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Beat the heat with your horse this summer!

The saying goes, “you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink”.  Well in this weather it is essential that your horse gets adequate water to keep them hydrated.  And this can be quite tough in this weather.

We constantly hear that an excellent way to ensure that your horses are drinking plenty is making sure they have access to clean, fresh water at all times.  But that’s not enough.  On a 38 degree day have you gone out and felt the temperature of your horses water?  I did the other day and it was pretty warm, like them having a cup of tea!  And the ideal temperature of water is 7 – 18 degrees. But how do we avoid this?  If possible make sure that the water can be in a shady place.

Making sure there is adequate salt in the diet and having a salt lick will encourage them to drink.  Also wetting their feed and hay down is a way to get extra water in the diet.  Water doesn’t only keep the horse hydrated but if they are not drinking adequately because of the water temperature then they may also run the risk of getting impaction colic.

Are they sweating lots?  If you go and get your horse from the paddock and see what looks like salt on their coat it means they’ve been sweating.  If this is the case you really need to make sure they’re getting electrolytes as well.  You can add these to the feeds, or for fatties like mine you can use a product that goes in the water.  But introduce them slowly! For an extra special treat why not freeze some carrot and apple ice blocks for those extra hot days, or let your horse try some watermelon!  When riding you can also give your horse water during a ride.  It is a myth that this will cause colic.  Yes the stomach will distend but only with large volumes of water. Small amounts will not do this and will help the horse to stay hydrated.

Not having access to adequate shade is another reasons horses undergo heat stress and colic.  If you don’t have trees in your paddock, make sure there is somewhere the horse can get shelter such as a man made shelter or shade sail.  Mine have paddock shelters which they never use in winter but stand in all summer long!  It is much better to have something to protect the horse from the sun then the rain.  Can you imagine standing all day in an area without a hat on and not being able to get out of the glaring sun?  If your horse is on agistment and there is no shade in the paddock, see if they will let you put up a shade sail as they are cheap, easily erected and easy to remove.  I see a lot of horses out in paddocks with lovely green grass but not a speck of shade.  Now I know green grass is aesthetically pleasing, but I know what your horses internal body system would prefer.  If you have brick stables (with good ventilation) that horses go in over night then it is a good idea to reverse stable them in summer to keep them out of the direct heat.  Wood or colourbond stables may not provide the same benefit as they may not stay as cool during the hottest hours.  You could also hook some fans up in stables to move the air around, or misters are even better.

Signs that your horse might be undergoing heat stress include:

  • Lethargy
  • Panting (faster shallow breathing)
  • Nostril flaring
  • Sweat over the eyelids
  • Increased rectal temperature
  • Decreased appetite and thirst
  • Dark urine
  • Reduced urination
  • Reduced performance
  • Dark mucous membranes
  • Muscle spasms
  • “Thumps” (synchronous diaphragmatic flutter)
  • Abnormal (irregular) heart rhythm
  • Slow recovery after exercise

Summer rugs are a way you might try and protect your horse from the flies, or use to reflect the summer sun, as it does help to keep the body cooler if the sun is not making direct contact with the skin (if they are white).   But make sure to keep them off in humid weather, or have a breathable mesh rug as the horse will not be able to sweat as efficiently to keep themselves cool with a rug on.  In saying that though, mesh rugs are also an issue in themselves.  If you are putting a mesh rug on your horse in high uv make sure it’s a cotton mesh.  There are lots of synthetic or part synthetic rugs on the market and they actually absorb the heat rather then reflect it.  If you go out in the sun and touch your horses rug and it’s hot think about what they feel like underneath?  And the same can be said for flyveils.  Flyveils get really hot in high UV and sun.  In summer make sure your flyveil is a light colour and is cotton wherever it touches the horses skin.

This is all quite easy and straightforward but what about riding in the heat?  The best way to avoid the summer sun is riding in the early morning or evening, when the weather temperature is cooler and the sun is not directly overhead, but if you can’t manage this then make sure you cool them down after adequately.

Acclimatising your horse to being ridden in the heat is a whole other topic, but keep in mind if you’re going to be competing in summer then you need to acclimatise your horse to hot weather riding!  Don’t train them only in the cooler parts of the day and then expect them to handle a competition in 36degrees.  But in saying that, you also need to introduce them to hot weather riding slowly.  Acclimatisation takes 2-3wks of regularly exercising in the heat for the horse to adapt their thermoregulation.  Also take note that the first few rides will be the hardest, don’t make these your competition or club days!

The easiest way to cool your horse down is with a wash afterwards.  Now there is some debate about cooling horses after washing, “to scrape or not to scrape” down….Dr David Marlin states “Continuous application of water removes heat via conduction, which is the direct movement of heat from the horse into the water. This happens because of the difference in temperature between the horse, which has a surface temperature of 40°C or higher, and the water being poured onto them. Ideally the water should be between 10 and 25°C, but would be effective as long as it is cooler than the temperature of the horse. If the temperature of the water is the same as the horse, it will only cool by evaporation which takes longer than conduction”.  If the temperature of the water on the horse is still coming off warm though, then keep hosing them until the water comes off cooly.  This is different to aggressive cooling after XC where you probably don’t have access to constant cool water.  If you add a bit of vinegar or a liniment such as Penetrene to your wash it will cool down even quicker.  The same goes for your horses in a paddock.  If they look like they’re suffering, hose them off until the water comes off them cooly.

Beaches or other water bodies are also a fun way to play in the summer but there are a whole lot of risks to be had there as well.  Check out one of our other blogs on having fun at the beach here:

And just remember….. if you’re hot, chances are your horse is a lot hotter!

Author Jessica Blackwell

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