Cooling hot horses

  • Any horse at any competition or show at any level in any country can suffer from heat stress – this includes event horses, dressage horses, show jumpers, racehorses, polo ponies, endurance horses, driving horses, and horses or ponies in gymkhanas.

    Cold water cooling is a method which, if applied correctly, can cool down hot horses rapidly after competing, speeding recovery and reducing the chances of dehydration and heat stress.

    This is particularly important if horses reach a temperature of more than 40 degrees C (104 degrees F) or compete in hot weather (above 26 degree C or 80 degree F). There is no evidence that this technique causes any muscle problems such as ‘tying up’.

    Cooling your horse

    The cold water cooling technique cools horses using two of the three ways they normally lose heat – convection and evaporation.

    You will need the following equipment:

    • Large buckets to hold 40-50 litres of water and large blocks of ice.
    • Supply of more water close by – hose or tanks
    • Small buckets (5-10 litre) – supplement tubs are ideal
    • Assistants – three is ideal – one to hold the horse and one person to cool each side
    • A shady spot to carry out the cooling

    Start to cool the horse immediately after it finishes exercising, while taking the rectal temperature. Liberally apply cold water to all parts of the body including the quarters. This is where most of the large muscles used for movement are located and so is an area that gets particularly hot.

    Don’t scrape off the excess water after each application: it is more important to continue to apply cold water. Alternate 20-30sec cooling periods with 20-30sec walks in a circle. The walking and cooling sequence is important. The walking promotes blood flow to the skin and cooling by convection; the movement of air aids cooling by evaporation.

    Check the horse’s rectal temperature at intervals. The temperature should fall by around 1 degree C in 10 minutes.

    Allow your horse to drink small amounts of water (around half a bucket) during competition (e.g. during the 10 minute box in three day eventing), between rounds (e.g. showjumping), during long warm-up periods (e.g. dressage) and immediately after exercise. This will help to cool the horse down and reduce the effects of dehydration.

    Stop cooling if the rectal temperature is less than 38-39 degrees C, if the skin over the quarters is cool to touch after a walking period, if the respiratory rate is less than 30 breaths per minute or if the horse shivers continuously.

    Things to avoid

    • Don’t put ice in the horse’s rectum as it can hide a high temperature.
    • Don’t hold small bags of ice against the horse’s skin – this reduces cooling by stopping skin blood flow to the area under the pack. Instead, concentrate on cooling as much of the body surface as possible with cold water.
    • Don’t place wet towels on the horse. Although the towel may be wet and cool at first, it soon warms and acts as insulation, preventing the loss of heat.
    • Don’t apply excessive amounts of grease prior to cross country. The grease acts as insulation, prevents sweating and limits sweat evaporation.
    • Don’t let horses stand still for prolonged periods.
    • Don’t prevent the horse from drinking small amounts of water (eg half a bucket) during competition. Water should be left in the stable until 15 – 30 minutes before exercise. Water is emptied very rapidly from the stomach.
    • Don’t give the horse ice cold water to drink.

    Hot days at Hartpury

    Last weekend’s Hartpury International Three Day Event at Hartpury College in Glos took place while Britain was experiencing record temperatures, but, thanks to the Animal Health Trust’s recommendations for cooling horses and the considerable efforts of the organisers, no horses suffered adverse reactions as a result of the heat.

    The event had tonnes of ice and plenty of cold water on hand, and cool mist fans were available both in the D Box and the stable area, with vets ready to check the horses’ temperature and recovery rates.

    Lauren Griffith, who attended the event as a groom, told HHO: “We received a leaflet with the AHT’s advice on coping with the heat when we arrived, and the helpers in the D-box worked all day to make sure the horses were OK. Having the vets on hand at both the end of the cross-country and back at the stables was a real bonus and the mist fans really helped cool the horses down quickly.”

    To read more about the AHT’s work visit: www.aht.org.uk

    For more information about Hartpury College visit: www.hartpury.ac.uk

  • Check out Horse & Hound’s report from Hartpury International Horse Trials in today’s issue of the magazine.
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