rate should be between 36-42 beats per minute, a noticeable increase could be a sign of something wrong.
  • Respiration rate – increased breaths per minute can be another sign that dehydration is affecting your horse. Typical respiration rate is between 8-12 breaths per minute.
  • Gum colour – by pressing the gums you push the blood out and the gums turn white or pink. The longer it takes for the proper colour to return the greater the chance that the horse is dehydrated.
  • Skin elasticity – the same as in humans pinching the skin in the lower chest area should return back to normal once released in a hydrated horse. Any delay in the skin returning to its normal position is an indication that the skin is not hydrated enough.

Like all equine health symptoms the better you know your own horse when they are well, then the quicker you will spot signs that it is not well.


Enjoying The Sun With Your Horse

The sun in Ireland is unreliable at best, and horses are unlikely to be left exposed to the heat for any great length of time.

But there are a number of practices that we do that are designed for cooler climates and which we may not think about more and to question as the weather suddenly gets warmer, some of these things include;

  • We regularly transport horses sometimes for quite long distances – with cooler temperatures the need to stop for water or to check for rehydration is not always needed, but this needs to be included more in hotter journeys.
  • Turn out and field kept ponies need access to fresh water, but often in Ireland water consumption levels can be low especially as the grass contains a high level of moisture usually. Again in hot weather water consumption can increase quite dramatically.
  • Exercising in heat can increase the stress placed on the horse’s heart especially in slightly older or less fit equines. Reducing exercise periods or moving exercise times to evening or cooler periods may also have to be considered.


beach towel horses
Horses Silhouette
by Haroulita

This image of horses enjoying the sun is actually a beach towel design created by the artist Haroulita, and can be purchased from Society 6, along with other designs from their new beach towel collection (for managing your own sun activities!)

Further Reading

Other articles on this site about horse welfare, that may also be of interest for the hotter weather are;

I hope you enjoyed the article and please feel free to share on any of your social media channels.

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