Heat Stress and Competition Animals


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One of the biggest concerns during the summer months is the risk of heat stress and heat stroke in horses. Heat stress is a form of hyperthermia in which the body temperature is elevated dramatically. Competition horses affected by heat show greatly reduced levels of performance and excessive exposure can put their overall health at risk, however horses at leisure are still susceptible to overheating if appropriate management is not received.

As a horse owner it is imperative that we all become knowledgeable in what causes heat stress, how to recognize it, how to prevent it and how to treat it.

What causes Heat Stroke?

Your first step in preventing heat stress is understanding the causes. As a rule horses can generally endure high temperatures and levels of humidity, they cope with this heat by sweating, and as the sweat evaporates it cools the horse.

The problem usually lies in when the horse is working hard during high heat and cannot keep his body cool enough through sweating, or in high humidity situations when the sweat does not evaporate as efficiently.

How to recognize Heat stroke?

A horses normal body temperature is less than 38.6 degrees. Exercising horses often have rectal temperatures around 39.4 degrees. A body temperature of above 40 is dangerous and around 41.1 – 41.6 can be fatal due to multiple organ failure. [i] A horse can lose 5-11 litres of sweat per hour working under hot, humid conditions[ii]

There are many symptoms of heat stress that you can learn to recognize. You should begin treatment of heat stress as soon as you notice that any of these signs are present to avoid heat stroke. Symptoms of heat stress include excessive sweating or not sweating at all, accelerated heart and breath rates, lethargy, and elevated temperature. An average horse should be breathing at about twenty breaths per minute, and their heart should be beating at about fifty beats per minute. If these rates are high and the horse is showing other signs of heat stress, you need to get them cooled down as quickly as possible.

Transportation & Heat Stress

Heat stress during transport is quite common and is generally caused by excessive humidity created from a lack of ventilation in travel trailers and stables. It is important to keep air moving so that the sweat has the ability to evaporate and thereby keep the horse cool.

Without proper ventilation during summer, your horse is certain to have problems with heat stress which presents significant difficulties  in transporting competition animals. It is important that you have proper ventilation to keep the air moving, which can be achieved through an appropriate transportation trailer and air filters to improve the quality of air and air flow. 

Prevention of Heat Stress

Once you understand what causes heat stress, you need to consider what you can do to prevent it. There are several things you can do to prevent heat stress. If possible, work your horse in the morning or late evening when it is cooler outside and encourage event organisers to hold events early and late not throughout the middle of the day, however this option may not always be available.

When transporting your horse to the event consider your trip including leaving in the early morning so that the trailer does not get as hot and if a long journey stopping at regular intervals for breaks and fresh water. Keeping animals in trailers, even when the trailer is moving, can cause heat stress if the proper ventilation is not present. This is due to the fact that heat builds up in the enclosed space, and it can quickly become very hot and humid.

Preventing heat stress in this situation is as simple as installing a ventilation system to allow maximum airflow throughout the vehicle at all times.


Hydration is a key component of preventing heat stress. The horse cannot continue to produce enough sweat to keep them cool if it does not have enough water intakes. Take breaks often in the shade and offer drinks of tepid water (not cold) at the same time.[iii] Anytime there is a break in competition or travelling, ensure your horse is drinking water and cooling down. If you have had an intense workout and you are worried about your horse overheating there are several things you can do to cool down your horse. If you are in a competition setting, there should be a wash bay close by, to run cool water on them with a hose or with buckets. Scrape them down and then repeat the process until the body temperature cools to normal level. Once the horse is cooling down, walk it around gently until its breathing and heart rate come down to where they need to be, hopefully in the shade somewhere or, again, in front of a fan.



Heat stroke is a very serious illness and should not be taken lightly. Death can occur within hours of being overheated, as a horse owner it is imperative to know the signs, symptoms and methods for cooling your horse down in hot weather.

[i] 2011, Kentucky Equine Research Staff, EquiNews

[ii] 2010 Khonke, J Dehydration and Fluid Loss

[iii] 2010 Khonke, J Dehydration and Fluid Loss



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