Summer horse-care strategies
Here are seven ways to help your horse cope with the stresses that hot weather can bring.
Here are seven ways to help your horse cope with the stresses that hot weather can bring.
Summer may be the best season to be a horse owner. Longer days mean more time for riding, horses with sleek summer coats clean up easily and dressing for barn chores doesn’t involve rain gear or long underwear. Unless you live in an area of extreme heat, this time of year can be ideal for enjoying your horse.
But summer isn’t the easiest time to be a horse. The blazing sun, aggressive insects and drought-hardened pastures common during this season can take a toll on equine comfort and health. It falls to you to anticipate, identify and address potential problems even as you make the most of the warm weather. Here are seven ways you can help your horse cope with summer stresses, making the months ahead more enjoyable for everyone.
1. KEEP YOUR HORSE HYDRATED
Not surprisingly, summer is the season when dehydration in horses is most common, as fluid loss through sweating outpaces water intake through drinking. A deficiency in fluid levels can interfere with a horse’s ability to cool himself and lead to serious health problems.
To test a horse for dehydration, grab a fold of skin at the point of his shoulder (not the neck as you may have been taught years ago) and pull it outward. Let the skin go and count the seconds until it is flat again. In an adequately hydrated horse, the skin will snap back in one to two seconds. Any longer could indicate dehydration, so make sure he has fresh water available. A delay of more than six seconds warrants a call to your veterinarian.
“You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink” isn’t just an aphorism---it’s a practical truth. If your horse doesn’t seem to be drinking, find out why. First, make sure he has access to clean, appealing water at all times. Check buckets and troughs at least twice a day, and test your automatic waterers just as often to ensure they are delivering ample water on demand. Most horses with continual access to clean water will drink enough to stay hydrated regardless of the weather. On the other hand, if you hover next to your horse’s water bucket waiting for him to drink you may make him anxious enough to avoid it. Instead, provide water then walk away. If he doesn’t appear to be in distress, give him an hour or two before starting to worry. That much time won’t make a difference even if he is slightly dehydrated.
No matter how concerned you are, don’t try to force your horse to ingest water with a hose or syringe. You won’t get him to take in enough to improve his hydration level and there’s a very real risk of getting water into his respiratory system.
Standing water can become smelly and unappealing, so limit the amount in your pasture troughs to a three-day supply. An individual horse will, on average, drink about 12 gallons per day, so put out about 36 gallons per horse for a three-day period. Parttime turnout means the amount of water needed could drop by as much as a third. Of course, you never want to let the troughs run dry, so you’ll still need to check them twice daily, cleaning as necessary and topping off the available supply.
Ensure that your whole herd has
Contrary to popular belief, hosing down a hot horse with cool water will not cause muscle cramps, colic or laminitis.
access to the water in their pasture. Dominant horses may chase older or lower-ranking herd members away from troughs or lurk menacingly enough to prevent them from even approaching. If you suspect horses are being bullied away from water, the simplest solution may be to add another trough, some distance from the first, as an alternative. Failing that, move the bully to his or her own space leaving the rest of the horses free to drink as they please.
2. HELP HIM BEAT THE HEAT
Horses are built to conserve heat and they aren’t particularly good at regulating their body temperatures, which means they can quickly go from “hot” to “overheated.” A horse’s normal body temperature is between 99 and 101 degrees Fahrenheit. It increases when a horse exercises, of course, but it can also climb when he’s just standing in the hot sun. When a horse’s body temperature reaches 104 degrees, his metabolic system cannot function properly. At just one degree higher, 105 degrees, organs begin to shut down and circulatory collapse is a very real possibility. A heat-stressed horse sweats profusely (or not at all, but more on that later) and may even pant like a dog in an effort to dissipate heat. He will also appear dull and listless---uninterested in his surroundings and generally miserable.
If you believe your horse has heat stress, act quickly. Call your veterinarian right away, but take action as you wait for his or her arrival. Move the horse to a shady area, preferably with a breeze, and begin to hose or sponge him down with the coolest water available. The idea that putting cold water on a hot horse causes muscle cramps, laminitis or colic is a myth, so don’t worry about that. Focus your cooling efforts on areas where major blood vessels run close to the skin, such as the armpits, head and throatlatch area. After you drench the horse, scrape him dry and hose him down again. If you can stand him near fans as you work, even better.
At the height of a summer afternoon, a shady spot can provide welcome respite for horses. Make sure your run-in shed is large enough to accommodate your whole herd---and that dominant horses aren’t keeping others out. You may find that a second shelter is necessary to give each horse the opportunity to get out of the heat.
Make sure your run-in sheds are large enough to accommodate your whole herd.
