While the sun’s glorious rays may leave us jumping for joy, and our saddles, we must be vigilant about ensuring our horses’ well-being. Here are some top tips to avoid the dreaded heat stroke, and ensure our four-legged friends have as much fun in the sun as we do!
What is heat stroke?
Heat exhaustion is characterised by:
1. An elevated body temperature (hyperthermia; a temperature exceeding 41oC/105 F);
2. An elevated heart rate (tachycardia; the normal heart rate of a horse is 36 – 42 beats per minute, although this may be higher in smaller ponies)
3. An elevated respiratory rate (tachypnoea – exceeding the normal 8 – 12 breaths per minute);
4. A tired, unresponsive horse;
5. The horse’s gums will feel dry and tacky; if you press on them, the area under pressure will turn white, and the time to return to normal colour will be longer than in a non-thermally stressed horse. Vets may describe this as a capillary refill time in excess of 3 seconds.
If there is no intervention, the condition may escalate to heat stroke where the horse may stagger, appear depressed or, in extreme cases with central nervous system damage, collapse and have convulsions. This is a serious medical emergency that we have the ability to prevent.
So how do I keep my horse cool in summer?
1. Water, water, everywhere!
Often, people believe the old wives’ tale that they should not allow a hot horse to drink water; however water is essential to maintain adequate hydration status. Horses sweat to lose excess body heat; the heat of their body then evaporates this water, leaving their skin colder.
Excessive sweating without enough water to drink leads to dehydration, which can be very dangerous, causing a drop in blood pressure and an increased heart rate. Thus cool, clean water must be provided at all times, especially in outdoor grazers, to ensure they can replenish their hydration states.
2. Elect to keep your horse cool.
When horses sweat, they lose essential salts from their body, known as electrolytes. Notably, horses lose proportionally more potassium in sweat than other mammals. Offering water with added electrolytes or a salt lick may be advisable. Salt stimulates thirst receptors in the horse’s brain, so may have an added effect of encouraging them to drink. If providing electrolyte-infused water, ensure that there is ample fresh water available, as some horses dislike the taste (have you ever had Dioralyte? I can’t say I blame them!).
3. Shady characters
Horses in the wild and our domesticated critters will seek shade when turned out. Natural shade such as trees can be a great advantage. Bear in mind that the position of the sun changes throughout the day; ensure that your horse has protection from all angles of the sun, whatever the time.
4. Cool runnings
Anyone who has been running in the searing midday heat has experienced the unpleasant (and in my case, unattractive) phenomenon of being sweaty, red-faced and exhausted. Horses’ huge muscles will generate enormous amounts of heat. Try to time your rides for cooler times of the day, such as early mornings or evenings. If you are lucky enough to have access to beaches or woodlands, these cooler areas can be ideal for summer strolls.
5. Lose a coat like it’s going out of fashion!
Horses wear their beautiful coats all year round, but generally have a much lighter summer coat. However, some ponies, for example native breeds, will naturally have a heavier summer coat. Additionally, horses and ponies suffering from Cushing’s syndrome may have hirsutism – failure to shed their winter coat. In such cases, clipping may be advisable, to ensure they are not excessively insulated.
6. Mystical creatures
Misting your horse with cool water will help your horse to lose heat from the skin by evaporative cooling.
7. Splash about
For many horses, a tepid bath can be most enjoyable. Be sure to use a sweat-scraper to remove excess water. If you choose to wash post-exercise, walking your horse gently in a cooler will prevent a sudden drop in temperature and aid in an effective cool down.
8. Ice queen
Adding ice to water can be refreshing for your horse, though excessively cold water may put him off drinking it. Ice packs are frequently applied to horses’ legs after intensive exercise, and there is no reason why this should not continue to be practiced throughout summer.
9. Be your horse’s biggest fan
American-barn style stables often have excellent ventilation. If it is safe (i.e. without trip, electrical or fire risks), using a fan in a stable with no air flow can help to keep your horse comfortable.
10. Always wear sunscreen
Baz Luhrmann may not have been targetting horse-owners, but the 1999 hit rings true; animals with pale areas of skin are particularly susceptible to sun-burn. Think especially of cremellos, pink noses, white socks, pink sheaths and pink anuses – areas under the tail are more susceptible than you may think when your horse deploys his best fly-swatter while grazing in summer! Some owners elect to use specific horse suncreams which are available, and some will use high SPF human suncreams. Whichever you decide, be sure to ensure that your horse is not allergic to any of the ingredients before applying liberally.
All of us here at VetDirect wish you and your horses a very happy, healthy summer!
“Horses make a landscape look beautiful” – Alice Walker.