Cooling Out a Hot Horse

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Like any human athlete, cooling horses down properly is a very important part of the recovery process after exercise. How much time it takes for this process depends on three variables, the external temperature, the fitness of your horse and the particular workload for that day.

Colder Weather
When your ride is finished you should always go for a quiet walk for 10 minutes, or until your horse is not blowing hard. If I’m taking a horse from a rider and the horse stills needs to walk, I like to loosen the girth and noseband to allow the horse to relax. When breathing is back to normal, I take the horse inside and throw a breathable rug over his hindquarters whilst untacking. Some people leave on the saddle pad so the horses back does not get a chill, if a blanket is not at hand then this is a good alternative.

If the horse is not very sweaty then I use rubbing alcohol and towels to dry him and remove any saddle, girth or bridle marks. Once dry, he can be fully groomed, rugs replaced and put back in his stall.

Should the horse come in somewhat sweaty, I will take a bucket of warm water and alcohol and the horse down to remove sweat and dirt. I will then towel dry him, and put him away with an Irish knit underneath a wool cooler. This double layer has a great wicking effect, by allowing water vapor to breath through the layers. The irish knit should remain dry next to the horse’s skin to prevent him from getting chills. It is important to check for dryness, you may need to exchange the top layer once you see the moisture sitting on top.

If the situation allows, I try to give the horse a lukewarm bucket of drinking water, in winter I find they will drink more this way (though I know not all barn set up allow for this!).

Hot Weather & Strenuous Exercise
When a horse finishes a hard workout — e.g a gallop or exercise course — he will be blowing hard and his internal temperature will have risen. I remove all tack and equipment immediately so there can be as much airflow and evaporation across the horse’s body as possible. I then wash the horse down with cold water and immediately scrape off the water. The horse would then be walked, if possible all this should be done in the shade, or somewhere where there is a breeze. This process of wash, scrape, walk is repeated until the horse has stopped blowing and his temperature is back to normal. If no thermometer at hand, you can touch their chest to feel how much they are cooling. Also the water being scraped off will eventually be cold once the horse is cooled off.

It is important to know your horse’s normal temperature, before and after exercise, before a major competition. I feel you should take his temperature after your gallops and smaller shows. You should know whether or not your athlete is prone to finishing at a high temperature. This can help you plan your cooling out process efficiently. In my experience, I have had completely fit horses finish exercise with temperatures above 104. Knowing this was common for these horses, I would have buckets of iced water as close to the finish as possible so that I could be starting the process of cooling whilst other people were removing tack. Extremely high temperatures are dangerous for the horse’s internal organs, these horses need to be taken to the shade, and washed down with ice water, scraping the water off immediately after putting it on is imperative. And scraping is essential — leaving water on only heats the horse up more and has a negative effect on the cooling out process.

It is important to watch your horse carefully after you think they have cooled off. Some will start to have a high respiration rate and possibly start to sweat again. If you notice this, then you will need to start the cooling out process again until the horse is comfortable and all vitals are back to normal. As with just about any horse situation — when in doubt, call the vet!

I believe in allowing horses to drink as much water as they want when they finish exercise. I offer them small amounts at short intervals. Hay is given at least one hour out after cooling down, I will not feed grain for at least two hours. If the horse is interested in grass whilst cooling out I let them nibble, it’s 80% water so should not cause any problems.