Most mammals tend to sweat in order to relieve their heat build-up and to cool off. We ourselves are not an exception to this rule but some domesticated animals such as dogs are and cool off by simply breathing through their mouths. Do horses sweat, however, or are they like our canine friends?

Yes, horses do indeed sweat. Considering the amount of running they are capable of, as well as the impressive speeds they can reach and the heavy loads they can carry, they’d have a lot of trouble maintaining their body temperatures otherwise. Dogs may be quite physically active animals as well but they are usually not expected to drag around carriages that weight three times their own body weight.

How do horses sweat?

Horses sweat in a very similar way and principle as humans. As they run, jump, and walk, their muscles generate heat as a byproduct of their energy metabolism. That heat needs to be expelled from the body so that the animal doesn’t overheat.

Horses can dispose of their heat without sweating too – simply by breathing or through their skin. However, once the heat build-up becomes too significant, the sweat glands of the horse will start producing sweat in order to help the animal expel its heat in a more effective manner.

So, horses’ sweat is the same as ours?

Not quite. While horses’ sweat contains water just like ours, it also contains significantly more electrolytes than human sweat.

What this means is that horses’ sweat looks differently from ours and excessive sweating can have different implications for a horse than it does for people.

As electrolytes are dissolved minerals, when a horse sweats too extensively, you can see a white foam or lather form on its skin and hair – this is due to the electrolytes the horse expels together with its sweat. A lot of amateurs or non-professionals tend to scare easily when they see this white foam but it’s generally to be expected when a horse sweats.

You’ll most often find such white lather on the horses’ neck, close to the reins or behind their hind legs. While excessive foaming isn’t a bad sign in and of itself, it does mean that the loss of electrolytes needs to be made up for through the horse’s diet and hydration.

How to help a horse cool down?

As with any other animal that starts exhausting its physical energy and sweating too much, overheating can be a problem for horses. To compensate for it and help the horse feel comfortable and cool down in a nice and healthy manner, there are multiple things you can do:

  • Walk your horse slowly until its breathing normalizes instead of forcing it to stop. There are no guidelines for how long such a long should take as that depends on the amount of exercise the animal has been through, its overall fitness levels, and the temperature & humidity of the air around you. The hotter and the more humid the air is, the longer your horse will need to cool down.
  • Take the load off your horse. If your horse was dragging or carrying something, take it all off to help the animal relax and rest. Even something as simple as a light saddle can be unnecessary weight and an inconvenience for a horse when it’s trying to rest.
  • If possible, give your horse a quick bath or at least squirt the animal down with water. If you can give the horse an extensive bath, do that – it will not only wash the sweat off for your own benefit but it will also help the horse feel much better. Portable horse showers are an excellent tool for any equestrian as they allow you to give your horse an effective bath whenever and wherever you need to.
    Washing and cleaning your horse after extensive sweating is important not just for the horse’s comfort but also for its health. Sweat residue left on the horse’s skin can lead to various skin irritations and conditions that can require medical intervention later on. A nice, mildly warm bath or shower can easily remove that risk.
  • Brush your horse’s neck, legs and body while it rests. This will help massage the horse’s skin and muscles, relieve muscle stress, and clean its skin and hair. It’s also relaxing when done well and with care. Something like a sweat scraper tool can also be helpful.
  • Give your horse water. Just as with any other mammal, sweating in horses leads to dehydration. Whenever you’re exercising your horse or using it for work, you should always have water with your or plan for easily accessible water along the way.

How much water does a horse need to drink in order to be comfortable and healthy?

Depending on its size, a horse will drink anywhere between 10 and 20 gallons of water every day. That’s quite a lot from our point of view but it is normal for a horse. In periods of excessive exercise and physical exertion, a horse will naturally require more water.

How much more depends on the horse’s size, breed, physical fitness, as well as on its surroundings and weather. On average, when a horse is exercising or working, it can lose up to 4 gallons of water per hour. All this water needs to be compensated for in order for the horse to stay hydrated, comfortable, and healthy.

How much exercise is too much for a horse?

Whatever you’re using your horse for, it’s important to know and understand its physical limitations. There’s no amount of drinking water and showers that can help an overly exhausted and overheated horse keep running or working – rest is absolutely essential in these cases.

Fortunately for both us and our horses, their daily exercise limit is quite high. In fact, horses are very physically active animals in nature – they tend to cover anywhere between 30 and 80 kilometers per day in the wild. Most of this distance is covered at a slow pace, however, as horses frequently move between their water sources and their grassland pastures.

So, while the main problem of most equestrians and other horse owners is giving their horses at least a minimal amount of exercise, the opposite can also be a problem, especially in hot weather or for working horses.

Unfortunately, it’s not really possible to measure the exact limit of maximum exercise a horse can endure because there are too many side factors – breed, size, the weight of the load the horse might have been carrying, the incline and texture of the terrain, the air temperature and humidity, and so on.

So, in order to make sure that your horse isn’t overheating and sweating too excessively, you simply need to keep a close eye on its physical condition. Here are several guidelines:

  • Carefully observe the condition of the horse’s skin and hair – is sweat starting to form, is it becoming moist? There’s nothing wrong with a little sweat but if your horse is sweating too much for too long, it’s time for rest. The horse’s neck and hind legs are the main areas where you can expect to start noticing sweating.
  • Observe the horse’s movement. Is it more labored? Is the horse moving more with its upper body to help its walking and running?
  • Keep a close watch on the horse’s physical temperature, breathing, and other vital signs. Here’s a quick table with the average vital signs your horse should exhibit:
Temperature37.2 – 38.3°C (99 – 101°F)
Respiration10 to 24 breaths per minute
Pulse28 to 44 heartbeats per minute
Sounds coming from the horse’s gutsGurgling, fluid tinkling, and occasional gut “roaring” are all normal sounds.
How long it takes for the horse’s gums to return to pink color after being pressed with a finger1 – 2 seconds
Mucous membranes color and conditionA healthy pink color and a moist condition

For more specific guidelines on how you should exercise or load your horse, here’s an extensive guide from Bellcrown Carriages.

What are the main risks of excessive heating and overheating in horses?

An overheated and sweating horse with no access to water can easily develop certain health problems similar to those of an overheated or dehydrated human. The fact that horses are significantly more physically powerful and durable animals doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t keep these risks in mind, whether you are working or training your horse.

Here’s a quick list of some of the main risks you run when exhausting and overheating your horse:

  • Physical accidents. Tiredness and physical fatigue easily lead to a loss of muscle control in horses as in humans. This, in turn, can easily cause the horse to stumble and fall, potentially damaging both itself and its rider or cargo.
  • An overheated horse can easily develop neurologic problems such as seizures which can be very dangerous both for its internal health as well as a cause for falling.
  • Organ failure and damage to vital organs such as the horse’s heart, kidneys, and muscles is very possible in situations of dehydration and overheating.
  • Respiratory problems.
  • Synchronous diaphragmatic flutter (SDF), also referred to as “The thumps”. This is a condition in which the horse’s flanks twitch together with its heartbeat. It’s related to acid-base and electrolyte deficiencies or abnormalities, often caused by excessive sweating.