Signs of Overheating
On the trail, your horse’s comfort, health, and safety depend largely on your management. Is there shade on the trail you plan to take? Are there hills? Going uphill uses more of your horse’s energy and makes him hotter than flat trails do. Plan water stops. Know where the streams are, or arrange to water your horse at intervals along the way. Stop periodically, dismount, and unsaddle him.
On hot summer rides, your horse is at risk for overheating despite your measures to keep him cool. Here are signs to watch for to determine whether your horse is overheated. If you detect any one of these signs, take immediate steps to cool him down, and call your veterinarian. (For cool-down measures, see below.)
Stumbling. Take action if your horse appears fatigued, stumbling along slowly instead of striding out with his typical energy.
Lack of alertness. Your overheated horse will have dull eyes and will lack his usual alertness. He may hang his head, and his ears may droop.
Change of mood. Your overheated horse may seem to be in a bad mood, putting back his ears at any request from you.
Elevated body temperature. Check your horse’s temperature along the ride and post-ride. Is it higher than normal? If it’s 102 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, cool him down and call a veterinarian.
Elevated pulse and respiration. Don’t worry if your horse breathes a little faster for a minute or two after extra exertion or if his pulse is a little quick. But if his elevated respiration and pulse rate last longer than a couple of minutes, take immediate steps to cool him.
Dehydration. Test for dehydration with a skin pinch: Pinch some skin on your horse’s neck so that it forms a tiny tent, then let go, and count the seconds. If the skin snaps right back into place, good — he’s hydrated. If it takes more than two seconds (count them) for his skin to flatten, he’s dehydrated. If it takes longer, he’s even more dehydrated.
Slow capillary refill time. To check your horse’s capillary refill time, push your thumb against his gum, which should be pink, then lift your thumb and count the seconds while you watch the pink color return to the white area. He’s in distress if it takes more than three seconds for the pink color to return, or if his gums are gray instead of pink.
Lack of sweat. If your hot horse isn’t sweating, he’s suffering from anhidrosis (the inability to sweat when necessary), a serious condition.
Before you leave the barn, groom your horse thoroughly, so that the products you use will provide better coverage. Then bring on your arsenal. For optimal effectiveness, follow these tips.
Choose your weapons. Choose pestcontrol products according to your individual needs. If your horse needs leg protection, or already has some bites or other wounds, a thicker gel product may be more effective than a thinner spray-on. If you’re heading out for a full day’s ride, you’ll get more long-lasting protection from an oil-based product than from a water-based one. On long rides, consider a water- and sweat-resistant repellent.
Tack up first. Apply the product after tacking up, so that you won’t waste product or put your horse’s tack on top of chemicals. The heat, pressure, and friction that build up under tack could combine with those chemicals to cause skin irritation.
Apply with care. Read the manufacturer’s directions about how best to apply the product, not only whether to use it full-strength or diluted, but how much of it to use, and exactly where on your horse’s body to use it. On long rides, carry a roll-on or wipe-on product and re-apply as needed. Avoid applying chemical repellent over your horse’s eyes, where it could run down and irritate his eyes’ sensitive tissues.
Get physical. Fly masks, bonnets, sheets, and leg wraps can help keep biting insects away from your horse. Some fly masks come with ear covers and nose shields that provide near full-face coverage. Consider getting a fly cape — essentially, a mesh version of a quarter sheet — designed to protect your horse’s sides and rump while he’s under saddle. If you ride in a particularly bug-prone area, consider investing in the Crusader Bug Armor, full-body insect barrier from Cashel Company. This two-piece “mesh armor” ties to your bridle and saddle, providing coverage in front of and behind the saddle, and effectively screening your horse from just behind his ears to his hocks.
Hang shoo flies. Hang horsehair shoo flies — tassels made from horsehair or narrow leather strings — from your horse’s bridle, breastcollar, cinch, saddle, and stirrups.
