The dog days of summer can be tough on all of us—your horses included. Just like you want to make a point to drink a lot of water and seek out shade when the sun is intense, you need to offer your horses these same amenities. Follow these tips to keep your horses thriving when the summer heat is at is its worst.
Proper hydration for horses during periods of extreme heat is one of the most important summer horse-care concerns. The amount of water a horse actually needs is highly variable, depending on the size of the horse, the ambient temperature and humidity, and the horse’s activity level. In cooler months, a horse at rest drinks on average between 5 and 12 gallons of water a day. This water intake will increase considerably during hot summer months, and it can even double in excessively hot and humid conditions, especially when the horse is working on the barn or exercising in the ring.
When a horse becomes dehydrated, first its athletic performance or working demands are affected. If dehydration and heat stress worsen, the kidneys can become affected, followed by multiple organ failure if left untreated. More commonly, severe dehydration can lead to colic or tying-up, a painful muscle condition medically referred to as rhabdomyolysis, which occurs when muscle tissue begins to break down. These conditions can be life-threatening.
To prevent your horse from becoming dehydrated, it should always have access to clean, fresh water, which is more challenging if you are away from home at a show or on a trail ride. Horses can develop a taste for their own home water and may refuse to drink water from another source.
One way to combat this problem is to alter the taste of your horse’s water a few days prior to leaving home. Apple juice, mint, or a small amount of Gatorade or Kool-Aid are easy choices that can change the flavor of the water enough to hide any differences between your horse’s stable water and water from a different source. Remember to bring the water additive with you when you travel.
Offering a free-choice salt or mineral source to your horses year-round, such as a salt block or lick, is also a good idea, especially in the summer. Horses will readily regulate their own salt intake to suit their hydration needs, but if your horse isn’t consuming enough salt, you can place granular salt in their grain ration as a top dressing to enhance that intake, which will help water intake. Adding some water to your horse’s feed and soaking its hay are other easy ways to increase water in your horse’s diet.
To combat heat stress, make sure your horse has access to shade when out in the pasture during the day. Trees or a run-in shed are all that’s required but if your horse’s pasture lacks shade, stalling your horse on extremely hot days when the sun is directly overhead should be considered. Fans pointing into the stall are also a great way to help keep a horse cool, and you can even mist with the fans, too, if your summer heat is exceptionally dry. Also, when on pasture, don’t forget the sunblock for gray horses or those with lots of white on their faces; child-safe block with at least SPF 30 is a good choice.
After a ride, hosing down with cold water will help quickly cool down your horse. If you decide to do this, be sure to scrape off the excess water. Residual water left on the horse will quickly heat up to the horse’s body temperature and instead of helping cool the horse will act as a body heat insulator.
Skin tenting is a good indicator of dehydration. You can assess this by pinching skin on the horse’s neck. In an adequately hydrated horse, the skin will pop back flat almost immediately. In a slight to moderately dehydrated horse, the skin will remain tented for two to three seconds. Severely dehydrated animals will have skin that takes several seconds before it returns to normal. They will also have dry, tacky gums and dark urine. Veterinary involvement is required for an animal this dehydrated.
This article originally ran in the July/August 2016 issue of Hobby Farms.