When is it too hot to ride? Your heatwave questions answered…

With the UK set to swelter over the weekend, Rachel Fraser asks the experts how best to help our horses cope with the unusually hot temperatures.

When is it too hot to ride?

Emmeline Hannelly, welfare education manager at The British Horse Society (BHS), says: “If you are going to ride, it is best to do so either in the morning or evening when it is coolest. If you are riding in warmer weather, take more breaks in-between different exercises — horses can’t be expected to do as much in hot weather as they would at other times if they are not acclimatised to working for longer periods in the heat.

“Be mindful of your horse’s fitness as overweight horses may struggle more in hot weather. After riding, make sure you cool the horse down properly. This can be achieved by continuously pouring water all over the horse’s body surface.”

What are the signs of dehydration and what should you do if you are concerned?

Emmeline says: “The single most important thing is to keep your horse hydrated. Horses can easily consume more than double their normal water intake in hot weather, so be prepared for this.

“Knowing what is normal for your horse is important so you know when your horse isn’t right. Signs of dehydration include lethargy, depression, poor performance, thick and sticky saliva, mucous membranes that become redder in colour, increased pulse and breathing rate, nostril flaring, decreased appetite, producing dark urine or not passing urine for long periods of time.

“Feeding electrolytes can help replace those lost through sweating. But if you are adding them to water, make sure the horse doesn’t mind the taste, because if it puts him off he may not drink anything at all, so always offer an electrolyte-free option.

“If dehydration isn’t acted on, this could lead to heat exhaustion and potentially heat stroke which is extremely serious. If you are concerned for your horse, move him somewhere cool to rest and offer him water. Allow your horse to graze if possible and monitor their pulse and breathing rate. If your horse does not show signs of improvement, contact your vet immediately.

“If you are travelling your horse anywhere, take more water with you than you think you will need. Remember some horses are fussy about drinking water away from home, so it could be essential to have a familiar supply.”

Is water alone enough to rehydrate a horse?

Dr Francesca Compostella DVM, MRCVS, MSc, the RSPCA’s equine senior clinician, explains: “Water makes up approximately 70% of a horse’s body, so plenty needs to be available to maintain such levels. Horses absorb water through food and from drinking. On average, a horse should intake between 25-50 litres of water per day. So, during the hot weather, ensure they always have access to plenty of clean water.

“Water alone however may not be enough, as the fluid component of our bodies also contain important electrolytes which are responsible for keeping our blood pressure and cell and nerve functions active.

“Your horse could lose vast amounts of electrolytes by sweating, but normally these are replenished in the feed. If however he or she is sweating more than they can replenish, supplementary electrolytes can be administered.

“There are a number of commercially available powders, which are diluted in the water for your horse to drink. These have additives which are appealing to horses, such as apple flavours.

“Rehydrating solutions can also be made at home using 1.5tbsp of salt and 2tbsp of sugar in 4L of water. Amino acids such as glutamine can be added. It is, however, easier and most reliable to invest in a tub of commercially available electrolytes, which are easy to store and have a very long shelf date.”

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Help — I’m competing. How can I help keep my horse cool?

Dr Francesca Compostella says: “The body’s mechanism to release heat and thereby cool down, is by sweating. During water loss, the heat is lost to the environment in a mechanism called convection.

“To help your horse cool down, hose them with cool water, let them stand in a shaded, well ventilated area and ensure there is drinking water available. Don’t use wet towels or fabric covers over your horse, as these prevent the convection of heat.

“Don’t leave your horses standing in a trailer or other enclosed transport, as despite being shaded it may not be well ventilated. Likewise, avoid leaving them standing in the sun.

“A makeshift shaded cover using tarpaulin sheets or old bed sheets can help create some artificial shade while you wait for your class. Be creative if there are no trees or shade and you have to wait for long periods. And remember that you are as likely to suffer from the heat as your horse, so take care of yourself too!”

For all the latest equestrian news and reports, don’t miss Horse & Hound magazine, out every Thursday.