Summer horse care: The heat is on
We spoke with a variety of experts about how to ensure your horse is performing at its best through the summer
NAF’s head nutritionist Kate Hore, RNutr (Animal), R.Anim.Technol
What are the key concerns riders should be aware of when competing in the summer?
If we’re lucky enough to get some warm, dry weather, then that brings its challenges, particularly for hard-working horses. It’s important to ensure your horse is fit to compete and that fitness regime should have started months before to ensure adequate levels. In particular, stand back and try to take a critical look at your horse’s Body Condition Score to ensure they are at a healthy weight.
Unfortunately, excess weight is extremely common in leisure horses in the UK and would certainly increase the risks with horses working in warm conditions.
For all working horses, a key concern in the summer is ground conditions, where the cross country phase, at least, will be on grass and require the horse to gallop and jump on that ground. Summer ground conditions can easily harden up, increasing concussive forces through their limbs each time that hoof hits the ground and particularly when galloping and jumping. Another key consideration is electrolytes.
How can these issues be remedied?
For protecting sound joints, we should take care to avoid competing on very hard ground and feed a good-quality joint supplement, such as NAF Five Star Superflex or Superflex Senior, to maintain fit, healthy joints throughout the season. We advise feeding the supplement year-round as winter can bring its own unique challenges. Certainly, we advise feeding daily through the competition season.
In what ways can high temperatures directly affect a horse?
A high temperature increases the requirement for replacing sweat losses. We shouldn’t only consider sweat losses during high temperatures. Whenever your horse has worked hard enough to start a sweat, then you should think about those, but the need is increased on a hot, sunny day.
Sweat consists of two key components: the water and the electrolytes or body salts. It is vital that both are replaced. Giving a horse electrolytes without sufficient water (for example, a concentrated electrolyte) can further dehydrate an already dehydrated horse, so do make sure that clean, fresh water is always available. As the saying goes, ‘you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink’ and I’m afraid that is often true. Therefore, particularly if you’re needing to rehydrate your horse between phases at an event, many riders find using a palatable wet, sloppy feed is more reliable than offering water. Something like a small amount of really well-soaked sugar beet with your electrolytes added. Though still do make sure
that you offer fresh water alongside.
For the electrolytes themselves, look for broad spectrum, such as NAF Electro Salts, which covers all the key body salts. While we recognise basic salt (sodium chloride) as the most important electrolyte and one that is
required daily, it isn’t the only one – and a sweating horse needs to have all the body-salt nutrients replaced.
Are there any key indications that a horse is struggling?
There are early signs of dehydration that any rider can look out for. The ‘pinch test’ is a useful measure, where you simply take a pinch of skin – usually on the neck – and release it again. It should return to smooth, flat skin very quickly. If it is slow to return, that is an early sign of dehydration. Other early signs include poor performance and poor coordination, so if things start to go awry later in the day, that might be one explanation.
Signs that a horse is struggling with the ground conditions would be issues such as shortened stride, maybe slipping and soundness issues after the event.
Summer and warm weather can bring their own unique challenges too in the form of allergies, typically to triggers such as pollen, flies or, sometimes, bright sunshine.
Allergy signs often include respiratory-related issues, such as snorting or laboured breathing, loss of stamina and, depending on the exact issue, can also be seen as anxiety and behavioural-related reactions. Talking to your vet will help you get to the bottom of the issue.
How should a horse’s diet be adapted to alleviate these?
Within the overall diet, there are not many changes we can make specific to high temperatures and the summer weather. Whatever the season, the optimum equine diet should be high-fibre, forage-focused, providing balanced micronutrients and minimising the use of starchy concentrates. Any adaptation on the overall diet should be done through critical assessment of their Body Condition Score to see if adjustments up or down are required.
If additional energy is needed, it can be provided with the addition of oil to the diet as a safe form of energy that is highly efficient and doesn’t produce excess body heat through its metabolisation. Just remember, if feeding significant levels of oil, that should be balanced with supplementary vitamin E.
When fine-tuning the summer diet, ensure electrolytes are provided when worked and adjust that level suitable to the level of work intensity – the feeding instructions should detail that for you. Don’t forget travel, as electrolytes are also important then.
Joint support should be provided to nourish the health of working equine joints. We advise you to still be mindful of conditions and avoid working on excessively hard ground, but a good-quality joint supplement, such as Superflex or Superflex Senior, will be a useful start to summer soundness.
