Summer is here and it’s time to enjoy the long days with extra long rides as you enjoy the sultry summer season. Before you hit the trails spend a quick minute thinking about the very real risks of riding in the heat. Heat Stress, Exhaustion, and Stroke, along with the complications from them, are very real risks that if not recognized and treated properly can be debilitating and even life threatening for your horse or mule.
The hallmark of summer is heat and humidity. A quick and easy tool to help determine when environmental conditions may be likely to result in heat related illness is the Effective Temperature or Heat Stress Index test. This test consists of simply adding together the ambient temperature and the relative humidity. Veterinary professionals recommend that riders use caution when the sum of the ambient temperature in degrees Fahrenheit and the relative humidity is around 150. When those figures approach 180 most riding activities involving long or intense exercise should be postponed so heat build-up doesn't become critical.
To paraphrase Mr. Ben Franklin “An ounce of prevention is worth many pounds of cure” and for horse owners prevention is in large part a matter of conditioning. Keeping your horse in shape through the winter and spring will help him adjust more easily to summer’s higher temperatures and increased physical demands. We should begin these efforts long before summer begins.
Many horse owners don't realize that only about 25% of the energy used in a horse's working muscles is converted to actual muscle movement. The remaining 75% loss of efficiency is represented by waste heat that becomes very difficult for the horse to disperse in hot and humid weather. A conditioning program will help your mount become more efficient at dissipating this waste heat. Horses and humans get rid of excess heat in large part by sweating. Out of shape horses will sweat a foamy lather that contains high concentrations of vital electrolytes and does not evaporate easily. And obese horses are further hampered by a thick fat layer that traps heat inside.
NOTE: Even the breed of horse has an impact on heat retention with heavily muscled horses such as Quarter Horses having a greater challenge dissipating internal body heat than lighter breeds, such as the Arabian.
As a horse becomes more fit, less demand is placed on the working muscles and ultimately he becomes much more efficient at dissipating heat. Less exertion (better condition) means less heat generated by the muscles, less heat means less sweat, less sweat means less fluid and electrolyte loss. As the horse’s body becomes better at conserving and utilizing electrolytes and minerals, less of these body salts are lost through sweating. This in turn alters the consistency of the sweat itself, making it thinner and more easily evaporated, thus more effectively cooling the skin.
Common sense and a sensible conditioning schedule and the ability to recognize the warning signs of heat stress will help your horse, and yourself, to weather the warm summer months safely.
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