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Why you Should Never Give Cold Water to an Overheated Horse

For humans,  ice-cold water after working outdoors on a hot day can feel like heaven, so it’s only natural that many new horse owners or horse novices may want to give the coldest water possible to their horse when it is overheated after being exercised. Many of these novices are surprised to learn that giving cold water to horses is actually very dangerous! Read on to learn more.

Horses drinking water from a trough.

Why giving a hot horse cold water is dangerous

Although humans are able to adapt easily to drinking ice cold water even when we’re warm, a horse’s digestive system is much more sensitive than humans’ digestive systems. Giving a hot, sweaty, or overheated horse very cold water can shock their system and make them very ill, contributing to a potential colic episode (one of the leading causes of death for horses).

Unlike humans, horses can’t vomit. So while an overheated human athlete might be able to retch and vomit if they guzzled too much cold water too quickly after a hard workout, horses’ digestive systems don’t have that vomit reflex. Because horses cannot vomit, they instead get intense stomach and intestinal pain which can lead to serious consequences or even death.

How to safely water a hot horse

Tepid or lukewarm water is safe for hot horses in small amounts. Much like the human athlete described above, when horses have had a hard workout and have sweat heavily, it’s natural that they will want to guzzle a large amount of water – as a horse owner you should prevent guzzling due to the health risks.

Rather than completely withholding water to a hot, sweaty, or out of breath horse- which itself can be dangerous – offer room temperature water to your overheated horse a little at a time.

Instead of allowing them free access to a large water trough, offer the hot horse a bucket of water and allow it to take 2 to 4 big gulps (watch the bottom of their neck for swallows) and then take the water away. Limit access to water for 5 to 10 minutes, then offer a few more swallows of water. Once your horse’s body regulates itself and the horse is no longer breathing heavy, sweating, or giving signs of being overheated, the horse can again have free access to room temperature water.

Can you bathe horse in cold water?

It’s never a good idea to spray a sweaty, hot, or overheated horse with cold water, though there are techniques for using cold water to bathe horses with a well-regulated body temperature. Spraying down the large muscles of a hot horse with cold water can cause an illness called tying up. Tying up is a serious health concern, particularly in some breeds that you can read more about on Rutger University’s Fact Sheet on Tying Up.

When humans have taken a long run in the heat or worked outdoors and feel very overheated, a cold shower can feel great, but horses differ from us in their ability to tolerate cold water on their skin when they are overheated.

What temperature water should I use to give a horse a bath?

Spraying or hosing down a horse with tepid, lukewarm, or room temperature water is the safest way to give an overheated horse a bath. Room temperature water actually works great tp facilitate heat transfer of the horses body away from the skin. Using lukewarm water to bath a hot horse can cool them down without shocking their their muscles or rising a severe medical condition called Tying Up. Many horses enjoy baths with room temperature water.

If you only have cold water to bathe your horse or wash off sweat after a workout, cold water can be used on a hot horse if you are very careful and use the instructions below.

tie your horse
secure the horse in a safe space such as a wash stall or tied to a hitching post on a concrete pad

How to Safely Bathe or Hose Off a Sweaty Horse

horse being bathed with stud chain attached to halter

How to Safely Bathe or Hose Off a Sweaty Horse

Time Required: 15 minutes

Check water temperature

Use room temperature or tepid water if possible. If you must use cold water (this often includes water from a well) progress through these steps very slowly to allow the horses body acclimate to the cold water before spraying muscles.

Aim water spray at lower legs

A horse's legs being sprayed with water.

Spray the lower half of the horses legs with water. If your horse is very hot or the water is cold, spray only the legs for the first 5 to 10 minutes. Spraying the legs, where blood vessels are located just under the skin, helps regulate the whole horse’s body temperature and can prevent the medical condition called tying up.

Next, spray horses body

After you have sprayed the horses legs for 5-10 minutes, begin hosing the horses larger muscle groups like the neck and body. Like washing a car, hosing off sweat (and the salty residue it leaves behind) off of your horse works best if you begin spraying water and scraping off excess water starting at the highest point of the horse’s body – the top of the neck – and progressing down the neck, across the body, and then to the chest and legs.


tl;dr

It’s very important to regulate your horse’s exposure to cold water when they are hot or overheated. Good horse management prevents horses from drinking too much cold water or being sprayed with cold water when they are overheated.

Horses that are not overheated should have free access to water – any temperature- of water. You should limit how much your horse drinks when they are hot or overheated to a few swallows every ten minutes, until the horse is no longer sweating, breathing heavy, or showing other signs of exertion.

Cold water is not inherently dangerous to horses- only to horses that are overheated. In other situations, such as a horse eating hay in a frozen pasture, horses can drink ice-cold water without risking health issues.

A black and white spotted horses standing at a fence next to a horse trough.
Horses that aren’t overheated can drink cold water safely.

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