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Question of the Week: Correctly Cooling Out

Will my horse get sick from drinking cold water while he's still hot?

By Anna O'Brien, DVM | Updated June 2014

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Horse drinking waterQ: I have heard that you can't let a horse drink water if he’s still hot after working because it can cause colic. I've also been told that you shouldn't hose your horse down when he's hot because it can cause tying up. However, I've also been told that the opposite is true, and hosing your horse down and letting him drink right after exercise is good for him. Which is right?

A: An average one thousand pound horse drinks six to ten gallons of water per day. This is a maintenance level of hydration, meaning if this horse is worked, his hydration needs will increase. For example, a horse can lose between five and eight liters of sweat an hour on a long-distance ride in hot temperatures, and a racehorse at a sprint may lose one to five liters. These large losses in the body’s water and delicate electrolyte balances mean you never want to withhold water from a thirsty horse – dehydration will cause many more problems than a threat of theoretical water-overload. In fact, dehydration and the havoc it can cause are responsible for most of the problems that have given way to the misguided directive of restricting water intake from a hot horse.

The key when offering a hot horse water is to offer small amounts frequently; the goal is to maintain a certain level of hydration instead of retroactively trying to fix exercise-induced dehydration later. If you are out on a trail ride for more than an hour, letting your horse to take some gulps from a local stream during the ride is perfectly acceptable, as is letting him have, say, a third of a bucket of water upon return. Offer him another third of a bucket fifteen to thirty minutes later, after you’ve groomed and cleaned up a bit, then offer a full bucket for the horse to consume at his leisure.

Properly cooling down a horse will also help with the recovery process. Most riders intrinsically know not to merely stall a horse whose nostrils are still flaring from a hard ride. Like any human athlete after a workout, a worked horse needs to be cooled down as well. Walk him quietly for at least five minutes. This will help return his heart rate to normal levels while maintaining circulation. A proper cool down also acts to help stretch the horse a little, allowing his body to properly and efficiently metabolize wastes such as lactic acid that have built up in his muscles.

This brings us to the second part of your question regarding hosing down a hot horse. It is not true that hosing a hot horse will cause tying up, also known as exertional rhabdomyolysis, azoturia, or Monday morning sickness. This serious condition occurs for two main reasons: either the horse has an underlying myopathy such as a breed specific polysaccharide storage disease which basically causes pathologic muscle breakdown, or the horse has been physically overexerted beyond his limits. Simply hosing a hot horse off contributes to neither one of these scenarios. Instead, it will help lower a horse’s body temperature and remove sweat-encrusted particulate material from the skin, which can be a cause for dermatologic issues.

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Anna O'Brien, DVM, is a large-animal ambulatory veterinarian in central Maryland. Her practice tackles anything equine in nature, from Miniature Horses to zebras at the local zoo with a few cows, goats, sheep, pigs, llamas, and alpacas thrown in for good measure. Follow her on Twitter: @annaobriendvm.

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Question of the Week: Correctly Cooling Out

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Reader Comments

Christy    Magalia, CA

6/26/2014 9:58:20 PM

The vet I worked for in the past always instructed us to cool down the legs and extremeties with cool water before hosing down the chest so you don't shock the internal organs.

Grey    Ames, IA

1/6/2011 8:39:08 PM

I'm glad this was addressed, it never made sense to me to keep a hot thirsty horse from drinking, I know I'd be in torment in the horse's place!

Galadriel    Lothlorien, ME

1/2/2011 11:46:54 PM

Good reminder.

Rachael    Rockville, CT

12/30/2010 5:03:50 AM

Thanks for printing these tips! Most of it I already knew, but I learned a few new things!

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