Summer brings with it sometimes extreme temperatures which can make rides hot and unpleasant. But are you aware of the signs to watch for in case your horse is having a problem with the heat?
Heat exhaustion and heat stroke are closely tied, and both can be major issues for horses during the summer. Horses cool themselves by sweating, and produce a great deal of heat because of their large muscle groups. But when high temperatures are accompanied by high humidity, a horse's sweating is less effective in lowering his body temperature. Through sweating a horse may lose lots of water and his temperature may rise too high, resulting in heat exhaustion. If left unchecked, heat exhaustion can quickly lead to heat stroke, a life-threatening condition which can result in seizure, collapse, and even death.
There are a number of symptoms which accompany heat exhaustion. Your horse's body temperature will be high, and if it rises to 104or 105 degrees F, he needs to be cooled down immediately. Temperatures above 105 degrees F are dangerous to your horse, and can result in heat stroke and neurological damage.
In addition to a high temperature, your horse may have an elevated heart rate and an elevated respiration rate, and his breathing may be heavy and labored. You might notice muscle spasms, and his stride may appear stiff and unnatural. Your horse may appear unusually tired or restless. Dehydration is also frequently factor, and your horse may have a slow capillary refill time when you press on his gums.
If your horse is experiencing signs of heat exhaustion, you need to cool him down immediately. If you've been riding, dismount and remove his tack, but walk him slowly for a minute or two by hand to keep his circulation moving. Then take him to a shaded place, such as within the shelter of a barn, and pour cool water over him – focus on his head, neck, and legs. As you pour water onto him, scrape it off with a sweat scraper as it heats up, and then reapply more cool water. Repeat this process again and again until your horse's skin feels and stays cool to the touch. If you have a cooling blanket, use that as well.
If you have access to fans, set them up so that they are aimed towards your horse, and provide him with cool water to drink if he should be interested. Take his temperature and monitor it – it should decrease steadily over the next few hours – and call your veterinarian, since he or she might want to evaluate the horse and provide additional treatment, such as administering intravenous fluids and electrolytes.
Heat exhaustion is a dangerous condition which can lead to heat stroke. The faster you recognize the symptoms of heat exhaustion in your horse, and the more rapidly you treat it, the better his outcome may be.