Physiological, behavioral, and serological responses of horses to shaded or unshaded pens in a hot, sunny environment

K. E. Holcomb, C. B. Tucker, Carolyn Stull

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

21 Scopus citations


Housing recommendations for horses invariably include providing access to shade on hot, sunny days, but the potential benefits have not been scientifically studied. This experiment measured physiological, behavioral, and serological responses of horses confined individually to completely shaded (SH) or completely unshaded (SUN) drylot pens during the summer in Davis, CA. Twelve healthy adult horses in a crossover design experienced both treatments for 5 d each. Rectal temperature, respiration rate, skin temperature, and sweat scores were recorded hourly from 1230 to 1730 h daily. Observations were recorded from 1200 to 1800 h for proximity to water, foraging, locomotion, and insect avoidance behaviors. Daily blood samples were obtained to measure cortisol, hematocrit, and neutrophil- to-lymphocyte ratio. Automated and handheld sensors were used to record environmental conditions. The mean ambient temperature from 1200 to 1800 h during the study was 30.6°C. Rectal temperature was greater for horses in SUN than for SH (mean 37.8°C and 37.5°C, respectively, SE = 0.06, P = 0.002) as was respiration rate (25.5 and 20.5 breaths/min, SE = 1.3, P = 0.008), and skin temperature (35.6°C and 34.6°C, SE = 0.1, P < 0.001). Horses in SUN showed sweat in 51.4% of observations vs. 1.1% for horses in SH. Horses in SUN spent more time than SH horses standing near their water source (34.0% of observations vs. 20.2%, SE = 0.3, P = 0.004). No differences were observed for foraging, locomotion, or insect avoidance behavior (P > 0.05). Cortisol concentrations were greater in SUN than SH (3.4 and 2.6 μg/dL, respectively, P < 0.001) but remained within the normal range for resting horses. No treatment differences were observed for hematocrit or neutrophil-to-lymphocyte ratio (P > 0.05). Horses exhibited treatment differences in the physiological measures first, most notably in rectal temperature at 1230 h, corresponding to peak solar radiation. Behavioral responses followed these physiological changes, with treatment differences in time standing near water becoming apparent at 1400 h as ambient and black globe temperature increased. Our results indicate that both the SH and SUN treatment groups exhibited thermoregulatory responses to these summer conditions and horses benefited from shade, as it mitigated these physiological and behavioral changes. These results are applicable in developing best management practices for the care of domestic horses.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)5926-5936
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Animal Science
Issue number12
StatePublished - Jan 1 2013
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Food Science
  • Animal Science and Zoology
  • Genetics


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