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Although horse care is usually easier and more enjoyable in the summer, there are still a number of welfare issues that can make warmer months challenging in their own way. As the number of prolonged periods of very hot weather seems to have increased in recent years, it is important that horse owners and carers are aware of how to keep their equine happy and healthy throughout the summer season.
Water Water is absolutely essential to the healthy functioning of a horse’s body. Just like people, horses use water as part of their cooling mechanism by sweating in hot temperatures and need to replace the lost water to avoid becoming dehydrated. Horses will take in up to 30 litres of water a day and ideally a supply of fresh water should be constantly available. Young horses that are still growing may require even more.
It is important to remember that water intake will alter depending on the horse’s diet. Grass has high water content (around 85%) and grazing horses will receive a lot of their water in this way.
Summer is the season of shows and events for most of the horse riding community. To help meet the needs of your horse when out and about, consider taking a plentiful supply of your own water and buckets. This will not only save you trips to communcal taps, but reduce the risks of diseases, particularly strangles, which can be passed from on through shared water sources like troughs.
Tethered horses are rarely left with water buckets, simply because they are easily knocked over. It is usual practice for tethered horses to be visited with a supply of water and they quickly learn to drink a lot in one go. Whilst this is far from ideal, particularly in hot weather, as long as the equine does not become dehydrated the practice is within the boundaries of the law.
Sun Most horses are well equipped to deal with the elements and many enjoy dozing in the sunshine. However, a horse should have access to some form of shade, particularly in the middle of the day so they can choose whether they want to be in or out of the sun.
Sun becomes more of a problem for horses with sensitive skin, especially pink skin which lacks the dark pigment that helps protect against UV rays. Pink skin around the eyes is of particular concern as this is linked with an increased risk of cancer. An eye mask should be used to protect any horse whose eyes react to sunlight (see also the next section on flies and insects).
The soft, hairless skin over the muzzle is also prone to sun burn and should be protected with a visor if need be. Standard high factor sun cream can be applied, but tends not to stay on for very long!
Flies and Insects Horses may use shade to get away from flies as well as heat. Flies can be irritating, but in some cases they may also cause health problems. If sensitive eyes water in bright sunlight, the liquid attracts flies, which further irritates the area and, if the cycle is not broken, the area can become inflamed and even infected. Fly masks are available which may cover just the eyes and ears or cover the whole head. They look rather surreal to us, but can make a huge difference to the quality of life of an equine during the summer months.
Flies can also be a problem if the horse sustains cuts and grazes. The irritation caused by the flies will hamper the healing process and may even lead to a secondary infection. The flies can also lay eggs in the wound, resulting in a maggot problem.
Sweet Itch Far from being sweet, this condition can be horrible for a horse. Sweet itch is an allergy to the bites of certain midges, which stimulates an overreaction in the horse’s body. This can result in a variety of symptoms, the most obvious being an intense itchiness which can lead to obsessive scratching on every available surface. Severe sufferers can easily scratch themselves till they bleed and this may lead to secondary problems with flies and/or infections.
All equines should be looked over thoroughly every day to check for signs of scratching, irritation or hair loss. Check underneath the mane and around the base of the tail particularly carefully. Soothing any troubled spots with a specific sweet itch lotion can help break the cycle early.
Special rugs can make a real difference to sweet itch sufferers by creating a barrier that prevents insects from having access to the horse’s skin. The rugs have very small holes that allow for circulation of air to help keep the horse cool. It is important to remove the rug once a day to check underneath. The horse will probably appreciate a good groom as well to compensate for the inability of itself or companions to groom naturally. Use a soft brush to avoid aggravating the sensitive skin.
Sweet itch sufferers shouldn't be grazed on marshy land during the warmer weather as this will be a haven for midges. The horse will also particularly benefit from a field shelter where they can escape the insects. Providing water and some food within the shelter will allow the horse to spend as much time as they wish in the shade without being driven out by hunger or thirst.
Seasonal RAO Some horse’s have respiratory problems throughout the year called RAO. Generalised RAO (Recurrent Airway Obstruction) was also known as COPD, broken wind or heaves and is an allergy to dust or spores in hay and bedding. Seasonal RAO however, is triggered by an allergy to pollen spores in the air which means that although the symptoms are the same, the horse’s will only usually be affected during the spring and early summer.
Both RAO allergies cause the tissues and mucus lining the horse’s airways to thicken and narrow the diameter of the tubes, meaning that less air can be inhaled and exhaled with each breath. The symptoms of RAO will therefore be heavy breathing, wheezing and lack of energy, perhaps accompanied by a cough and/or runny nose and must be an unpleasant experience for the sufferer. Severe attacks can be very distressing for the horse and for anyone who witnesses their extreme discomfort. An equine vet will be able to establish the severity of the horse’s condition and prescribe a suitable course of treatment to help make them more comfortable. The best way of preventing or managing the condition is to try and pin point the source of the allergy and limit the horse’s exposure to it as far as possible.
Hooves Prolonged periods of turn out on very dry ground can affect the hooves of unshod horses, causing them to become brittle and prone to cracking. Being vigilant with farrier trims will help reduce breakages and rough edges but owners can also help to reduce dryness by having a good general hoof care routine in place. It is important to look after hooves all year round, reacting once a problem has appeared is too late.
Hooves are adaptable and resilient and extra feed supplements and expensive lotions and potions should not normally be required. A healthy diet and regular farrier visits should all help protect the hoof against change in temperature and ground conditions. If a horse still suffers from brittle hoof horn, the best remedy is to soak the hoof in water. Some horses will tolerate standing with their foot in a bucket but a more enjoyable method might be to ride or lead the horse to a stream and have a paddle together! Applying oil once the surface of the hoof has dried again will help retain the extra moisture in the hoof tissues.
Laminitis It is now thought that 90% of laminitis cases are caused by an underlying problem such as Equine Cushings Disease or Equine Metabolic Syndrome. Flushes of fresh Spring grass may trigger laminitis, but is not necessarily the cause. Laminitis is a complex issue and anyone looking for more information on understanding or preventing this common, but often devastating disease can go to Redwings’ special Laminitis leaflet.
Working Horses Extra care should be taken with working horses in hot weather in the same way that humans need to watch out for the effects of heat and dehydration. Avoid riding out in the hottest hours of the day and take extra time cooling down after a working session.
Remember to monitor a horse’s weight and diet throughout the year as rations of forage and hard feed will usually need to be dropped depending on how much grass is available. Most healthy horses should be able to manage without supplementary feeding if they have the right quantity of grazing.
Horse owners and riders should be aware of the link between excessive sweating and problems such as tying up (azoturia). Not just water is lost in sweat, but bodily salts and minerals, known as electrolytes. It is reduced levels of some of these essential elements that affect the muscle enzymes, leading to cramps and stiffness. Replacement electrolytes can be provided in water to replace lost mineral salts, but planning working sessions in a way which minimises excessive overheating and sweating in the first place is much the best approach.