Although we don’t see the high temperatures in the UK that would be common in other countries, our horses can still suffer from heatstroke. So it is important to be aware of the signs and what to do if it occurs.

Which horses are most likely to get heatstroke?

Exercising a horse in very hot weather comes with a risk of heatstroke. Heat is produced by the body during exercise and this continues to increase with the length and intensity of exercise. Sweat is produced in an effort to cool the body. But if the amount of heat that the body is subject to outweighs the cooling effects of sweating, then the horse can overheat, especially if they haven’t been drinking much water. An overweight horse or one with a thick coat can overheat without performing intense exercise. They should be monitored more closely. 

When travelling a horse in hot weather, remember that it can get quite warm inside a trailer, there may be little ventilation and the horse will probably not have had access to water during the journey, therefore they can also be prone to heatstroke.

What are the signs of heatstroke in horses?

Signs of heatstroke include profuse sweating and an increase in breathing rate and effort, stumbling or staggering may also be observed. The horse may seem quiet, behaving abnormally or collapsing. These signs are very serious and you should call your vet straight away, if this happens at a competition, there is often a vet on-site (and almost always one on-call) that can attend.

How is the condition treated?

If the horse is being ridden, you should dismount immediately and remove the saddle, the horse should be offered a drink of cool water and more cool water should be thrown over the horse. The horse should be walked to encourage cooling unless they have collapsed or are struggling to walk. The aim is to bring the body temperature down to the normal range and multiple buckets of cool water may be required, once the water has absorbed the heat from the horse’s skin, it can be scraped off and more water can be applied. In severe cases, a horse may require intravenous fluid therapy at a veterinary hospital but this decision will be made by your vet and will depend on the severity of the signs and the response to treatment.

What can I do to prevent my horse from suffering from heatstroke?

If it is expected to be hot during the day, try to ride your horse in the morning or evening instead when the temperature will be lower. If competing in the summer, ensure that your horse is fit enough to take part by building up the type and length of exercise gradually, it is also worth acclimatising them to work during the day as the competition is more likely to take place at those times. 

Building up your horse’s exercise before competition should also reduce the chances of them being overweight on the day of the competition but remember this is also influenced by feeding so try to feed according to the amount and type of exercise performed. 

Clipping summer coats

Horses with a thick summer coat may need clipping to prevent them from overheating. Certain breeds or types of horses have thicker hair than others, but horses suffering from pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction (Cushing’s Disease) often have longer hair or struggle to lose their winter coat so are more likely to require a haircut. 

Electrolytes and fresh water

Electrolytes can be added to the feed or water during the summer or if planning on competing. This helps to replace salts lost through sweating. Adding salt to the diet may also encourage the horse to drink more water. Ensuring that your horse has access to plenty of freshwater is very important and should be offered regularly during transport and at a competition.

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