A well-hydrated horse has a bright eyes surrounded by healthy tissues. Photo by Henry Moore Jr. BCU/WSU
A well-hydrated horse has a bright eyes surrounded by healthy tissues.

Helping horses in hot weather

Equine specialists at Washington State University’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital are urging Inland Northwest horse owners to be a little more cautious with temperatures expected to hit or break 100°F again this coming week.

Their recommendations should also be observed by horse enthusiasts in other parts of the country.

“Horses working hard in summer temperatures, especially if they are not well-conditioned, need access to abundant, clean water,” explained Jen Gold, the veterinary specialist who heads Washington State’s Equine Medicine Service.

“There is an old myth that still circulates out there in some circles that owners should withhold ice cold water from horses for fear it will induce colic. That’s just not true according to numerous studies including the work done by veterinarians working with the equine Olympic athletes in 1996 in Atlanta," Gold said. “Fortunately, most horses, even those working very hard, will recover quickly if given rest, shade, good feed and abundant fresh water.”

How can owners tell if their horses are getting too dehydrated? Gold said there are two simple tests anyone can master.

“The first is to look at the eyes and see if they appear dull or sunken. The tissues and structures surrounding the eye will shrink some when a horse is dehydrated and the surface of the eye can become dull in severe cases. A conscientious owner who knows their horses will be able to see this easily and they should consider calling their veterinarian.

“The second test involves raising a horse’s lip and pressing your thumb against their gums to make a white spot,” Gold said. “Then release it. If it takes longer than four seconds or so for the blood to return, the horse may be dehydrated and should be offered free-choice water right away. If a horse ever refuses to drink, contact your veterinarian immediately.”

Hard working horses also lose electrolytes too, because unlike some animals, they have sweat glands all over their body. A horse’s normal cooling system works by first dilating blood vessels on the skin’s surface to radiate heat from the circulatory system. After that, they begin to sweat to increase evaporative cooling.

“Horses should have access to at least a regular salt block during hot weather because they typically do not get enough sodium or chloride in the forage and hay they consume,” Gold said. “All the other minerals they need otherwise they can usually get in their diet and again, your veterinarian can advise what’s best in your area.”

What about bathing horses with cool water? “Absolutely, a horse will benefit from being hosed down and dried to help remove heat. Most people have seen images of trainers washing off horses at a race track, so follow their lead and help your horse cool down the same way,” Gold said.

When should a horse owner be concerned that a horse has become dangerously overheated?

“Heat exhaustion or heat stress is a serious condition that is potentially life-threatening,” Gold said, noting that it is vital to recognize these signs:

* A core temperature of 104°F or above;

* Quick rapid breaths or deep gulping types or respiration;

* A horse that has stopped sweating and or drinking;

* Dry, dark or dusky looking gums and mucous membranes;

* An elevated pulse that is "thready," meaning it’s weak and irregular, and

* A horse acting depressed, dropping his head or avoiding any response.

"In every case when this happens, a veterinarian needs to be involved with the horse’s care,” Gold emphasized.

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