We are experiencing record temperatures this summer. It is essential to know how to recognise the early signs of heat stroke or heat exhaustion in your horse or pony as, just like their human owners, horses are much healthier in cool shade than being out, unprotected in full sun.
Taking care of horses in a heatwave
Long periods of hot weather typically present less of a health risk to horses than sudden spikes in temperature, particularly immediately before or during competition. Horses can acclimatise to different weather conditions and horses living in hot climates are comfortable competing in hotter weather. But in the UK a horse which undergoes training in the cooler parts of the day is likely to be at risk if it is then competed during the hot part of the day, particularly during a heatwave.
A horse or pony is a large animal with a correspondingly large skin surface area. A horse can sweat faster than most other animals and, in the UK, where we tend to have relatively moderate humidity, this helps a horse keep cool. However, sweating gives rise to increased likelihood of dehydration, which in turn raises the risk of colic and respiratory disease. The process of sweating can also lead to electrolyte imbalance and an increased risk of problems such as reduced performance, tying-up, and “thumps” (synchronous diaphragmatic flutter) which whilst most common in endurance horses, can also occur in racehorses and eventers. In these conditions, a salt block is unlikely to provide sufficient remedy and appropriate feed supplements and appropriate electrolytes will prove beneficial.
Water intake is important and whilst automatic stable drinking systems are great, they do not give an indication of how much water a horse is taking. At least two 15 litre buckets should be provided and checked twice a day. Horses turned out must have access to automatically filling troughs and decent shade is essential at all times of the day. In hot weather it is best to turn horses out in the coolness of early mornings and evenings, keeping them stabled during the hottest part of the day. Brick stables tend to be cooler than wooden ones and it is a good idea to spray fly repellent around doors and windows, providing some relief.
Hot weather can degrade feeds, especially those with oil content which will go off more quickly, resulting in horses rejecting spoiled feed, just at the time when they are using more energy, even at rest, to control their own body temperature. This may lead to weight loss.
Horses’ and ponies’ capacity for exercise is likely to be reduced in hot weather and they may tire earlier than usual in training and competition. Heavier breeds, overweight horses and those with black coats tend to suffer most in the hot sun. Horses and ponies with pink areas of skin can be prone to sunburn and a factor 50 sunblock or flymask will help reduce this risk.
If you are traveling to an event, ensure you travel with sufficient forage and plenty of water – particularly if the weather forecast is for a warm, sunny day. Aim to be self-sufficient. Consider having electrolytes to hand. If your pony gets hot, cool down quickly with plenty of water.
If competing, ensure you take proper time to warm your pony up gradually and afterwards to cool down, aided with repeated dousings of the whole horse with copious amounts of cold water.
What to look out for in hot weather
Signs that your horse may be suffering from the heat include:
- Panting (faster, shallow breathing)
- Nostril flaring
- Increased rectal temperature
- Decreased appetite and thirst
- Dark urine
- Reduced urination
- Reduced performance
- Dark mucous membranes
- Muscle spasms
- Slow recovery after exercise
The above is often referred to as heat exhaustion but if not properly and quickly managed can progress to heat stroke. This may result in ataxia (being unsteady on the feet) and/or collapse.
If during an event you are concerned that your pony may be suffering discomfort from the heat seek advice from the on-course veterinary surgeon as soon as possible. Move your pony into the shade and pour large amounts of water all over the neck and body and quietly walk in hand. Don’t worry about scraping the water off, it will evaporate, cooling the horse or pony down quickly.
Remember, severe heat stroke or heat exhaustion is serious and can lead to renal failure, muscle damage, laminitis and liver failure. It may prove fatal if urgent veterinary intervention and advice is not sought.