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Riding and Surviving in the Summer Heat

By Donna Murphy

Summer is here and the heat is on. A horse can easily become dehydrated and is at greater risk when the humidity levels get high. There are things that we can do to help our horses stay hydrated and keep them and ourselves from overheating. Without proper hydration a horse that is pushed in the heat can fail in performance, and his life can become threatened. Water and proper balance of electrolytes is a necessity for cooling the horse and is absolutely necessary for muscle function. As an endurance rider I have learned some things that I would like to share that will help any horse stay cooler and happier in the heat.

What can you do to help your horse? It is important to provide the equine with free access to a plain salt block and mineral block, which supplies trace minerals, and free access to fresh clean water. An average horse will consume approximately 8-12 gallons of water daily while in the pasture, and will consume more as his workload and sweating increases. Sodium Chloride is critical for regulating body fluids and conducting electrical impulses in nerves and muscles. Approximately 30 lbs of body weight, or 1.5 – 2.5 gallons of fluid, can be lost per hour through sweat. An endurance horse, or any horse exercised in hot humid weather, may lose up to four gallons of fluid per hour. In that 4 gallons, up to 30 teaspoons of salts could be lost through sweating and must be replaced. Sweat contains body salts, called electrolytes. Horse sweat mostly contains sodium, chloride and potassium, and other electrolytes, including magnesium and calcium are also present in smaller amounts.

To be specific, these salts are responsible for critical body processes: pumping of the heart, movement of food through the GI tract, and filtering of wastes through the kidneys. The salts control fluid balance of the body by regulating movement of water in and out of cells. Without sufficient electrolytes horses may weaken, collapse, and in worse cases, may die.

This is why giving the horse additional salts though oral electrolytes are vital for horses that are asked to work in hot humid weather. While I am on the trail competing or conditioning in hot weather, I administer electrolytes before the ride, during, and after the ride. I recommend giving a dose with an oral syringe, not just adding some to their water, this way I know that it is getting ingested. Commercial electrolytes are available, but read the ingredients. Many commercial brands do not contain the ingredients needed for a horse working hard and sweating profusely. To aide in the recovery from sweat-inducing exercise, horses should be given a preparation containing salt, (sodium chloride), potassium, calcium, and magnesium. Some commercial products contain dextrose, (sugar) as the main ingredient, which is not what the horse needs. I have a homemade receipt that I like. I take equal parts of the following and mix them together in container: 1 part salt, (sodium chloride) 1 part lite salt, (potassium chloride,) 1 part dolomite, (which is calcium and magnesium,) purchased at a health food store. I take 2 – 4 tablespoons of this mixture and add it to an equal part of applesauce, place it into a large oral syringe, and administer it orally as I would a paste wormer.

In regards to water, I recommend putting in an automatic fill valve on your water trough, which assures that the trough remains full so the horse always has access to fresh water while at home. He should NEVER be without fresh water. While riding, offer your horse water often, the rule is never pass up water. I have been on a number of trail rides where riders don’t allow the horse to drink. A horse needs to drink as much as he wants, especially if he is hot and has been sweating. Take him to the water and let him stand in it, this will help to cool him and will encourage drinking. Have you ever wondered why a horse may paw in the water at a watering hole and even try to lay down? By pawing in the water, he is trying to splash water on himself for cooling purposes. The same with lying down, he is trying to cool himself. To help your horse cool off, you can splash water on him, and get him wet all over. I ride with a sponge and when I come to water I douse water all over my horse to wet him down. However it is recommended to stay away from the large muscle areas, such as the hips if the water is extremely cold, or there is coolness in the air. Cold water on large muscles could cause cramping. I also wet my shirt and bandana to keep me cool. At every opportunity I do this. I let my horse stand for awhile at the water to be sure he can drink all he wants, even if he is hot and sweating, this is when he needs lots of water, and the water I put on him helps him cool down. One way to encourage drinking is getting off and loosening the girth.

To check for dehydration: A simple pinch of the skin over the shoulder blade will quickly determine hydration status. If the skin is elastic and returns quickly to its original position, then there is no problem. If the skin is slow to rebound then dehydration is setting in.

Another thing you can do when it is hot is stop and rest your horse in the shade if he seems overheated and stressed. Allowing the horse to eat grass can also be very beneficial, grass contains lots of moisture, (water), and natural vitamins, minerals, and electrolytes. A stressed horse will begin to shut down in his gut, and this can lead to colic. Grass can be a real preventative to dehydration and colic. If he has an appetite, and wants to eat grass, this is good, let him! Also, I ride with a water bottle of Gatorade for myself, and another bottle filled with water that I often will pour over my horse to help him cool if there is no water available when he appears hot.

In closing remember the importance of water and salt! These are two very essential ingredients. The higher the temperature the harder the horse has to work to stay cool. High humidity makes the horse’s sweat less effective and his ability to dissipate body heat is reduced. Listen to your horse, when he wants to drink, give him plenty of time to drink all he wants!

The author, Donna Murphy, is an accomplished horse person who lives and breathes horses and loves competing in Endurance Races. She loves sharing her knowledge with others. You can contact her at donnadm@gvtc.com

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