What is Heat Stroke?

Heatstroke is the physical condition caused by your horse overheating.  This usually occurs when it has been subjected to prolonged exposure to or physical exertion in high temperatures.  The horse’s body suffers from increasing internal body temperature.  In extreme cases this can be fatal: especially if the horse is or becomes dehydrated or where it is deficient in electrolytes. Electrolytes are substances which conduct electricity when dissolved in water. They are essential for several body functions.  Animals (including man) need electrolytes to survive. Many automatic processes in the body rely on a small electric current to function, and electrolytes provide this charge.

With heat stroke, damage, severe in some cases, can be caused to the bodily organs; to say nothing of the stresses the horse undergoes.

Owners must take vital precautions to avoid their horses suffering from or getting heat stroke

As with many problems, the best antidote is noticing the signs early.  This can be a little difficult as the symptoms can vary from one horse to another.  However, they can include:

  • excessive sweating;
  • heavy rapid breathing;
  • elevated heart and respiratory rates and
  • altered behaviour – this can include progression from dull/listless to manic or panicky behaviour as the condition worsens and becomes increasingly serious.

As individual horses cope differently with hot or humid weather conditions so it is very important for the owner or rider to know what is normal for their horse so that symptoms can be identified speedily.

How to prevent or lessen the risk

  1. Acclimatisation

By means of careful exposure, you can acclimatise your horse to become uses to working in hot conditions.  This is best done by a gradual increase in exercise periods in times of heat.

If your horse isn’t acclimatised or the weather ‘hots up’ prolonged or intense periods of exercise in hot conditions are best avoided  altogether or as much as possible.  This also applies to avoiding or minimising any exercise during the hottest times of the day.

It is important to understand that increased humidity will lessen the horse’s ability to lose heat for itself through sweating.  High temperature conditions combined with high humidity increase the likelihood of heat stress.

  1. Cooling Down

Immediately on finishing any exercise, the horse should be ‘walked’ to commence the cooling down.  All tack should be removed as speedily as possible and the horse wetted, entirely, with cold water.

You should water both sides of the body and you should ensure that the large veins on the inner legs as well as the neck are kept continuously watered.  As repeated applications of cold water are made, there’s no need to scrape water off as the fresh applications replace the water already on the horse which will, of course, have become warmed up itself.

Your horse can be walked lightly and slowly during the cooling down as the increased blood circulation will help dissipate existing body heat.

  1. Water and Shade

Your horse should always have free access to water.  If you must exercise it strenuously in hot weather, it should be given supplementary electrolytes in its feed and drinking water to assist with rehydration.

Please note that some horses may need time to adapt or take electrolyte water so you should offer plain water as well.

Wherever possible, ensure the horse has access to shade but do avoid using rugs as this might cause an unnecessary or artificial increase in their temperature.

  1. Clipping

Clipping should be considered where the horse has a thick coat or if it is exercised strenuously in hot weather.  Lean horses adapt better to hot conditions and lose heat more quickly and effectively.  Overweight horses are at greater risk and should be given extra care.

  1. Travelling

Horses can lose significant amounts of water when travelling in hot weather.  As a rough rule of thumb, they can lose  some 2-3 kg / hour of transport. If it was  a long journey, you should allow the horse 24-48 hours as a minimum to allow for recovery before any further strenuous exercise.