Summer Management of Your Equine Athlete
Summertime brings sunshine, horse shows (okay, okay maybe less of those in 2020), trail rides, and lots of time to spend with your four-legged friends. Summer is also time for some specific threats to your horse’s health including heat, bugs, and increased travel risks. Here are a few simple management tips that can help keep your horse safe and happy this summer.
Depending on your location in the United States, summer can bring sweltering temperatures. Horses can become overheated quickly and if pushed too hard can exhibit signs of heatstroke, tying up and colic to name a few. While temperatures in the Pacific Northwest are usually mild, horses that travel from here to warmer locations may be more prone to experiencing heat stress. Foals are also more sensitive to heat than adult horses and may require some additional attention in summer months to be sure they are able to stay cool.
To ensure your horse can maintain proper body temperature this season be sure they have access to fresh water at all times when not being ridden. Offer your horse a drink mid-ride or ride in areas where there is access to water so that your horse is able to cool off. Adding electrolytes to your horse’s water can help replace minerals lost during exercise and can encourage your horse to drink. Often in the hottest months, colic signs can be the result of dehydration which can lead to impactions
Dehydration can be difficult for the layperson to assess accurately. Pinching the skin at the base of your horse’s neck and releasing it (in hydrated horses) should result in the skin immediately going back to flat. If the skin stays tented this is a sign of excess moisture loss. Other signs of dehydration include tacky or dry gums, lethargy, and decreased salivation.
Heatstroke occurs when a horse’s body temperature reaches 105F. Signs of heatstroke include rapid breathing, rapid pulse, stumbling or weakness, and signs of dehydration with a refusal to eat or drink. In severe cases, horses can experience seizures and collapse. If the body is unable to cool itself there is a rapid loss of blood supply to muscles and internal organs, which can result in permanent damage. Assuring that your horse has plenty of breaks in exercise and cool baths can help reduce risk.
That old wives’ tale about bathing a hot horse in cold water causing tying up....that’s false. Coldwater conducts heat off of your horse and helps cool them quickly. Water aimed at areas where there are large blood vessels (such as on the insides of the front and back legs) will help cool circulating blood and bring a horse’s body temperature down safely.
Aside from increasing body heat, the sun can also burn horses with sensitive skin. This is especially true for those with white hair. Typically, sunburn is seen on the nose and face. In severe cases, it can cause blistering and oozing lesions. Several fly masks on the market offer UV protection for the face and can help prevent burns.
Bugs are in full force during summer months and with them come a whole host of diseases. To name a few: mosquitoes can carry the deadly West Nile Virus and Eastern/Western/Venezuelan Equine Encephalitis. Midges can cause sweet itch or summer dermatitis; barn flies can lay eggs resulting in maggots in wounds; horse flies and stable flies can transmit Anaplasmosis and Equine Infectious Anemia. Fly control is crucial in the summer months.
When aiming to control flies, most owners reach for fly spray. This is an essential element to your fly control arsenal, but it is even more important to manage horse manure. This means cleaning stalls and pastures regularly as well as cleaning around fences and areas where there is moisture present. Eliminating standing water sources will also help reduce fly burdens and decrease the amount of chemical fly control that is needed.
Horses with insect hypersensitivities often need additional measures such as fly masks and sheets, anti-histamines, or even steroids.
Even with the closing of many horse shows, owners are finding creative ways to ride and show their horses this summer, many of which include out of state travel. This travel brings its own complications. Long trailer rides can lead to dehydration and over-heating unless water stops are made every few hours. Horse shows or other activities that bring horse to horse contact also increase disease and injury risk.
Any time your horse is traveling it is best to bring some of your own water from home. Many times horses will refuse to drink in new locations, which can result in dehydration and colic signs. Get your horse used to flavored water at home by adding a small amount of apple juice or Gatorade. Then when bringing water from home isn’t an option, these familiar additions can mask unusual tasting water and encourage horses to drink in new locations. Any time you are offering your horse anything flavored, be sure they have access to unflavored water as well so that they have several options of what to drink.
Interaction with other horses (mostly nose to nose) can also have severe health ramifications for your horse. Diseases such as strangles, Equine Herpes Virus, and Equine Influenza outbreaks have been linked back to horse shows. Disinfecting stalls and water buckets between uses is recommended. It is also recommended to keep horses physically distant (yes, even horses benefit from social distancing). This also helps keep your athlete out of harm’s way, reducing the risks of bites and kicks. Vaccinating your horses with core vaccines and vaccines appropriate for the area your horse will travel will help mitigate disease risk. Talk with your veterinarian to determine which vaccines are appropriate for your horse.
If it’s been a while since you have taken your horse somewhere it is a good idea to check the floorboards in your trailer for rotted wood. Areas of rust and decay can be ideal sources of cuts and scrapes, and can even lead to a major, life-threatening injury.
Keeping your horse safe in summer requires a few tweaks to your normal care routine, but as they say, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure – or in this case, a costly vet bill.