The best sheds are deep enough to provide shade even as the sun moves across the sky.
Horses have a knack for finding the most comfortable location in a pasture on a hot day, whether in a run-in shed or under a stand of trees, so give them several shady options and trust their instincts. If you choose to leave a horse in his stall during the day, make sure the barn is properly ventilated with an adequate cross breeze; otherwise it will simply be a hot and stuffy space that he can’t escape.
Fans can be a boon for horses in hot weather, providing a refreshing breeze while helping to keep insects at bay. Many horses will learn to stand directly in the airflow of a fan, maximizing its benefit. Be careful, however, when choosing your fans. For example, avoid box fans designed for home use. They are unsafe for the dusty barn environment---they can easily short out and cause a barn fire. Instead, invest in agriculturalgrade fans and mount
them securely, out of reach of curious horses. In addition to individual stall fans, large floor fans---again designed for agricultural spaces---placed at the end of aisleways can keep air circulating through the building.
3. ADJUST FOR AIR QUALITY
The air quality index (AQI) is an important consideration for people with respiratory disorders during the summer months. This index, an indicator of ground-level ozone, particulate matter, heat and humidity, runs from 0 to 500 with corresponding color codes. Higher values are associated with more pollution and greater health concerns. On days when the AQI is high, children, the elderly and individuals with asthma or other health problems are advised to limit their physical activity. AQI considerations also apply to horses. Here’s what each color means and how to adjust accordingly: Green (AQI from 0 to 50) means the air quality is
As a horse sweats, he loses electrolytes, the minerals necessary for most of the body’s electrochemical processes.
good and all activities for all horses are appropriate.
Yellow (AQI from 51 to 100) indicates moderate air quality. Limit horses with acute heaves or those recovering from respiratory illness to slow walks.
Orange (AQI from 101 to 150) indicates the air is unhealthy for horses with a history of heaves, even if they aren’t in the midst of a flare-up. Limit the activity of these horses.
Red conditions (AQI from 151 to 200) are unhealthy for any horse. Ride only at a slow walk or skip riding altogether. ( Purple or maroon conditions---AQI from 201 to 500---are even worse.)
Even if they aren’t going to be ridden or otherwise worked, check on horses with a history of respiratory troubles during the heat of the day to ensure they are breathing comfortably. If a horse appears to be stressed or having trouble breathing, move him into a cooler environment if possible and call your veterinarian.
4. ENCOURAGE HIM TO SWEAT
Perspiration cools a horse through evaporation---as water is converted from a liquid to a gas, it absorbs energy from its surroundings. In this case, that energy is in the form of heat from the skin and the air just above. (Interestingly, only horses and primates cool themselves primarily through sweating.) When working in warm weather, horses produce about one gallon of sweat every 15 minutes. Sweating begins on areas covered by tack, then spreads to the chest, neck and between the hind legs. After a workout, it’s normal for a horse to sweat profusely, but a horse who sweats even when standing still may need some help staying cool and will appreciate being hosed down. Sweat appears on the head, flanks and top of the rump when a horse is extremely hot and may be at risk of heat stress.
A horse who does not sweat as much as his herdmates in the same environment---or who doesn’t sweat at all---may have anhidrosis, a dangerous failure of his thermoregulatory system. This condition increases the risk of heat stress and stroke, even in weather that doesn’t seem that hot. The cause of anhidrosis isn’t fully understood, but it is thought to be related to prolonged stimulation of the sweat glands in hot and humid conditions.
A horse with anhidrosis needs a lot of help staying cool. This means no work in hot weather and confinement indoors, near fans, with repeated cool baths during the day. Some owners and veterinarians report that nutritional supplements can help, but often the only solution is moving the horse to a cooler region. Many anhidrotic horses function well in more moderate climates and may even begin sweating again after several years.
As a horse sweats, he loses
Determine the suitability of footing by listening to your horse’s hoofbeats. Soft ground will muffle them. But if each of your horse’s steps “rings,” the ground may be too hard to be ridden over at speed.
electrolytes, which are minerals necessary for most of the body’s electrochemical processes. Electrolytes also play a key role in the movement of fluid in and out of cells, the absorption of nutrients and the regulation of the body’s fluid balance.
Forages and commercial feeds typically contain ample electrolytes, so a horse can replenish his stores through a regular diet. If a horse has been sweating for several hours, however, an electrolyte supplement can help speed his recovery. Remember, the cause of the sweat is irrelevant: A horse who sweats on the local trails is losing just as many electrolytes as one who sweats while running barrels.
