With temperatures set to rise even higher over the next few days, it is important to ensure your horse or pony is able to cope with the heat. Here is some useful management advice to consider during the summer months.
Water and Electrolytes
Your horse or pony should always have access to a clean and plentiful supply of water. During hot weather, their water intake will increase significantly compared to cooler conditions. If there are several horses in a field, ensure there is more than one source of water to so that dominant horses don’t prevent thirsty horses that are lower down the hierarchy from having access to the water trough.
When travelling and competing your horse or pony, always take plenty of fresh water. If you are going on a long journey, make sure you stop regularly to offer your horse a drink and to check that the horse is not overheating. For those that don’t drink well, consider adding apple juice or peppermint cordial to flavour the water to increase their water intake.
Electrolytes are minerals (sodium, potassium, chloride, calcium, and magnesium) that dissolve in the blood and tissues of the body to create a 'salt'. They help to preserve the correct balance of fluids in the body’s cells and are involved in muscle function and the processing of wastes. Electrolytes are lost daily through sweating, in urine and in faeces and those losses will increase significantly during exercise or competition, especially during hot weather. Deficiencies cause dehydration, impaired performance and may exacerbate clinical problems such as azoturia (tying up). Adding an electrolyte supplement to your horse's diet will encourage him to drink and help to restore any electrolyte imbalances caused by sweating associated with exercise or travel. After a period of excessive sweating it may take several days of electrolyte supplementation to completely replenish losses. However, electrolytes should not be fed in large amounts if the horse is not fed these regularly. It is recommended initially to add 50g of a balanced electrolyte split between two feeds, or in water (N.B. follow label instructions to avoid overfeeding electrolytes). Some horses may not drink water containing electrolytes, so plain water should also be made available. Electrolytes can also be administered in pastes, which can be useful if given at or after a competition.
Allow horses access to a salt block or receive a daily salt supplement (no more than a tablespoon per day) to allow them to meet their dietary sodium chloride requirements.
Exercise, Travel and Competing
When temperatures suddenly rise, horses will not be acclimatised to working in those conditions and preferably should not be worked during the hottest part of the day. Try to exercise your horse early in the morning or later in the evening, when temperatures are lower than during the middle of the day.
The same applies when travelling – trailers and lorries can become extremely hot, particularly if they are standing stationary in traffic. Unless you have air conditioning or a cooling fan in the horse area of your lorry, your horse can become overheated and dehydrated in a short period of time.
When competing in very hot conditions, allow a shorter warm-up period and be prepared for your horse to tire more quickly. Offer water after warming up, before competing and immediately after competing to reduce the risk of heat related health issues. Adrenaline will also be higher in hotter conditions and horses that are working hard and sweating for prolonged periods will be more at risk from heat stress, dehydration, electrolyte imbalance and muscle damage.
Use plenty of cold water to cool horses down after exercise, applied by a hosepipe or using sponges and buckets. Excess water should be scraped off to prevent it from trapping heat on the horse’s body and potentially increasing the horse's temperature, particularly if using buckets and sponges. Using a hosepipe or buckets of water with ice added will have a greater cooling effect and will lower the horse’s body temperature more quickly. However, research by Dr David Marlin, who led studies on thermoregulation in the build-up to the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games, showed in one study that if you are using cold water (15 degrees or less, 5 degrees is ideal), it doesn't need to be scraped off for it to be effective in cooling the horse, particularly horses exhibiting signs of heat exhaustion/heatstroke: it is more important to continuously apply cold water all over the horse's body and it may be 10-15 mins before you may see any effect. It is recommended that the horse be walked for short periods until it has cooled down in order to prevent muscle spasms.
Heat stroke, also known as heat exhaustion or hyperthermia, is a condition that occurs with horses performing intensive levels of work in excessively hot or humid conditions. When the horse is unable to lose body heat, its body temperature goes up rapidly, causing severe (and sometimes fatal) health issues. Therefore, heat stress must be treated promptly and properly.
Common causes of heat stroke are:
- Intense/excessive exercise
- Increased physical stress
- Respiratory diseases
Signs of heat stroke are:
- Heavy breathing/panting
- Rapid pulse/breathing
- Excessive sweating
- Dark urine/reduced urination
- Rectal temperatures higher than 103.5°F (about 39.8°C)
- Reduced/poor performance
- Abnormal (irregular) heart rhythm
- Muscle spasms
- Slow recovery after exercise
If your horse displays any of these signs during periods of extreme heat, it is important to use aggressive cooling methods to reduce the horse’s temperature and to call your vet as it might be necessary to administer intravenous electrolytes. Severe heat stroke can lead to collapse, renal failure, muscle damage, liver damage and laminitis and can be fatal if not treated immediately. Always seek veterinary help if you suspect a case of heat stroke.
Shelter and Insect Protection
It is important to provide adequate shelter with good ventilation to protect your horse or pony from the heat and biting insects. Many horse owners will bring their horses in during the day during the heat of the summer and turn them out at night when it is cooler. Ensure the stable has good ventilation and is as free from dust as possible. If you don’t have access to a stable, ensure there is adequate shade in the paddock, either from trees or by providing a field shelter.
Horseflies and other biting insects can be a big problem at this time of year and it is important that horses are offered some protection from these with fly rugs, masks and insect repellent. Use a well fitting rug that it is lightweight, breathable and light in colour to reflect the heat. Ensure fly masks are fitted correctly and don’t rub or make contact with the horse’s eyes.
It is important to remove manure from fields regularly, not only to prevent worm contamination but also to discourage flies.
Horses with areas of pink skin are susceptible to sunburn and these areas (frequently on the face and limbs) require a high factor sun protection cream to be applied regularly to prevent redness, blistering, discomfort and peeling. In severe cases where skin is blistered or raw, seek veterinary advice.
Repeated skin damage can possibly lead to longer-term problems: thickening and scaling on the surface of the skin (keratosis), which can sometimes transform to skin cancer.
Masks that cover the head and muzzle may provide some relief and fly protection rugs can help shield horses with more widespread sensitive areas.
If you have any concerns about heat-related health issues in your horse or pony, contact your vet immediately for advice.
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