Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Too Hot to Trot, or Canter or Walk for that matter.

So is August hot enough for everyone? I am not sure about the rest of the planet, but for the United States this summer has been brutal. Even temperate Southern California has had unusually high temperatures and humidity which is very rare in this usually arid climate.

As you all know, I teach and ride professionally and summer is the time of year when I travel a fair amount to teach clinics and camps and boy have I had more than my desired share of humidity this year. Houston in June was nearly unbearable and Lexington, Kentucky last week was like a sauna in hell if you ask me. So at Alison's suggestion, my post today will be to share suggestions and warnings about caring for horse's in hot weather and the dangers of heat stress.

The Basics

First of all (and yes I know I am stating the obvious) the number one important thing is that your horse have access to unlimited amounts of cool and CLEAN water. In hot weather a horse's water consumption can be as high as 20 gallons or more of water per day. If their water is not clean, which algae in these conditions can grow in as little as a few hours, the horse will often drink less than they may want because of a bad taste. Most of my water tubs are about 50 to 100 gallons in capacity and they are dumped and cleaned every other day during the summer.

Also many horses will not drink water that is excessively warm (would you?) so try to either move your horse's water out of the direct sun or make sure it is in a large enough tub/trough that will not heat up as much as a smaller bucket might. I am also NOT a fan of automatic waterers, especially the metal bowl type, because the small portion of water will get very hot in the sun as well as the metal. Even if the horse is not being ridden, not drinking enough will lead to dehydration and that will lead to colic. With automatic waterers you also cannot tell if your horse is not drinking sufficiently and therefore cannot not head off a problem before it gets to the critical stage.

The Pinch test

You can check your horse for dehydration by using your forefinger and thumb to pinch and pull the skin on the side of your horse's neck. If the skin snaps back in place when released his hydration level is most likely normal. If the skin is slow to form back to the neck, he is dehydrated.

If your horse is not a good drinker (and I don't mean beer or margaritas) you can try adding water to their feed supplements to make a watery gruel. That is why I have always been a fan of using beet pulp for many horses because it has to be soaked and is a great way of getting more water into their system. I also add water to hay pellets etc. and add carrots/apples to entice the horses. Be careful not to use too much wheat bran for a mash in some areas. For example, in California, most vets strongly recommend against wheat bran (not to be confused with rice bran) because the high mineral content in wheat bran can contribute to intestinal stones. Electrolytes or salt can also help to encourage a horse to drink and replenish essential minerals lost in sweat, but be careful not to over supplement (no more than 1 tablespoon per day) because minerals like sodium, potassium, calcium and magnesium can also be damaging and even toxic if over fed.

Shade of some degree is essential for not only your horse's comfort but also to prevent sun burn and overheating. Every horse's coat will show some degree of sun damage in the summer unless they are kept in a box stall all day but a horse with a lighter coat or white markings can get severely sunburned if they have no access to shade. For horse's in pasture a tree(s) or hedge is fine for some relief, and horse's in small pens MUST have some cover especially since they can not move around freely as if in pasture. My pampered equines get a mix of pasture/turn-out during the day (and some sleep out at night) and they are either in they barn with fans or the outside paddocks have 3-sided shelters. Having your horse in the barn is not always the coolest spot, especially on humid stagnant days, unless your barn is well ventilated or has fans strong enough to move the air. Air movement is the key so your horse may be better off outside under a tree where there might be a hint of a breeze rather than in a barn with less ventilation.

Exercise and signs of heat stress.