If it’s summer triggers that concern your horse, targeted nutritional support might be advised. Dietary approaches, such as concentrated antioxidants or ingredients for anxiety, can help to support a calm, settled approach.
What are the best products a rider can have in their inventory to help with this?
As a base to the summer competition diet, we’d advise all riders to have NAF Five Star Superflex or Superflex Senior and NAF Electro Salts in their horse’s daily diet to cover the requirements of staying sound to compete through the summer. If your horse has any specific requirements, for example, if they are struggling with the pollen or their stamina seems compromised, please do contact us where our nutritionists, nutrition advisers and vets will be happy to offer bespoke advice.
In addition to the diet, make sure you pack the summer essentials that every lorry should have – a refreshing NAF Cooling Wash, for when they’ve got warm, and don’t forget the NAF OFF Fly Repellents to keep those annoying flies at bay and let your horse concentrate on the job in hand.
Flair Equine Nasal Strips ambassador Dr David Marlin
As we transition into the warmer months, there are a few important steps we can take to help keep our horses safe.
Firstly, you can reduce the risk of poor performance and heat stroke by ensuring that you train your horse in the warmer part of the day if you’re going to compete at this time. We call this heat acclimatisation and two or three weeks of training in this way will make a big difference.
Secondly, ensure your horse has access to water right up until the time you ride or compete to reduce the risk of dehydration and impaction colic.
After exercise or competing, your horse’s breathing is a good indicator of how hot they are. Deep, exaggerated chest movement with flared nostrils means your horse is hot.
Horses can get rid of around 15-20% of heat generated during exercise through breathing, but this puts a strain on the respiratory system. Flair Equine Nasal Strips reduce the strain on the respiratory system and help speed recovery by making breathing easier.
Another sign of being hot includes being covered in sweat and feeling hot to the touch. Being unsteady is a warning sign that cooling is needed as soon as possible.
Cooling your horse carries almost no risk. Simply apply cool water continuously over as much of the body as possible until breathing shows recovery. If in any doubt, seek veterinary advice.
Emma and Kevin McNab’s hot tips
Emma and Kevin McNab (pictured above) have represented Australia on the world stage since their move to the UK in 2012. Emma competed at the World Equestrian Games in 2018 and Kevin at the Tokyo Olympics.
When it comes to keeping horses in top condition during summer, Emma and Kevin have a wealth of knowledge.
Our horses’ hooves need extra care in hotter, drier times. We apply a hoof conditioner every day to help keep their hooves healthy. We love using Absorbine Hooflex Liquid Conditioner because it’s breathable and absorbs quickly.
The two best ways to create a healthy coat in summer are grooming and washing. A daily groom not only keeps a horse’s coat shiny and healthy but it also means you can check over your horse thoroughly for any nicks, scratches, swellings or changes. Washing a horse after it sweats is also important. The best shampoo we’ve used is ShowSheen two-in-one shampoo and conditioner. It has provitamins and conditioners that nourish the skin and coat.
Try not to ride in the heat of the day. If you do have to or your horse gets very hot during its work, your cooling after becomes very important. It’s crucial to get cold water on to them as soon as you can toget their temperature down. We add some Absorbine CoolDown to the buckets of water – it’s a completely natural, herbal body wash that helps gently cool them, as well as refreshing and soothing their muscles.
We feed our horses electrolytes daily, but in the warmer months, when they are sweating more, we increase this to replace the minerals lost during their work and to rehydrate them.
IN THE FIELD
Make sure they are not overrugged – we often get flies or midges, so a rug that is breathable but covers them is best. Fly veils and fly spray are also important tools. We use it before work and then apply again just before we turn the horses out when the flies are bad.
Stay clipped to gain an edge
Don’t clip your horse, it’ll ruin their coat – that’s a phrase that often gets heard in the summertime, but why? It’s a myth!
Some horses, especially those in competition work, can benefit from being clipped all year round. After all, it can get very hot for a horse going round a cross country in the summer.
When clipping a horse in the summertime, just remember it takes a few days for their coat to re-establish and have a ‘show finish’.
You’ll need a different type of blade when clipping in the summer. The most popular in the winter is the Lister Fine Blade, which leaves a 1.4mm finish, but in summer a Lister Medium Blade (2.5mm finish) is recommended to give better sun protection.