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How Climate Change Affects Horses

Updated: Dec 27, 2023

Climate Change. Yup, you read that right. We are talking about climate change in a horse magazine. I know many of you are aware of the issues it presents to life but right now, as horse owners, many of us are just surviving day to day, week to week. We can barely think of what a few months ahead will look like for our horses and life. But we cannot keep ignoring that climate change is making it harder to take care of our horses, even just day to day! And it is only going to get worse. If we do not really dig into understanding how climate change is going to affect horses and the industry, and if we are not going to talk about this, then that is a disservice to our horses and the people who love them. So come and join me for a few quick minutes as we talk about climate change and horses.

Alright, first off a very important point I want you all to understand is there is so much information and research coming out on climate change and how it affects humans and different animals. But there are holes and one of those holes is understanding how climate change is and will affect our horses, other farm animals, and even our smaller companion animals like dogs and cats. As time goes on we will get more research on this but for now, I have pulled together all of my knowledge and firsthand experiences to write this article. Let’s go ahead and talk about climate change in general.

Climate change, as described by the United Nations, refers to long-term shifts in temperatures and weather patterns. These shifts can be natural, due to changes in the sun’s activity or a large volcanic eruption. But…. and this is a big BUT, since the 1800s, human activities, specifically the burning of fossil fuels like coal, oil, and gas, have been the main driver of climate change. (UN 2023)

Burning fossil fuels generates greenhouse gasses that end up acting like a blanket that traps the sun’s heat in the Earth’s atmosphere which causes the Earth’s overall temperature to rise. Those rising temperatures are affecting weather patterns all over the world, causing storms to be more severe and resulting in more flooding. We are also having longer and more intense droughts in some areas of the United States.

Now the main greenhouse gasses driving climate change are carbon dioxide and methane.

Carbon dioxide absorbs energy at a variety of wavelengths between 2,000 and 15,000 nanometers — a range that overlaps with that of infrared energy. As CO2 soaks up infrared energy from the sun, it vibrates and re-emits the infrared energy back in all directions. About half of that energy goes out into space, and about half of it returns to Earth as heat, contributing to the ‘greenhouse effect’ or the warming of the atmosphere.

Methane is even more effective at trapping heat while it is in the atmosphere. Over the first two decades after methane is released, it is more than 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide in terms of warming. It traps more heat in the atmosphere per molecule than carbon dioxide does. And it is responsible for more than 25 percent of the global warming we are experiencing today. (UN 2023)

Now I have given you a very simplified explanation of climate change but a good base to start with. But do read up more on climate change to get a deeper understanding. Now let’s look at how horses have handled climate change events in history thousands of years ago!

About 50,000 years ago when Earth last experienced a global warming episode, which was natural and not man-made, many species went extinct including some horse species! The Przewalski, domestic horses, donkeys, and Onagers survived this period by migrating towards the North Pole.

Now don’t freak out! I am not saying pack your horses and move to the North Pole! I am just giving you some background to understand that horses are hardy and can survive some pretty crazy stuff! But we do need to understand their limits and how their behaviors change during these periods and help them out! And I am sure many of you have already seen some of these changes in your own horses during these extreme and unusual weather patterns!

So since we know that ancient horses survived by moving someplace cooler, it is important to take from that information that our horses now will probably not do well in extreme heat waves! And you may have already seen this first hand! When strong heat waves go through, our horse's behavior becomes dull, they want to stay in the shade, not move much, they may not eat much and they will drink a ton!

The majority of heat loss in people and horses occurs at the body surface. A horse is 6-7 times larger than us but only has 2.5 times more skin surface – this is great for keeping warm in cold weather but not optimal for getting rid of body heat in hot weather. But they have evolved to sweat more than any other animal which helps with their cooling process. And they are able to tolerate much higher body temperatures than we can, to a point! So while we would be very ill if our body temperature was 104F, a horse can tolerate a temperature of about 108F for short periods of time. Emphasis on short periods of time!

When those hot days end up staying around for a while, heat stress and heat stroke become huge issues, especially for horses that have health issues that prevent them from sweating and horses that have breathing issues.

And the big question I always get asked is will it get too hot for horses? And my best-educated answer is that in some areas yes it will be too hot especially if you add in humidity. Some areas will be too hot for horses with health issues and older horses that cannot effectively keep their internal body temperatures. And we may end up seeing only people that have money, really well-made barns with air conditioning and access to large amounts of water be able to have horses in those areas.

Research has found if we have extreme warming of the earth and do not do more to lessen fossil fuel emissions, areas down in the south and southwest will see about six months out of the whole year above 95 degrees! (Rhodium Group 2020) That is intense and dangerous especially if people do not have the means for themselves and their animals to stay cool!

But some horses already can handle some intense heat!

Arabian horses are built to handle the extreme heat. They were bred in the Arabian Peninsula to survive in these harsh hot climates, breeders chose horses with several unique characteristics. Most notably, their nostrils have large openings for heat dispersal, and they have added capacity in their sinuses to increase oxygen intake. They are also thinner and more angular so they do not give off a lot of heat.

The Thoroughbred is also another breed that can do better in strong heat because it has similar features to Arabians since their lineage goes back to a stock of Arabian horses imported into England.

And one last interesting breed that is good with the heat is the Florida Cracker Horse, which is endangered. It is derived from the Spaniards’ horses that were brought over to the Americas. These horses are well-suited and resilient to the heat and rough terrain of the southern landscape.

Most of the rest of our horse breeds are derived from cool climates so we will need to support them when intense heat occurs. Meaning we need to continue what we are already doing now but we are going to have to notch this up by 1,000. In reality, many barns need to be rebuilt and redesigned to handle the heat. Specifically, we need to look at how equestrians in the Middle East and Africa care for their horses. We will need to have white or light colored roofs to reflect sunlight, attic fans to suck out air, and lots of ventilation! We will need to build more sheds out in their paddocks and the sheds will also need to have white or light colored roofs to help keep our horses cooler! It is likely we will need to keep our horses in the barn during the day more than what we currently do for heatwaves and the nights may not cool off either. Finally, we will need to start thinking of breeding more selectively for features that are better suited for heat, like those found in Arabians, if we want to have horses that can handle heat well.

There is so much more I can and will continue to talk about with regard to climate change and horses, but for now, I will leave you with this to chew over. Though the future may be rough ahead, if we talk about this and work together, we can make a future that is better for our horses, ourselves, others, and our earth.

Article submitted by Ashley Lorinsky

Ashley is a Horse Behaviorist, Environmental Consultant,

and the founder of Horse Chit Chat! LLC.



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