Summertime is prime time for all manner of equestrian fun. But while you’re enjoying trail rides, horse shows and other events, remember to keep tabs on your horse’s well-being, especially on the hottest days. By the time you’re ready to seek respite in the shade, your horse has likely already devoted a considerable amount of energy and fluids to the process of staying cool.
Horses can sweat prodigiously on hot days and still be just fine, as long as they are able to rest, eat and drink their fill of clean water before they deplete their inner reserves. However, when a horse has sweated to the point of dehydration, he begins to lose the ability to dissipate heat, and his body temperature can climb to 104 degrees Fahrenheit or higher–a condition called heat exhaustion. At this stage, he is at risk of heat stroke, which can cause brain damage, organ failure and other serious, potentially fatal problems.
Fortunately, if you spot the early warning signs of heat exhaustion, you can take steps to reverse the process before your horse sustains permanent damage.
SIGNS OF TROUBLE • sweat that becomes progressively thick and sticky • the cessation of sweating even when the horse is still overheated and his skin remains hot to the touch • when it takes more than six seconds for the skin on the point of the shoulder to flatten out after it has been pinched • dark and/or discolored gums and mucous membranes. Also, after you press your finger against the gum, it takes more than three or four seconds for color to return to the “blanched” spot. • an elevated but weak and irregular pulse even while resting • “dull” and depressed or grumpy attitude • rapid and shallow or deep and gulping breathing • “panting” like a dog
WHAT TO DO FIRST
Move the horse out of the sun. Remove the saddle, and get him into any shade you can find—in a barn, under trees, even the shadow of a trailer. If there’s a breeze, position your horse so he’ll catch it broadside with his body, or set some barn fans where they will blow over him.
WHAT TO DO NEXT
Douse him with water. Ice water is best, but use the coldest you have on hand. Drench the horse thoroughly, scrape him dry, then repeat. Scraping away the water is vital—waiting for the water to evaporate won’t work fast enough. Also, if you have ice or cold packs handy, press them against the large blood vessels under his throat—this cools the blood flowing toward the brain. If you have enough ice packs, enlist friends to place them in the armpits and groin if the horse will let you.
AT THE SAME TIME
Encourage the horse to drink. As you’re wetting down your horse, offer him a bucket of water to drink, and let him have as much as he wants. If you have powdered electrolytes handy, add some to a second bucket of water, and let him have access to both. Most horses will not drink much ice water, so regular cool water from the tap will be best.
Call your veterinarian. Check your horse’s temperature as you continue to wet him down. You ought to see a drop of at least two degrees within 10 minutes. You can stop dousing him once his temperature drops below 101. Even as your horse returns to normal, you’ll want to have your veterinarian come examine him to make sure there have been no ill effects from his experience. However, if your horse is still hot and not drinking readily within an hour, call your veterinarian again—this is an emergency. Your horse may need intravenous fluids and other measures to help him recover.
WHAT NOT TO DO
Do not try to force water into your horse’s mouth. If your horse is too “dull” to drink, shooting water into his mouth with a hose, syringe or other device may cause some of the liquid to be drawn into his lungs—this may lead to aspiration pneumonia.
Do not administer electrolyte pastes. A horse who is dehydrated and overheating is already experiencing metabolic stress, and forcing him to swallow electrolytes may stress his system even more.
Do not give your horse any medications. Dehydration taxes a horse’s kidneys, and adding medications to his system can cause further damage.
This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #467, August 2016.