Surviving the Summer with Your Horse

Jayne Wilson discusses several points we need to consider when riding in the heat and humidity of summer. Being aware of the dangers that summer heat presents is crucial to your horse's health and well-being.
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Jayne Wilson discusses several points we need to consider when riding in the heat and humidity of summer. Being aware of the dangers that summer heat presents is crucial to your horse's health and well-being.

One thing about the Internet is that it brings people together from many different areas and climates. Chatters come from all over the world and often the subject turns to the climate. While chatters in northern areas are still complaining about snow and ice, chatters in the south are already having to deal with the heat, humidity and flies that summer brings. Summer comes at different times, depending on where you are, but it always brings the same problems for us to overcome. Some people just have to overcome them earlier in the year than others.

Horse drinking. Courtesy Horse and Rider

Heat, humidity, bugs..I love summer!

Summer brings with it heat (and in many places, humidity), mosquitoes and other flying nasties, and ground baked to the consistency of concrete. Here in Houston we have to contend with extreme heat and humidity so high that the sweat pours off us before we even get on board our horses. Of course, riding in the evening means sharing the space with millions of mosquitoes, so it is essential to keep a good stock of fly and mosquito repellent, both for yourself and your horse.

Listen to your Horse

Personally, I tend not to go too far afield in the summer, confining my riding to the ranch surrounding the barn where I keep Annapolis. That way, if either of us seems to be having trouble, we are close to home and can get relief quickly.

Once, when I first had Annapolis, I took him out for a trail ride one Saturday morning and at the point where I was farthest from the barn, I realized that he was having serious trouble with the heat. He had stopped sweating and was panting heavily, a condition known as anhydrosis (inability to sweat) I didn't realize things were that bad as he had been trotting comfortably, which made a nice breeze for me and had kept me relatively cool.

Luckily we were riding beside a creek which turned into a pond at one point. I took him down the bank, loosened his girth and let him stand knee deep in the water while I splashed his underside and neck. After a few minutes he tried to lay down so I quickly removed his saddle and sure enough he immediately rolled in the water. I was terrified, and trying to keep hold of the reins at the same time. After a couple of rolls though, he stood up and shook and then bent his head down to drink a little.

That little episode alerted me to the fact that Annapolis has as much trouble handling the heat and humidity as I do and since then I have been very aware of the fact that if I am uncomfortable, he probably is too, and I adjust my riding accordingly.

Water is a life saver

The one thing that will keep your horse comfortable and safe in the summer is water. As horses sweat, they lose that water from their system and if they are not able to replace it they can quickly become dehydrated. Always make sure that your horse has plenty of clean, fresh water available to drink when he needs it. In addition to several water troughs in Annapolis' field, there is a permanent pond that he and the other horses like to stand and wallow in during the summer.

Electrolytes are important too

Another way to combat dehydration is to add electrolytes to your horse's diet. This is best done by making a mineral block available at all times. You can also add electrolytes in his water,giving him two buckets of water (one with and one without electrolytes),making sure that he has a choice. Some electrolytes can be sprinkled on the feed.

Teach yourself how to do the "pinch test" to check your horse for dehydration. Pinch up a small area of skin on the neck and time how long it takes to return to normal. Check your horse on a cool day when you know he is not stressed to give you a baseline to work from. Then, when you have been working him, you will be able to monitor him against that baseline, if it takes the skin noticeablly longer to return to normal, he is becoming dehydrated.

Learn your horse's vital signs

It is a good idea to take your horse's vital signs and note them down somewhere. When he is rested and cool, take his temparature, pulse and respiration.

Generally, horses' temperatures will be from 100 to 101 degrees Farenheit ( 37 - 38 Celsius) A rise over 102 is abnormal and a temperature of over 104 is serious and you should call your veterinarian.

The horse's pulse at rest will be from 36 to 42 beats per minute. That rate will increase considerably following stress, but should return to normal within 10 to 15 minutes if the horse is rested, provided he is fit.

Respiration should be around 8 to 15 breaths per minute at rest.

Armed with these vital signs you should be able to easily tell when your horse is stressed by the heat and humidity.

If it's too hot, get out of the fire

Nowadays, I avoid riding during the heat of the day in the summer, both for my comfort and Annapolis'. This means that I rarely go to summer shows anymore or out on day long trail rides. Riding early in the morning is best, but of course I can only do that on weekends because of work commitments. Riding during the evenings means having to deal with the myriad of biting insects that seem to swarm out as the light is fading, but liberal applications of fly repellent make it more bearable for both of us.

If you have to ride during the day, you will probably find that you have to cut back on both the length of your riding sessions and also the amount of activity. Where you might have an hour jumping session in cooler months, in the summer it would be better to cut the session to thirty minutes, making sure you give your horse plenty of chances to rest during the course of the session. Or perhaps you may choose to work on flat work only. That two hour trail ride you are used to may have to be cut to an hour and the pace should be slowed down. Take advantage of natural streams and ponds to allow your horse to cool down along the way and keep in the shade as much as possible.

Hard ground makes for hard riding

Another summer hazard is ground baked so hard that it resembles concrete. Hard ground is hard on horse's legs. Concussion injuries are more prevalent in summer, as horses are galloped and jumped on less than perfect ground.

All weather surfaces, such as sand, bark chips or other proprietary arena surfaces can alleviate this problem. If you don't have or can't afford an all weather surface for your arena, you can compromise by using wood shavings from your horse's stable (remove the droppings first) and lay a track around the rail of your arena to create a riding track that will be comfortable to work on. (This solution may also help out in winter when you are dealing with ankle deep mud or frozen, rutted ground) Sand or shavings placed at the take off and landing points at jumps can be helpful too.

Another alternative is to rent an arena at a nearby stable to work in, perhaps in conjunction with some friends from your barn. In any case, for the sake of your horse, it is worth making the effort to find a suitable surface to work your horse on.

If you have to work your horse on hard ground, it is wise to keep the place slow in order to lessen the concussive effects.

Fun in the sun

It is possible for you and your horse to make it through the summer provided you keep alert to what your horse is telling you and take into consideration the points I have mentioned above. If you are showing in the summer, find a place n the shade for your horse to rest between classes and allow him to drink at regular intervals. (You may need to bring water from home as some horses will not drink strange water.)

So have fun with your horse this summer, keep him happy and comfortable and he will reward you.