Many horses will find the current heatwave uncomfortable, but the good news is there is plenty we can do to help keep them cool and happy.
The single most important thing is to keep your horse hydrated. Horses can easily consume more than double their normal water intake in hot weather, so be prepared for this. A constant supply of clean and fresh water is essential – water that has been left to stand for too long will become warm and possibly unpalatable for example stable water buckets.
If horses are out together in the field, it is ideal to have more than one water source available so that the submissive members of the group aren’t prevented from drinking by bullying.
If your horse has been sweating a lot, it might be a good idea to add electrolytes to his feed or water to replace those lost in the sweat. If you do add them to the water make sure the horse doesn’t mind the taste, because if it puts him off he may not drink anything at all.
If you are travelling your horse anywhere, take more water with you than you think you will need. Remember some horses are fussy about drinking water away from home, so it could be essential to have a familiar supply.
Being prepared is essential so if your vehicle was to break down, you could be stuck at the side of the road for hours waiting for a recovery crew. If this happens in these temperatures the horse would need plenty of water, especially as you can’t guarantee there would be any shade for him.
Shelter is essential in hot weather; it isn’t just for protecting the horse from wind and rain. If your horse is turned out, a field shelter provides the best protection from the sun. The shade provided by trees and hedges may provide a good substitute, but remember that the shade will move with the sun so there may be certain times of the day when it isn’t accessible to your horse. Stabling horses through the hottest parts of the day providing their stable remains cool is an option to consider. However, inadequately ventilated stables can become uncomfortably hot and stuffy.
If you are going to ride, it is best to do so either in the morning or evening when it is coolest. If riding in the hotter weather take more breaks in-between different exercises - horses can’t be expected to do as much in hot weather as at other times if they are not acclimatised to working for longer periods in this heat. Be mindful of your horse’s fitness as overweight horses may struggle more in this hot weather.
Don’t forget to wear hi-viz if you are riding out. Even in bright sunshine patches of shade can make it difficult for drivers to spot horses on the road.
After riding make sure you cool the horse down properly. This can be achieved by continuously pouring water all over the horse’s body surface.
Flies are another hot weather menace. If you can keep your horse in during the day and out at night then his exposure to flies will be minimised. Thin fly sheets, fly masks and good insect repellents can help greatly, and remember to take particular care with horses with open wounds or sarcoids. The saliva from the bite of Culicoides midges can cause an allergic reaction in some horses resulting in the condition known as Sweet Itch (also known as Insect Bite Hypersensitivity). Intense rubbing of the mane and tail can ensue to the extent that some horses will rub themselves raw. Further information on Sweet Itch is available here. Remove droppings frequently from the paddock and stable to avoid attracting flies.
Sun cream isn’t just for humans! Remember horses with pink skin and grey or white hair are most susceptible to burning so sun protection is highly recommended. A video on how to apply sun cream can be accessed here.
Watch out for signs that your horse isn’t coping with the heat. These include increased pulse and breathing rate, nostril flaring, an irregular heartbeat, decreased appetite, dehydration, a raised temperature and dark urine. A horse suffering with heat exhaustion can suffer with heat stroke if it is not carefully managed. If you are concerned for your horse, move him somewhere cool and apply water all over the horse’s body. Contact your vet immediately.
If your horse has a thick coat (like a Cushing’s sufferer, for example) then he may need a clip to prevent him becoming too uncomfortable.
The hot weather may also affect grazing too as the sun will tend to bleach grass and dry it out; effectively your grazing has been made into hay! Although it may not look very green horses are likely to consume enough calories to sustain them as indeed they do from hay assuming that they are only in light work. But, the nutritional value of very sun dried grass maybe lower than conventionally made hay as the vitamins will have been oxidised and therefore a balancer maybe required to supply the horse with its vitamin and mineral requirement. A horse grazed on sun dried grass does not necessarily need additional forage assuming that it is not losing weight.
Before providing additional forage it is vital that you fat/condition score the horse, just like any other time of the year, as this will help determine whether they are getting enough calories from the grass. It is likely that they are not using as many calories compared to the winter when grass is generally not available. In addition because of the hot weather they might not be ridden as much as normal and of course they are not needing to burn calories to stay warm.
Another way of monitoring if your horse is eating enough grass would be to monitor your horse’s poo! If you are collecting less than 1% of the horse’s bodyweight as droppings then the horse may need extra forage. Be extra careful if you own an overweight horse or a horse with an underlying disease such as Equine Metabolic Syndrome and rain is forecast. The combination of rain and sun will cause the grass to grow quickly which could increase the chances of laminitis assuming you let your horse eat too much. Be prepared to limit grazing if rain is on the horizon and introduce your horse slowly back to what will effectively be a very different forage compared to what they have been eating for the last few weeks.
Also, a bare paddock may mean that your horse will ingest more mud, soil or sand which could increase the likelihood of colic so you may need to feed additional forage to help prevent this. Remember to introduce any new forage gradually over 7-14 days to decrease the risk of colic. Read more about Colic here.
Forage facts (from farms monitored by AHDB)
- Grass growth has declined (17% less compared to last June)
- Energy content is the same as last year
- Protein and amount grass available is less than this time last year
More information can be found here.
Thanks to Dr Teresa Hollands, Senior Teaching Fellow (Veterinary Nutrition) at the University of Surrey for her assistance with the Grazing advice.