Bottom line, if you are hot and uncomfortable - so is your horse. On extremely hot and humid days, leaving your horse in the corral may be the best thing for him. Even my competition horses that are on fitness regimens are given the day off on days over 100 degrees, especially if it is also humid. No amount of fitness is worth heat stroking my horse. During the summer in California, it tends to cool off most nights to at least the mid seventies, so the early hours of the day and late in the day are the most tolerable. So, I start my first horse between 6 or 7am on most days and hope to be done by 11 or 12pm and then start up again about 5 or 6pm and ride to dark if needed. Horse's that draw the short straw and are ridden when it is hotter are given more moderate exercise and I tend to ride the heavier horses, like warmbloods early in the morning while most of the thoroughbreds tolerate the heat much better. I do not have the luxury of a lighted arena or on some days I would ride after dark, although doing that can really mess with a horse's feed and sleep cycles so I try to avoid that.

Especially when conditioning the Event horses, heat stress can be a big concern. Even a light work out can lead to problems on extreme heat/humid days. I carefully monitor respiration while riding and allow for more breaks than I would on a cooler day. A tired horse will often become an injured horse whether your are doing dressage, or jumping or just hacking. Monitoring their sweat levels is also essential. It is when they stop sweating during exercise that can be an indication of a serious problem called Anhidrosis. The best means of checking for heat stress is to check their temperature with a rectal thermometer. Anything over 103.5 degrees Fahrenheit (39.8C) indicates potential heat stress. Normal temp on a horse is around 100.5F.

Heat stroke vs heat stress

Both heat stroke and heat stress can be life threatening to both horse and human. Heat stroke can come on quickly and is often seen with unfit horses ridden too strenuously in high ambient temperatures or with horses confined in poorly ventilated, hot horse trailers. Heat stress is more related to electrolyte and fluid loss during exercise. In either case, if left unchecked, continued heat build up can lead to exhaustion, muscle damage, neurological signs including seizures, serious damage to the heart and kidneys and in the case of severe dehydration and electrolyte imbalance - death.

Cool it off.

There are several things that you should do to cool off your horse, especially is you suspect heat stress. First, take off their tack and move them out of the direct sun. As soon as possible soak them down with cool (not cold) water and scrape the water off, and repeat this process continuously. It is in the removal of the water with a scraper that reduces the horse's body temperature, not just the water. Interspersing this process with slow walking with help prevent muscle cramping and allow for the release of heat from inside the horse's muscles. If you suspect the horse is "tying up" a metabolic imbalance that leads to severe muscle cramping and breakdown, do not walk the horse, keep the horse quiet and call a vet!

Fans can also help cool off a horse quickly and misters are even better. I have a couple of big fans that run in my barn isle while we are untacking horses and they also help the rider's feel better too.

Also, don't be fooled by what I call the "Black Beauty" factor. Except in case of hard galloping exercise like racing or wind sprints, you can offer your horse water immediately following exercise without the risk of colic or founder. Most people remember the book or film Black Beauty where the horse coliced because he drank after being ridden hard. Great fiction, but it is actually better to have the horse drink up to 2 or 3 gallons during his initial 15 minutes of recovery when he may want the water more then, than later.

Our horses will become more acclimated to heat as the season progresses so be patient and just about the time you think you have had enough, the days will get shorter, their hair will get longer and before we know it we will all be grousing about the rain, cold and mud.

I hope this information is helpful, happy riding and stay cool!


Kelly (ridegroomfeed) said...

Great suggestions! Perhaps we could organise a weather-share arrangement so that your unusually hot summer could balance out the very unusual snow-fall some of us on the bottom half of the planet are experiencing ;-)

Terri Rocovich said...

Kelly, that would be a great idea. If I didn't believe in global warming before, I think certainly do after this wierd year of weather. Very wet and flooding in some areas of the country and hot/humid in others and unusual amounts of snow in other hemispheres. It would be nice if we could just even things out a bit but of course my California horses would not know what to do with snow.

Laura Crum said...

Terri--I noticed the odd weather patterns on my trip. We have done this trip a dozen times, always at the same time of year, and this year there were more thunderstorms, flooded rivers, and intense heat than I have ever seen. Things are changing.

Alison said...

Terri--thank you so much. I did not know about the warm water. I clean our tub every day and add fresh, but it gets warm quickly. Thanks for posting on this--you are the pro.