Horses Beat the Heat
By PCF Cody
The dog days of summer are upon us, and this is one case where dogs and horses don't necessarily get along! Summer brings its own set of challenges and adventures. With a little bit of thinking ahead, and a whole lot of ice tea, not only can we meet these challenges, but we can also enjoy the season as much as possible!
The first challenge is the obvious - the heat! Though you aren't likely to go without noticing it, the key is to know how it affects your horse, and then to avoid the problems that can be caused by those affects. Horses, like humans, sweat to cool off. It's a simple theory really. The moisture is evaporated off the body, and in doing so, cools off the skin. This is the theory at least, but we all know about those theories. Hey, in theory, fly spray would work and we would have a pest free season.... we'll cover that later in this article! The fact is that sweating does work, to an extent, and works better in some conditions than others. If you are fortunate to live in a dry area, regardless the heat, sweating works better than living in a humid area. Simply put, if there's no room for the moisture to evaporate into the air, it won't evaporate; therefore it won't cool you or your horse off. Worse, the sweat that does not evaporate creates a layer of moisture that insulates your body, making it hotter instead of cooler.
There are ways you can increase the efficiency of sweating though, even in humid areas. We all know how cooling a breeze can be. This is because it moves the air across your skin, increasing the amount of potential moisture moving air that goes across the skin. When outside, even the slightest breeze helps, but in a barn, you need to give nature a hand. Even in relatively open barns, the ventilation can be lacking. Install fans where your horses can't play with them, but can benefit from the movement of the air. If you really want to make a difference, install a misting system. These aren't widely used in the equine world for some reason, but the dairy industry has been using them for ages and they can make quite a difference between comfortable and unbearable!
When cooling your horse, rinse him thoroughly with cold water, not warm. In fact, if your horse is overheated, applying ice directly to the horse's jugular area is the best you can do to cool him off. There's a lot of outdated stuff out there, and some older horse folks have even told me that applying cold water to a hot horse will put them into shock. This is very untrue. Several studies have been done in the endurance world and ice water is used to cool those horses! Even if your horse isn't that sweaty, go ahead and rinse him well. The salts that are lost from sweating can damage the hair coat, giving them a rough appearance. And most importantly, once you rinse the horse, either turn him loose outside where he can roll or use a sweat scrape to get as much water off as possible. If the water is too think to evaporate quickly, you end up with that moisture barrier that increases the heat instead of decreasing it.
Always keep fresh water available, not just when the temperature reads in the triple digits! When you are riding, offer water every 30-45 minutes. If they aren't interested, that's fine. But you don't want them becoming dehydrated because you didn't take the time to offer any water! (It's a good idea for you to take a quick swig at least that often too!) And of course, this time of year your water troughs are more likely to look green or brown, and that's to be expected. The algae itself will not harm your horse. However, you do need to completely clean out your troughs and buckets about every 2-3 days anyway to kill insect larvae. We'll get to that later too, about the time we talk about fly spray. A trace mineral block is also a "must have". As your horse sweats, they lose electrolytes. These need to be replenished and a trace mineral block is your best method. Some folks like to fix Gatorade, or other sports drinks for their horses, and there's no harm in that on one condition - always keep fresh water available. It should not be used to replace water.
Now, one last note on heat and our horses here... We humans aren't the only ones that can suffer from heat exhaustion or heat stroke. The simple truth is that about all mammals can die from the heat. If it's too hot to for you to put a riding helmet on and ride, it's too hot for the horse to be worked - period. Don't think for a minute that it would be a good idea to lunge them for 20 minutes since it is too hot to ride.... go out and run for 20 minutes and then rethink that thought! Don't despair, before long the dog days will give over to cooler weather, and you'll be back in the saddle. If your horse should start displaying signs of heat exhaustion or stroke, immediately call your vet and start trying to cool the horse off with ice water. Heat problems are not things you should wait and see about! Consider them an emergency.
Once you've figured out your best heat coping methods, then it's time to deal with the next problem, biting insects. You have your "no-see-ums" and mosquitoes at night, and your cow flies, deer flies, horse flies and goodness knows what all during the day. As we said earlier, in theory fly spray would work to prevent these bugs. Unfortunately, that is not always the case. There are some things to know about fly sprays though that will greatly enhance their effect. First, use a good brand. If it's the cheapest on the shelf, chances are it's the cheapest, if you know what I mean. You might pay more for the better brands, but you might as pay for something that is going to work. Second, use them daily. There is some build up affect with fly sprays that helps prevent the tougher bugs. If the bottle says it lasts for 7 days, don't believe it. It might last for 7 days if it has been used daily for the past 21 days but that's about it. For horses that are more vulnerable than others, like older horses who attract more because they tend to move slower and tire easier, do double duty with a wipe on fly ointment like SWAT on their legs, ears, backbone and the midline along their belly. Other things you can do to help, especially with the mosquitoes and night biters, is to keep them up when the predators are at their worst - dawn and dusk. Keep fans going in your barns during this time as no flying insects really relish flying in fast moving air currents.
You can also take a few steps in eliminating the sources of these pesky winged menaces. Both mosquitoes and horse flies lay their eggs in water. Go through and check your property for places where they may be raising their kids and eliminate what you can. Don't let buckets sit and collect rainwater. Other common water hideouts are old tires, old flowerpots, any junk piles, etc. What you can't get rid of, like your troughs and water buckets, birdbaths, and such can be managed somewhat. Dump them regularly - every 2-3 days and refill with fresh water. If you have a pond, which of course cannot be dumped, stock it with fish if it isn't already stocked. They won't eliminate the problem, but they'll be glad to reduce it as they fill their bellies! Other helpful critters are birds like the Purple Martin and bats, which can eat an amazing amount of mosquitoes. Try attracting them to your area with houses built appropriately for them.
Other flies, like your barn flies and cow flies, lay their eggs in manure. There are several things you can do to control them. The first being, keep your place as clean as you can. Keep your manure pile well away from your barn and grazing area if possible. Routinely spread the manure that's out in your pasture so the sun dries it quicker, thereby drying all the eggs and larvae of both flies and other parasites. There are also small insects that are cousins to the wasp that love to dine on fly larvae. You can order them and place them in your manure pile to deal with the flies. You can also feed a feed-through fly control called Rabon. It will not harm your horses, but will prevent fly eggs laid in the manure from hatching. Depending on the brand you get, it can range from reasonable to pricey so shop around.
Something else to consider is that these bugs affect wounds. In the winter, a small scratch will heal right up and you will hardly have to think about it. In the summer, flies love the moistness of an open wound and will cause more damage, some even laying their eggs, which hatch into what we call "maggots". Every wound needs attention in the summer. Put a thick ointment like nitrofuracin or swat over the wound, and keep the area around the wound sprayed twice a day until it heals over. If it does worsen, call your vet out.
Once those two summer problems are managed, what you have left is a few months of sunny days and afternoon thundershowers! Oh sure, there will be other little things to worry about here and there, but like the book says - "Don't Sweat the Small Stuff"!