Go natural. Your horse’s own mane and tail are effective fly whisks, so leave them loose. The hair on his ears, inside and outside, helps protect him from insects, so if you’re thinking of “tidying his ears” with the clippers, don’t. If his ear hair is already clipped, apply a fly bonnet or fly mask with ears. Or, carefully rub insect-repellent lotion, gel, or cream on (and in) his ears.
Your horse isn’t the only one in need of protection from biting insects; you also need to keep them away. You don’t want to be distracted and uncomfortable on rides, and you’re also susceptible to insect-borne diseases, such as Lyme disease and West Nile virus. Here are some bugs-off tips for you.
Dress for heat. Wear light-colored, long sleeved-shirts, long pants tucked into your boots, and a hat with a wide brim. Consider clothing with built-in pest repellent.
Cover up. Cover exposed skin surfaces with your favorite insect repellent, and carry some with you to re-apply as needed.
Ward off mosquitoes. If mosquitoes are a problem, use an EPA-registered repellent that contains DEET, and ride at midday rather than at dawn or dusk, when mosquitoes are most active.
Check for ticks. Check yourself for ticks, especially your hairline and just behind your ears.
Keep bees at bay. Avoid wearing things that attract bees, such as bright-colored clothing and cologne. Wear earth tones, which bees don’t find appealing. Avoid flower- and citrus-scented shampoo, conditioner, and even repellents when going on late-summer trail rides.
Electrolytes are body salts that break down into positive or negative ions when they dissolve. Those ions let cells “fire up” to do their job. Different salts are necessary for different cells, but they all work together in a precise balance that controls nearly every function of the body — especially nerves and muscles. They also help signal to a horse that he’s thirsty.
Electrolytes are primarily lost through sweat when horses overheat, overwork, or overstress. Sweat is actually a form of natural air conditioning that lowers body temperature by evaporating on the skin. Blood transfers heat from the body core up closer to the skin, which is then cooled by that evaporating sweat.
In a frustrating cycle, the hotter your horse gets, the more blood is needed to lower his body temperature. But some of the liquid needed for that cooling sweat is pulled from — the blood. This lowers blood volume. So, as the demand for blood volume increases, the amount of fluid available for that blood decreases, as more and more water is sweated away.
That sort of loss maintained over many hours without electrolyte support and a great deal of water produces dehydration and electrolyte imbalance. Depending on how severe this gets, the result can be extreme fatigue; muscle cramps; colic; heart problems; interference with communications between brain, nerves, and muscles; and eventual collapse.
If you decide to give your horse electrolytes, here are a few tips. Read the label. The best commercial preparations contain sodium, chloride, potassium, calcium, phosphorus, and magnesium. Some add other trace minerals and nutritional supplements. Others add sugar, flavors, and various “fillers,” which might make the supplement more palatable to your horse. However, too much sugar (anything that ends in “ose”) actually interferes with electrolyte assimilation. Do not give electrolytes containing bicarbonate, which is formulated for horses with diarrhea. Time it right. Relatively low levels of electrolytes should be administered the night before (essentially to get your horse to tank up on water), then an hour or so before you start to trailer-load or ride. If the stress will last all day, plan on giving electrolytes every three to four hours, with more at the end and a bit more for a day or two after. Consider the formulation. Electrolyte powders can be added to feed and/or water. Drinking just electrolyte-laced water can actually lead to more dehydration, so always provide ample fresh water, as well. Pastes are squeezed directly onto the back of the tongue. For horses with nimble upper lips that can separate powders from their dinner, you can buy gels that will stick to grain.
Fly masks, bonnets, sheets, and leg wraps can help keep biting insects away from your horse. Left to right: SmartPak Deluxe Fly Boots; SmartPak Classic Fly Mask; SmartPak Deluxe Fly Sheet.
On the trail, plan water stops. Know where the streams are, or arrange to water your horse at intervals along the way.
Your horse loses electrolytes (body salts) through sweat.