Electrolytes are available as oral pastes or powders to top-dress on grain or add to water. Whichever form you choose, follow the manufacturer’s directions and make sure fresh water is available to the horse after administration.
5. PROTECT HIM FROM THE SUN
Just as time in the sun can leave your shoulders burnt and tender, your horse’s skin can be damaged by ultraviolet (UV) radiation. Most vulnerable is pink skin on a horse’s face that has only a sparse covering of hair, such as the muzzle or around the eyes. A horse’s sunburnt skin becomes inflamed and sore, just as yours does, and continual exposure can lead to cancerous growths, particularly around the eyes. You can protect your horse’s skin from sunburn and skin cancer by applying sunscreen formulated for animals daily or fitting him with a UV-blocking fly mask that has flaps extending down over the muzzle.
Sunlight can trigger a serious skin condition called photosensitivity. This reaction causes blistering of the skin, followed by the formation of tight, thin scabs that slowly peel away in a painful process. This reaction can occur in pink skin anywhere, so on a loudly colored pinto it can involve a large portion of the body.
Two types of photosensitivity occur in horses, each with different underlying causes: Primary photosensitivity typically results when a horse eats a plant that contains a photodynamic compound that reacts to the UV rays in sunlight. When these compounds circulate in the blood near the surface of unpigmented (pink) skin, the resulting chemical reaction damages tissue. Plants that cause photosensitivity include alsike clover and Saint John’s wort. In secondary photosensitivity, a horse has a damaged liver that cannot filter out photodynamic compounds, leading to the same reaction.
You’ll want to identify photosensitivity as soon as possible to provide relief for your horse. At the first sign of
Horses have a knack for finding the most comfortable locations in a pasture on hot days. If you leave your horse in his stall during the day, make sure the barn is properly ventilated with an adequate cross breeze.
crusting on pink skin, check to see if the crusts stop where dark hair begins. If they don’t, chances are you’re dealing with some other skin condition. If the crusts are limited to white patches call your veterinarian right away.
Treatment for photosensitivity starts by taking the horse off pasture that may contain alsike clover or other phototoxic plants and keeping him indoors, shielded from the sun, until his skin heals. In severe cases, your veterinarian may prescribe corticosteroids to help combat the inflammation and/or draw blood to check his liver function. Do not pick the scabs off the horse. Not only will this be painful, but it can lead to infection.
6. HELP HIM BATTLE BUGS
You’re well aware of the sprays, masks and sheets you can use to protect your horse against insects, but don’t forget that he comes naturally equipped to deal with bugs. Do what you can do to maximize his natural fly-fighting resources. For instance, allow his forelock to grow long enough to whisk pests away from his eyes with a toss of his head. Likewise, a tangle-free tail will combat flies better than a braided one, so clean and comb this natural fly swatter regularly and minimize the use of tail bags and wraps that inhibit its movement. Dust and mud are an effective barrier against insects so allow, and even encourage, your horse to roll regularly, even if it undermines your grooming efforts. Finally, turn your horse out with a friendly companion. Horses will often buddy up to keep away flies in summer, standing head-to-tail so they can swish flies from each other’s faces.
7. PROTECT HIS HOOVES
Dry conditions combined with continual stamping at flies can lead to hoof cracks during the summer. Keep up with regular farrier appointments to catch and address fissures before they become problematic. Small hairline cracks that extend only partially up the hoof are typically not a concern, but wide cracks or those that reach the coronary band can cause long-term hoof instability or affect new hoof growth. Treating cracks may involve specialized trimming and shoeing techniques, possibly combined with feeding a hoof supplement.
Although slick mud isn’t likely to be a problem, you still need to be mindful of the condition of footing during the summer months. Sunbaked, parched ground can become as hard as concrete, a surface you’d never consider galloping your horse across. Unforgiving footing can lead to hoof bruises and concussion injuries and/or contribute to the development of arthritis.
A good way to determine the suitability of footing is to listen: Soft ground will muffle hoofbeats, so if each step “rings,” it’s a good bet that the ground is too hard to be ridden over safely at speed. Stick to a walk until the footing improves. If your horse is prone to hoof bruises during the summer months, hoof pads or boots can protect his feet. Talk to your farrier about the best option.
Pretty much all of us look forward to summer riding, regardless of our preferred discipline or equestrian activity. But don’t get so caught up in the fun that you overlook the physical challenges horses face in warm weather. With careful management, you can keep your horse healthy and happy, allowing you both to get the most from the season.
THIRSTY: The average horse drinks about 12 gallons of water a day.
EASY DOES IT: If you decide to ride during hot, humid weather, stick to a slow walk.
VULNERABLE: Pink skin on a horse’s face is particularly susceptible to sunburn.