Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Horses and the Heat: Too Hot to Ride?

Charlotte wrote to ask about how much heat can her horse handle being ridden in. " I've found a couple of your articles about horse dehydration and people getting heat stroke but my question is how hot can it be where I can still reasonably ride my horse. I know her health is important but she seems so sluggish in the really hot weather like high 90's and I don't want to hurt her but only my riding times are generally in the late afternoon when it is still very hot."

I think horses generally do much better than we do in the heat and much better than we give them credit for. However, I would never fault anyone for being too cautious considering their horse. I have cut short trail rides when someone thinks their horse is off - better to be safe than sorry. But again, horses do pretty well in the heat, given a horse in good health and condition, and acclimatized to that environment. Horses will lose fluids and electrolytes by sweating, same as humans do, but horses drawing fluids away from their guts is a bigger concern for them than the human. I know some people who clip their horses in the Spring when temps are in the 70-'s to 80's thinking a lighter coat of hair will minimize over heating. Heck, my horses generally don't start shedding their winter coats until temps are in the 90's and I ride them without worry, but they are acclimatized to this environment. The biggest problem I have is that hair shedding season coincides with the windy season here in West Texas, so much of the shedding hair is blown into my face and mustache.....pretty much like the universal rule that all spider webs are mustache high.

We generally find our limits, and therefore our horses limits, by experience. Years ago, I have taken horses, maybe as young as 5 years old and as old as 14, out in 100 heat and covered 15-20 miles over 6 or 8 hours without access to water and did not have issues - I wasn't doing this for pleasure, it was for work. These days I'd have to have a reason for pushing a horse that hard. Not having a drink all day, the horses were obviously all in some state of dehydration when we finished. I'd always pull the saddle and let the wind coming through the trailer on the ride home evaporate cool them somewhat. My practice is to cool them off then put them back into a pen where they would always roll first, then look in their feed bin second, before they would seek water. If a horse is not finished with their feed before I pull them for a ride, it's usually a good indicator that they haven't gotten a drink, so when I return from a ride I'll pull their feed so they can get a drink before resuming eating. Sometimes I'll wait for 20-30 minutes as well. I'll also use a wet brush, sponge or rag and wipe my horse's neck, chest and legs down which helps, or at least I think it does, with some evaporative cooling effect.

This time of year in the West Texas desert, it'll still be 100 degrees at 7 pm. I have no problem riding my horses for an hour or two then. If I was riding a few hours earlier in the same temperature range, I'd likely be a little more concerned as the Sun is closer to being directly overhead and the solar radiation is stronger, so you'll feel the effects quicker. Intensity or work and duration will be a key factor - the harder and longer a horse has to work, the hotter the horse will get, and therefore the sweating rate will go up to regulate body temperature. The horse's body will send more blood to the skin, depleting blood and water from the internal organs and gut. That's why excessively walking a colicing horse can have adverse effects. A horse with a over heating issue will have more rapid breathing and a higher heart rate, and likely an increase temperature. Just like a human, once a horse gets a heat injury, the easier or faster it will come next time.

If you have read other articles on riding in hot weather then you pretty much know how to check your horse for dehydration, with the skin pinch or capillary refill test, or can see when a horse is drawn up and tight. Plus the more you ride a particular horse the better you can tell when he is a little off. I would suggest checking all your horses at rest and after moderate exercise to get some baseline observations and numbers for each. You also don't want to take his temperature for the first time when he is heat stressed. Just know before hand what a normal horse looks like. Ask the same questions to your Vet the next time you have the Vet out, and maybe some other riders in your area.

Feed can have an impact on how hot a horse gets. I feed a mix of Bermuda grass, sometimes timothy grass, and alfalfa hay. My horses also have free access to plain white salt blocks, mineral rocks and fresh clean water. I used to give wheat bran mashes to help counter the ingestion of sand but since I obtained big box feeders my horses rarely pull or drop alfalfa onto the sandy ground. If a horse eats off the ground in sandy environments a lot of sand can be ingested. You may see watery piles as the body pulls water and blood to the gut to help push it out. When I get called to help someone and a colicing horse, because it's usually Friday night and Vet's are hard to find, it's almost a sure thing that their feeding program has some sort of negative's just hard to pinpoint it as there are many ways to prepare feeds and every horse is different. Running a public barn for years, I saw quite a bit of strange feeding habits and the resulting issue on a horse......feeding beet pulp and not soaking it sufficiently (I will not ever use beet pulp - nothing against those who do, I just don't have a need to feed it); a straight alfalfa diet; 17 quart buckets full of dry alfalfa cubes; dirty stock tanks that even a old catfish wouldn't swim in.

Again, I think you are doing the right thing on considering the well being of your horse, and you didn't say how old your horse is. Maybe riding her with an increase in intensity over time can set some boundaries for you and her. Are you feeding your horse just before you ride her? She may resent coming off her feed, or feel lethargic with a full belly.  If your horse is healthy and well broke, her sluggishness just may her trying to get away with doing as little as wife accuses me of that quite a bit.

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