BY JESS CLAWSON
Summer is associated with a lot of extra daylight, beach vacations, and lovely hot weather. We may love it, but it can be really hard on our horses.
As Dr. David Ramey says, “Horses aren’t really hot weather creatures.” They definitely tolerate cold better than heat. Their bodies aren’t designed to dissipate heat well, because their surface area is small relative to their size and their only cooling mechanism is sweat. That means it takes a long time to cool their internal organs when they get hot.
We can do a few things to help them out during this time of year. I bring my horses in during the day in the summer to let them stand under fans, and then turn them back out overnight. Regardless of turnout, horses outside need shelter. If horses are out during the day in the hot weather months, that makes access to shade even more important. Horses with long manes, feathers, or who are overweight are going to be more likely to get overheated just standing around in the sun. Also be sure to put zinc oxide on horses with pink noses so they don’t get sunburned.
When it comes to riding, we have to take even more consideration for our horses’ well being. Below are some considerations to keep in mind.
Choose Your Riding Time Carefully
Many of us are bound by our work schedules, but during the hot summer months it’s worth getting up earlier or staying out later to ride at the very beginning or end of the day when it’s not as hot. I find that mornings are cooler than evenings, and also less likely to have big horrible bugs flying around, but sometimes evenings are more practical.
Head for the Shade
If you can ride in a shady area, do. Whether it’s trees or a well-ventilated covered ring, stay out of the sun as much as possible. It’s good for your horse, and good for you too.
A fit horse is going to be more efficient in cooling herself than an unfit horse. Both overweight and underweight horses with little muscle tone are going to be less efficient in dispersing heat and cooling themselves down. Additionally, make sure to acclimate your horse to hot weather slowly—especially if the heat has come on suddenly.
This is where the rubber meets the road in taking good care of our horses in the summer months. Most of us are going to ride, and even compete, and we need to prioritize our horses’ welfare.
When horses are hot, their veins and capillaries dilate to shunt blood closer to the skin surface in an attempt to cool it. When air blows across the surface of the skin, it dispels heat through the evaporation of sweat and cools the blood as it circulates. Heat and dehydration cause problems for nerve function, muscles, and blood flow, so it’s critical that horses cool down as quickly as possible. It’s our job to expedite that process for our horses.
The two main components of cooling involve getting water in our horses and water on our horses.
Horses need water in their gut to replace the water loss in sweating and to cool them from the inside. When I was growing up I learned somewhere (likely from Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty) that we shouldn’t let horses drink while they’re hot, but that myth has been disproven with research. Horses can’t drink and breathe at the same time, so they’ll self regulate when their respiration rates are up. Let your horses drink as much as they want as often as they want. On especially hot days, they can even drink mid-workout.
When horses sweat a lot, they lose electrolytes. You might need to replace electrolytes in their feed, but don’t put the them directly in the water as it may deter drinking, which is more important in the short term when cooling your horse down. Horses need water in their gut to produce sweat. Otherwise they risk making themselves ill.
We can help the cooling out process enormously by applying water to hot horses. Another myth that doesn’t seem to want to die is the idea that we shouldn’t put cold water on their horses when they’re hot, because it might make their muscles cramp. It won’t. If you have access to a hose, that’s perfect. Spray the horse, scrape the water, and spray them some more. Hoses do a better job getting horses cool than sponges do. You also want a good scraper that really gets the water out of the coat, like the Orca–adorable and very functional.
But at a lot of horse shows, all we have are buckets and sponges. When I come off cross country and my horse is hot, I pull his tack off while my helper starts sponging and scraping. I like to put Effol Med Cooling Wash in the water bucket as it helps my horse cool down much faster than water alone and won’t dry the hair like alcohol.
Every few years, I hear conversation about whether scraping is necessary. If the horse is hot, you need to scrape so you can put more water on. The water draws the heat away from the skin–you can feel ice cold water you put on the horse’s back get hot by the time it drains down to their stomach. So scrape it off and reapply new cold water. They will thank you for it. Focus first on big muscles and areas with veins close to the surface.
Effol Med Cooling Gel Spray is helpful too–you can spray it on a hot area and it stays put and helps cool. It’s great for insect bites, but I also spray it on legs after a ride if I’m not icing his legs.
When Medical Intervention is Necessary
If you’re careful, you can avoid creating a medical emergency, but you should be aware of the signs of heat stroke. First, know your horse’s normal vital signs at rest–temperature, pulse, and respiration. It’s helpful to know this so you can tell when your horse is outside her normal range for too long.
Heat stroke is potentially fatal, so take it seriously and call the vet. Signs include panting, increased heart rate, profuse sweating (or worse, not sweating), and a temperature above 102 degrees Farenhiet that persists despite your efforts to cool the horse. While you’re waiting for the vet, hose and scrape your horse, ice every part of his body that you can, and get him out of the heat and in front of a fan. The vet might administer IV fluids. Be careful to avoid this scenario by taking good care of your horse and avoiding heat stress. Watch this video for some great advice.
One final important thing to consider is how much your horse sweats. If your horse isn’t sweating normally or at all, they might have anhidrosis. This is a tricky situation because the cause is still unknown and that means there is no effective treatment. There are plenty of supplements on the market, and beer has also been rumored to help, but actual research shows none of it is effective, which really is too bad.
Anhidrosis appears to be more common in areas that are both hot and humid versus just hot. It can put horses in a lot of danger in the heat, so please be careful if your horse isn’t sweating. The condition can start out of nowhere and can also go away without explanation. It also seems to be genetic to some extent.
If you’re going to ride a horse with anhidrosis, consider riding early in the morning and in shady areas. You can also bring a bucket of water with the Cool Wash, a sponge, and a scraper in it to the ring with you so you can take breaks to sponge the horse and help them cool down. When not riding, be extra careful with the turnout of these horses so they aren’t outside in the sun risking their health.
Have fun this summer and stay cool. And if it’s too hot to ride, try making treatsicles for your horse. They’ll thank you!
About the Author: Jess is a professional historian and educator who lives in northwestern Virginia. They completed their undergraduate degree in English at William & Mary, and did their masters and doctoral work at the University of Florida. Jess is an event rider with a passion for thoroughbreds, and has extensive experience in community organizing around queer identities, racial marginalization, and labor.
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