How to survive a heatwave — whether you have a hairy cob or a competition horse

  • When lying by a pool is not on the agenda, H&H finds 
out how to get through
 a hot spell with your horse this summer

    Many horse owners are understandably concerned about how to keep their horses happy and healthy when the mercury spikes. So if you’re looking for some advice on how to care for your horses in such un-British temperatures as those currently forecast for next week, we have spoken to the experts to garner their heatwave advice for horses…

    1. Heatwave advice for horses: prevention is better than cure

    The ideal is not to allow horses to get too hot. And if they do, to cool them effectively. Following Barcelona, the International Olympic Committee and FEI funded a research project into the effects of heat and humidity on horses. Dr David Marlin, who led the project, says: “Horses were finishing cross-country at Barcelona with temperatures off the range on the thermometers, over 41°C. It was a wake-up call ahead of Atlanta 1996 — the key was to learn what would be reasonable to ask of the horses given the conditions.”

    The team developed an on-site assessment of the thermal load on horses — the Wet Bulb Globe Temperature (WBGT) index. This takes into account air temperature, humidity, sunlight and wind, to give a certain number. If conditions produce a figure above 28, horses are adversely affected, leading to falls and fatigue, and therefore the effort on the course must be reduced (by shortening the course, or removing jumps). If the WBGT exceeds 33, conditions are considered incompatible with safe competition.

    2. Don’t ignore horses that are turned out during a heatwave

    It’s not just elite competition horses at risk during a heatwave; even horses out in the field can suffer.

    A spokesman for the British Horse Society highlights the need for shade, water and suncream. “Horses are affected by the sun in the same way as humans — like pale-skinned and fair-headed humans, horses with pale skin and grey or white fur are most susceptible to burning,” she says. “If your horse has pink — rather 
than brown — skin, they are particularly 
at risk. Muzzles are very sensitive, so apply 
a high-factor suncream liberally and regularly around that area.”

    H&H vet Karen Coumbe urges owners to take action if a horse is looking uncomfortable out in the field, even at rest, during a heatwave.

    “Take his temperature,” she says, singling out “black, hairy, overweight cobs” as the most susceptible. “Horses out in a field, provided they have some shade, are unlikely to develop heatstroke, but if they are exercising hard, then hot, humid conditions can be challenging. If his temperature is over 39°C, he’d benefit from some cooling; more than 40°C and he’s at risk of heatstroke. More than 42°C can be fatal.”

    3. Know the signs of overheating

    “A seriously overheated horse may not be sweating,” Karen cautions. “He could be so dehydrated he doesn’t have the resources to sweat. Horses with heatstroke can be agitated, wobbly, depressed and show signs of colic. 
The breathing may be inconsistent or rasping, the mucous membranes congested and he 
may have a weak pulse. If you see any of these signs, take his temperature, start rapid cooling and consult your vet.”

    4. Have lots of cold water at the ready for a horses in a heatwave

    “Aggressive cooling” should be used, where cold water — between 4-10°C — 
is continuously poured all over the horse without scraping off the excess water. As the water evaporates from the horse’s skin, it will cool the horse down further.

    Karen has a few practical suggestions. “I’ve seen riders with little watering cans dribbling water down the horse’s neck — this is nowhere near enough water,” she says. “You need large buckets of water, ideally with ice packs to help cool the water further. Then use big plastic jugs to transfer the water to the horse, so you don’t waste the cold water by chucking it all over the place.

    “Don’t apply ice packs directly on the 
skin, as it can cause thermal damage. Keep it simple — you need to cool the bulk of the horse quickly. And move the horse to a shady area with a breeze. Misting fans are a marvellous luxury, if available.”

    5. Keep horses moving while cooling

    David advocates keeping the horse moving, as this increases the blood pressure (reducing the risk of collapse), and cooling the horse as fast as possible all over the body, because it’s the skin’s cooler blood that will go through the heart and into the muscles.

    6. Heatwave advice for horses: clever tips and tricks

    Irish eventing groom Philip Smyth Mua had his own little trick to keep horses comfortable after the 2019 young rider Europeans, where it was 28°C. “I put a sponge in the freezer, and then popped it under the headcollar while I was walking horses off after cross-country.”

    7. Know the rules about hosepipe bans

    In a hosepipe ban the use of 
a hosepipe “for the cleaning, maintenance and general wellbeing of any kind of animal is exempt from hosepipe ban rules”, due to animal welfare. This means that bathing your horse, hosing down his stable or the lorry, and 
filling drinking troughs are still permitted under a ban.

    In 2012 (when there was the last major hosepipe ban) there was also an official exemption to the restrictions on watering grass, “if it is used for sport, where this is required in connection with a national or international sports event”. So we shouldn’t fear rock-hard going at competitions.

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