With horse shows, pony camps, lessons and clinics on the rise, so are the temps! Being in mid-June, we are on the brink of official summertime. Summer is a time of schooling and getting ready for summertime horse shows throughout the country. Hot and humid temperatures don't just mean dreading to wear that show shirt and jacket in the ring, it means temp regulation for you and your horse or pony. Knowing the thermoregulatory mechanisms your horse depends on to keep them cool is important to understand when trying to protect them from the sweltering heat.
Since horses have a relatively high body density, they retain heat much easier than critters with lower body densities (compared to a mouse). There are several naturally occurring mechanisms to combat overheating in equines.
The first (and most obvious) is perspiration, good ‘ol sweating. We know our horses sweat, but how does that actually cool your horse down? When your horse sweats, the little pores, or holes, in the skin allow for moisture, electrolytes and proteins to escape. The moisture laying on your horse’s skin sets the stage for evaporative cooling to take place. The heat allows the sweat to evaporate, carrying your horse’s body heat with it.
A mechanism that we are unable to see is circulation. The circulatory system works to move the heat away from the body’s core and life-supporting organs. This happens by taking the warm blood from the body and carrying it outwards towards the skin for evaporative cooling to begin. The same mechanism happens in the opposite direction in cold temperatures to maintain the horse’s core temp.
Certain parts of the horse’s body are even more vascular than others (retain more superficial vascular tissues under the skin that carries warm blood to expel heat as discussed above). These include the legs, neck, head and chest These are the places to focus on when intervening and trying to get rid of excess heat from the horse’s body.
How do we help these processes along?
The method used to cool down a horse depends on the comfort level of your horse with hoses, ice, activity level, humidity, temperature, access to cool, temperate water and of course, how hot and sweaty they are!
After a medium-intensity workout in an uncovered arena, your horse is surely bound to work up at least a sweat pattern from underneath the saddle and girth. This can usually be taken care of with a quick hose down or sponge bath.
When hosing or sponging, the water temp should be cool, not ice cold. When sponging your horse, you may add a liniment for its alcohol content to speed up evaporation and soothing sensation it brings to tense muscles. The most important part after applying water to your horse’s coat is removing it with a sweat scraper. The point of applying water to the horse’s coat is to speed up evaporation and wash away the heat that the water traps. Gently, but firmly run the scraper over your horse’s coat until no more water sloughs off before turnout or being stalled.
For horses that are drenched in sweat after a heavy workout, repeated hosing and scraping may be required. This is also a good method to use on high humidity days when it is more difficult for evaporation to occur.
How To Keep Comfortable In The Stall
The barn may be cooler than outside, but side stalls with direct sunlight and aisleways with low ventilation become hot, muggy and uncomfortable areas for horses quickly in the summertime. Bungee-cording box fans to the outside of stall bars are a great (and inexpensive) way to increase ventilation in your horse’s stall. Large, standing, commercial sized fans are beneficial to set up at the end of aisle ways to increase ventilation throughout an entire aisle of stalls. Many horses enjoy sticking their neck out to catch the breeze and cool their neck and chest off.
Aside from being the single most important nutrient for digestion and other mechanisms, water plays a very important role in temperature regulation. Always check your horse’s water consumption level by checking water buckets and outside tubs. On especially hot days when dehydration may be a concern, monitor your horse closely for signs of dehydration by checking for excessive sweating while turned out or in a stall, skin tenting test and gums for color, takiness and capillary refill time. A hydrated horse has pink, moist gums that return to pink within 2 seconds after applied pressure.
Flies aren’t the only killer in summer- protect your horse from the heat! With rising temperatures, be mindful of your horse’s own temperature, they may need a little help once in a while cooling down.
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