Caring horse owners wants to provide their beloved horses with all the comforts they need. Clean water, lush pastures, quality grain, plenty of exercise and maybe a few tasty treats to spoil them right.
But what about shade during hot summer days? Do horses even need shade? After all, how many times have you driven past a field where every horse is standing exposed to the blazing sun even though shade from a tree or shelter was nearby?
Whether or not horses make use of shade, you should always provide shade using some sort of shelter or mature trees if possible. Horses need shade to protect themselves from over heating, reduce nuisance fly numbers and to even prevent sunburns around sensitive parts of their face.
You are a compassionate horse owner, so the quick answer might not be enough. In order to answer this question right, we need to dive a little deeper into the facts. Let’s get to it.
Do horses actually need shelter from the sun
Horses are remarkably resilient compared to other barnyard animals but that doesn’t mean they don’t get uncomfortable during especially hot summer days. My horse Maverick loves soaking up the sun and seems immune to the blazing rays of sun. And he even has a black coat.
However, on the hottest day of the year, it’s obvious that he gets his fill of sunshine rather quickly. He’ll generally seek out shade for a few hours to cool off.
But if he didn’t have that shade, would he be okay? After all, wild horses today inhabit some of the most arid plains where shade is nearly non-existent. Surely, if a wild horse can survive with out shade, yours can too.
Except here is an important point to make, while hot days with complete sun exposure may not immediately harm your horse, it is definitely not comfortable. Researchers, like Kathryn Holcomb, Ph.D from the University of California, have thoroughly studied this matter and conclude that long term exposure to excessive heat without the relief of shade can lead to actual harm.
So, in a nut shell, horses don’t need shade to survive but they do need shade to be comfortable and limit potential health effects caused by sun exposure.
Health issues for horses from sun exposure
Other than heat stress, domestic horse breeds can also develop sunburns on or around the face. Breeds with white coloring on the face are especially prone to sunburns. In rare cases, eye cancers also occur on horses with white sclera visible around the eyes.
In addition, there is data that suggests biting horseflies bother horses less when they seek out shade since these pests prefer hot, full sun areas. However, I am not convinced since I see plenty of biting flies bugging my horses in the shade as well.
How do you know if your horse is too hot
I am fortunate to live in a temperate climate where 90 degree days are rare. For those of you with horses living in hotter climates, heat stress is a major concern.
It’s critical to recognize when your horse starts overheating but it isn’t always obvious. As we all know, horses are resilient and never seem to complain. At least, not in ways easily interpreted.
However, when you know hot weather and abundant sunshine are at hand, pay special attention to your horse. Even if you provide shade for them.
Here are some symptoms of heat stress to watch out for with your horse:
- Excessive sweating
- Decreased sweating, which indicates dehydration
- Fast respirations that may appear labored
- Abnormal lethargy
- Unwillingness to eat
You’ll need to be attentive and have a good understanding of your horse to catch the onset of theses symptoms. If you are ever unsure and concerned about heat stress, take a rectal temperature at rest. A normal temperature is between 99°-101°F. Anything higher or lower warrants a call to your veterinarian.
I have a sun shelter but my horse won’t use it
Ah, yes. The classic “you can lead a horse to water but can’t make him drink” dilemma. In my experience, the same principle applies with shade. You provide it but your horse may not use it. This isn’t surprising to those familiar with the quirks of horse behavior.
There are many reasons why your horse might not utilize the shade you provide. Although, some are more likely than others so let’s explore the common ones.
- Your horse may genuinely not be hot. Even on the hottest days, a healthy, well hydrated horse can tolerate a lot more sun than you or I. Especially, more heat-hardy horse breeds like Arabians.
- Even during the hottest days, horses want to graze. They often seek shade as a short respite between active grazing, which can take hours. You may just miss their short stays in the shade.
- Your shade structure may not be located where your horse likes to be. Maybe the location is near another animal he would rather avoid, such as a dog. Or maybe it’s too far from his water and feeding spot.
- Avoidance of shade as a result of pecking order is common too. Owners with multiple horses and too little shade probably notice the most subordinate horse pushed out by the more dominant ones. If this is a concern, provide additional shade structures.
Can you make a horse stand in the shade
There are times when I’ve come home from work on a 90+ degree day to find my horse sweating in full sun even though he has access to shade. That’s usually when I say “enough is enough” and make him take a shade break.
There are ways to make your horse stand in the shade but don’t expect it to always work. Also, some tactics to keep them under shade should be used with caution.
By far, the best way to encourage your horse to stay out of the sun is to feed them hay or treats in the shade. That often keeps them occupied long enough to cool back down.
When that fails and heat stress is a real concern, tying them up in the shade is another option. Keep in mind, this is only recommended if your horse is tolerant of being tied up and is well behaved. Otherwise, you may end up with broken fence rails, other damage or a stressed out horse. Tie him up with caution and only if you understand your horse’s disposition.
How to provide shade for horses
Not all shade is created equal. A good shade structure is placed on level ground that provides a firm footing. It should also have plenty of ventilation. An enclosed structure or paddock might block the sun but it does little to reduce the heat. A large roof and one or two sides blocking the worst sun exposure and other nasty weather is best.
Horses can be very particular as well. Often, horse will choose to stand under a natural source of shade such as a tree or along a hedge. I’ve seen horses stand under a scrawny tree that does little to provide shade while a perfectly good cover is a few feet away. Their preference is simply to be near natural protection.
Establishing mature trees is a good option but it takes time to grow them large enough to be useful as shade.
Corral shelters or run-in sheds are a great option if you need to build one. They typically have enough air flow to keep the temperature lower. Plus, they are easy to set up and move around as needed.
Don’t have any shade? What else can you do?
Shade isn’t going to be an option for everyone and their horses. So, what else can you do? Remember, the goal is to keep your horse from over heating on the hottest days. Keeping them cool is not hard and there are a few things you can do.
- Make sure they have clean, cool, drinking water. Hydration is vital for preventing heat stress in all horses. Check your horse’s water trough frequently and replenish daily during hot weather.
- Use a sun mask. At the very least, keeping the sun out of your horse’s eyes provides some protection from horseflies, burns and cancer. The EquiVizor is an inexpensive and super effective solution that you can get on Amazon. When shade is not available, this is what you need for your horse.
- Give your horse a bath. Your horse might not be a fan of baths but if your horse is like mine, he’ll tolerate a cold soak down on a blistering hot day. A quick rinse with the hose is all you need to quickly cool off an overheating horse.
Things to avoid
Horse rugs or sheets made of light cotton are not enough to keep a horse cool. Generally, experts recommend shade over a blanket of any kind in hot conditions. A horse’s sweating response is very effective at shedding excess heat but a rug reduces ventilation and therefore, evaporation.
Everyone has different opinions about shade but we all have one common goal. To keep our horse friends comfortable and healthy.
The bottom line is that horses will need shade at some point during the year in most climates across the US and Canada. So, provide a shady spot for them and rest easier knowing that you are doing your part as a good horse owner. Even if your horse stubbornly stands in the sun.