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For the love of you pet: Watch for signs of overheating when exercising your horse

By By John Beck
Sept. 5, 2013 at 4:05 a.m.


During the summer, how should I change my exercising habits to prevent my horse from getting heat stroke?

South Texas summers can be sweltering and humid. There are some important issues to address that will prevent heat stress in your horse.

First of all, if you feel hot, then your horse feels hot, so keep that in mind when trying to determine if it is too hot for exercise. Warm air and high humidity will inhibit your horse from adequately releasing internal heat. This accompanied with exercise and the muscle exertion that ensues will cause heat to build up.

As muscles start to fatigue, more oxygen will be required for energy, and as temperatures increase, even more oxygen will be required. Other problems result from dehydration secondary to water loss through sweat. Basically, it is a vicious cycle that can lead to serious fatigue, neurologic issues and damage to key organs such as the heart, kidneys and skeletal muscle tissue.

The best solution to heat stress is to prevent it. Ride your horse early in the morning and late in the afternoon when it is cooler. Provide water to your horse immediately following exercise. Allow up to two or three gallons of water intake. Water intake after exercise does not cause founder (laminitis) or colic as most people think.

After exercise your horse is more likely to drink water, therefore rehydration will occur. Provide plenty of fresh, clean water available at all times. Offer elecrolytes or salt blocks in every stall and turn out. Make sure there are fans up in the barn and plenty of shade in pastures.

It is important for you to be able to evaluate whether your horse is coping with heat. Heart rate, hydration status and rectal temperature are important parameters to evaluate. A heart rate can be taken with a stethoscope just behind the front left elbow (where your girth runs). You can also take a pulse under the jaw. Count the beats or pulses in 15 seconds and multiply that by 4. A horse's heart rate should range from 28 and 46.

Hydration status can be evaluated by looking at your horse's mucous membranes. They should be pink, moist, and have a capillary refill time of less than two seconds. Capillary refill time can be evaluated by pushing on the gums and timing how long it takes for the mucous membranes to turn from white to pink.

Skin tent can also be evaluated by pinching the skin on the neck and evaluating how long it takes to snap back into place. An adequately hydrated horse's skin will snap back immediately. Rectal temperature can be taken with a general thermometer and should not rise above 103.5.

If your horse appears to be having difficulty cooling down, bathe your horse with cool water focusing on the head, neck and legs, followed by scraping of the water and application again. Continue to monitor vital signs and offer plenty of water.

Make sure you keep your horse in a shaded, cool area. Administration of a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory may be necessary. If your horse does not appear to be getting better, then contact your veterinarian for further advice.

Dr. John Beck has a veterinary practice at Hillcrest Animal Hospital in Victoria. Submit questions to Dr. Beck at drjohnbeck@hotmail.com.

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