Oklahoma City Metro has been experiencing our usual brazen summer heat, but this is my first summer actually working in it. 100+ degree weather is no joke, especially when you’re working horses. But lucky for me, I don’t have to carry 200lbs on my back and trot around the arena. Because if I did, I promise I would buck you off. (Thank you Mr. Darcy for not).
Because we opt not to climate control our horses with indoor arenas and stall board – we tend to watch and let them regulate themselves. Let horses be horses. After all, they’ve been regulating their own body temperatures and doing so efficiently for thousands of years without our meddling. But when we do start to meddle, i.e. ask them to perform in a lesson or work them out, we’re meddling, and with that meddling should come some sense of responsibility to understand how to properly care for them in this heat. It starts with understanding how they do it themselves.
RULES OF HEAT ENGAGEMENT
Rule #1: Mist their legs first. First of all, horses sweat to cool themselves down, just like us, but did you know that’s their secondary line of defense? One of their primary lines of defense is dilating their capillaries and pushing them close to the surface so they can...
1. Pump more blood and 2. Get them to the surface of their skin to drop off some of that excess heat. 3. Then they start to sweat. If your horse is already sweating, its engaged defense #2. The blood vessels are the closest to the surface on their legs(1) and running water along them will gently and gradually bring their body temperature down. Do this before you hit the upper part of their body – as they can shock their system. The way I see it, I’d rather get my feet wet when I get into the pool rather than have someone shoot me down with a hose to my stomach. But that’s just me. Before, during and/or after. Start down on their legs and then work your way up. It’ll help them not have to work as hard to stay cool. Remember to scrape off any extra water so it doesn’t serve as an insulator. I know, its tricky… and a lot of work, but we horse people are used to a lot of work right?
Rule #2: Fresh cool water. When the temperatures are this hot and they’re pumping blood and sweating, they’re losing valuable amounts of water content in their systems. After they’ve depleted their usual water supply, their bodies will start to take water from the electrolyte rich regions of their intestines(2). Yes, their stomachs. And yes, that’s how colic can happen. Once they start doing this, you’ll reach the danger zone much quicker. Give them the option to drink water at various points of their workout. Some horses are stubborn and won’t drink water – but know your horse. If one of them should be drinking and isn’t? Red flag city.
Rule #3: Check their vitals, before you get on them. Before they have to carry around a 50 lb saddle and a 150+lb human, give them a quick check to make sure they’re up for the challenge. 1. Gums: See if they’re a nice pretty pink. If they’re white or it takes more than a couple seconds for their gums to return to pink after being pressed, they’re dehydrated. 2. Do a little ground work before you get on them to see how they’re moving. Are they tripping or not moving really well? Know your horse… if they’re acting off – chances are the heat might be getting to them. Horses that haven’t had a chance to acclimate to the heat because they’ve been stalled or indoors a lot, might have a harder time than the ones that live out in the pasture and heat all summer long.
Did you know: One of the first organs to shut down during heat exhaustion is actually their brain(2)? I didn’t. If they’re acting wobbly or tripping and they usually DONT, take a cool compress to their neck and help cool the blood down that’s headed directly for their noggins.
Bonus Check: It doesn’t hurt to also check your horse’s resting body temperature and blood pressure so in the event that you do have to call the vet, you know what their vitals should be. I have mine written down with their important paperwork (which I can never find because it’s in a safe place) JUST IN CASE.
Rule #4: Replenish their systems. All horses in this kind of heat (and really year round) should have access to a mineral and salt source. We have them here, we have them there, we have them EVERYWHERE. Easy access wherever pasture they end up in. But on the flip side, if your horses are being grained, this will take care of some of that need because most mainstream grains have the proper nutrients and minerals in them. The extra mineral block just lets the horses be horses and give them the freedom to know what their body needs when they need it. Remember, we give them filtered water and not the nutrient and mineral rich water of the wild. I have one horse than lives on the salt block and others that want nothing to do with it. If the stubborn drinker needs some encouragement, flavored electrolyte powder in their water troughs will do the trick.
Rule #5: Pay attention to your easily stressed horses. Whether they’re buddy sour or anxious in a trailer – stress will cause your horse to work themselves into a frenzy sometimes to the same level as a lesson or workout. Herd bound and fear of flight instincts can make these animals run themselves down if they’re in that uncomfortable setting for too long. As usual, know your horse and use common sense: If they’re buddy sour, don’t leave them alone for too long and if they’re anxious to travel, take frequent breaks and make sure you get rid of the excess sweat and give them tons of access to water.