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Hot Weather – Helping your Horse to Cope

Hot Weather – Helping your Horse to Cope.

Horses have evolved to cope with cold weather much better than they are equipped to cope with the heat.   Even at rest, extreme summer conditions can cause horses to become overheated and uncomfortable and this could develop into heat stroke.   This is a very serious condition requiring Veterinary intervention.

In the wild, horses can protect themselves from the elements by moving to a place that is away from the worst weather conditions. Mountains, gullies and dense vegetation make very good shelter and windbreaks, and the herd environment offers adequate protection to keep wild horses comfortable.

In paddocks and yards, the domesticated horse may not have the option of finding natural shelter, so we must ensure that the horse does not become dehydrated, compromised or ill in high 30 – 40 degree days.

Here are some helpful hints and the signs you must look for that may warn that the horse is not coping and needs your help.

Adequate clean cool water is an important part of everyday management, but vital in heat wave conditions.

1.    Firstly, make sure that you take care of yourself, wear appropriate clothes, keep well hydrated and stay as cool as possible, you will not be able to look after your horse if you succumb to heat induced fatigue or heat stroke.  Change out of hot riding clothes as soon as you’re riding is done, but be sure to always wear appropriate and safe footwear when you are handling your horse.

2.    Your horse must have plenty of fresh clean water.  Ensure that the water has not been contaminated with bird droppings or an animal/bird falling in and contaminating the supply.  If possible, keep the water cool.  If the trough is tall and you have ponies or foals, ensure that they can reach the water when the level goes down.

3.    Be sure that you keep your horse inside or move your horse to a paddock with shade and protection from the hot afternoon sun as direct radiant heat adds many degrees to the stated temperatures quoted by the Weather Bureau.

4.    Sponge or hose your horse away from the beating sun to provide some relief.  It will really help to hose the neck, belly and legs.  Do not persist with hosing the horse’s head if it is not readily accepted, as keeping the horse calm and at ease is important.

5.    If the horse must be ridden or trained on an excessively hot day, ensure that you start early in the morning and attend to a thorough cooling down procedure.

6.    Cool wraps or ice packs applied to the legs provide an excellent and accelerated cooling process.  Ensure that the horse’s legs are protected from the direct application of ice and do not leave ice wraps for longer than recommended, as too much of a good thing can also be harmful.

7.    When the horse has finished work and cooled down, offer small sips of cool water to help them recover and curb thirst.  An additive such as molasses may entice the horse to drink and replacing lost fluids is nature’s way of cooling down.

8.    Horses will sweat more readily in hot weather and lose important body salts that are important to recovery.  It is prudent to add electrolytes to water (or other administration methods may be preferable such as syringe or powder added to feed). This is particularly important for horses in training for coming competitions when the maintenance of peak condition and fitness is important.

9.    Sick horses could be compromised in their ability to stay cool and it may be necessary to confine the horse in a stable or loose box and sponge regularly and set up an electric fan (even better, a misting fan) to blow cooling air over the horse.  This can be of great benefit in the really hot part of the day.  Your Vet will advise if prescribed medications could raise the horse’s temperature or are likely to have an affect on your horse’s natural cooling ability.

10. Horses with white noses are prone to sunburn and it is important to provide protection by way of a layer of zinc cream, SPF 50 or other special sunburn preventative, on a daily basis.  Saddleworld stores have many protection options that are very effective.  If the horse gets a sunburned nose or nostrils, the skin will blister and form painful scabs.  Untreated and unprotected it can develop into an ongoing condition that is very difficult to manage. A nose protection guard can be fitted to the halter and are ideal for horses turned out in a paddock.

11. Horses are troubled by flies and insects during hot weather and a fly veil and very light fly sheet can help to minimise the discomfort of   biting or flying inspects which can add to the distress of hot weather.
Saddleworld have a range of summer rugs to protect your horse and also allow for airflow.

12. For horses particularly bothered by flies, insect repellents can provide extra and most welcome relief, but these need to be applied daily.

Heat stroke is a serious complication of overheating and if the horse does not respond to the above cool down procedures the vet should be called.  Intravenous fluids will more than likely be recommended to ensure that the horse’s system can cope and does not go into shut down.

The symptoms of heat stroke are:

                      Elevated respiration.  A horse at rest will take 4-15 breaths per minute. If you suspect that your horse’s rate is too high, count the breaths and repeat the test several times when the horse has been moved into the shade and other cooling procedures have been performed.

                      Elevated heart rate (pulse) in an inactive horse, pulse that does not drop after several minutes, or climbs once exercise has stopped.
A normal resting horse has a heart rate of 38-40 beats per minute, foals (70-120 bpm), yearlings (45-60 bpm) and 2 year olds (40-50 bpm). Maximum heart rates can exceed 180 beats per minute, but a rate above 80 should be considered serious in most non-exercising horses.

                      Profuse sweating or no sweating at all. If your have not owned or cared for the horse long enough to have got to know the pattern of behavior, no sweating (in hot conditions where you would expect the horse to sweat) can indicate a very serious ailment known as anhidrosis.  The warning here is not to imagine that the horse is not feeling the heat because it is not sweating.  Call a vet if you suspect any irregularities in a normal sweating response.

                      Elevated body temperature above 103F.

                      An irregular heartbeat can be a warning that the horse is not able to cope with the heat or is not recovering normally.

                      A depressed attitude will manifest in lethargy, lack of appetite or unwillingness to drink.  If you observe any of these symptoms make further investigations.

                      Dehydration. By observing your horse’s flanks you will see that signs of dehydration. A caved in look can be the first indicator.  You can take a pinch of skin along your horse’s neck and it will return to its normal shape almost immediately, if the horse is well hydrated.  In a dehydrated horse, the pinch will remain (as though the inner surfaces of the skin are slightly adhesive) and return to normal quite slowly.

At many horse events that may be affected by extreme weather conditions, large misting fans are used to help bring the horse’s temperature back to normal and help recovery.

What you can do while waiting for the Vet. Be sure that you confine the horse in the coolest, shadiest place possible.  Use a breezeway or fans to keep air circulating after sponging the horse to maximize the cooling effect.

If you have a shallow pond, pool or water source, stand the horse in water.  Alternatively (and if the horse’s temperament allows) stand each leg in a deep bucket of cold water and refresh the supply to keep it cool.

Australia is a country known for its extremes, so a several heat wave days can be expected over each summer period.  Be sure that you are well prepared for the worst and have a “heat stress strategy” noting the things you may need to help your horse to recover from work or cope with excessively hot weather. 

Saddleworld Stores (go to www.saddleworld.com.au for locations) carry a wide range of health care products, light rugs, fly veils and nose guards and can advise you of the available options in electrolytes, and other additives to help your horse recover. You will also find a range of animal friendly, long lasting sun block products to ensure that sunburn is prevented.

Summer can be a happy time for horses and their owners, long days, lots of equestrian activities and holidays which will often include horses, so make the most of the good things and be prepared for the seasonal dangers that Summer can bring.  Happy riding from Saddleworld.  (www.saddleworld.com.au)

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