Summer Horse Health Tips

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Summer is a universally busy time for horse owners, be it with horse shows, trail riding, rodeos—you name it. While you’re enjoying the long days, remember these tips to help ensure the summer riding season is fun and safe.

1. Hydration

On average, horses need at least 5 gallons of water per day for body maintenance. This can easily double or triple when they’re working hard in hot weather. Bring water from home when you’re traveling, as some horses are picky about unfamiliar-tasting water, or acclimate your horse to water flavored with a little apple juice or Gatorade ahead of time. These can effectively mask strange-tasting water while on the road. If a horse is exhausted or very hot, offer one gallon of water every 15 minutes until he has had his fill. Electrolytes can also help encourage water consumption and replace losses from sweating. Talk to your veterinarian about electrolyte dose and frequency, and always offer unlimited water after giving electrolytes because they can potentially worsen dehydration.

2. Heat exhaustion

Body temperatures can quickly rise above 104°F when exercising in heat and humidity, particularly if sweat isn’t evaporating. Other risk factors for overheating include obesity or poor fitness, heavy muscling, or a dark coat. For an overheated horse find shade if possible, and repeatedly douse him with copious cool water, using a scraper to remove it immediately. Continue until his temperature drops to 101°F or lower.

3. Sun protection

Horses with pink around their muzzles or eyes suffer from sunburn. Human sunscreen that does not contain para-aminobenzoic acid is generally safe for use on horses on small areas of the body. Long-term ultraviolet (UV) ray exposure can predispose horses with pink skin around their eyes to cancer, so get UV-blocking flymasks for these animals.

4. Trailering safety

During travel horses shift their weight with trailer motion. The energy they expend is almost equal to walking, so an eight-hour trailer ride is as much work as an eight-hour trail ride. Don’t expect your horse to arrive at your destination fresh and ready to go; arrive the night before or allow a few hours for recuperation. Also remember that trailering stresses the immune system, which can result in “shipping fever” or, worst-case scenario, severe pneumonia. If your horse develops a cough or fever within a few days of a long trailer ride, call your veterinarian. And if the weather is hot, open all vents and windows (with appropriate bars in place), and never park your trailer in the sun for an extended period with horses inside.  

5. Infectious disease

Many events involve large numbers of stressed horses in small areas and/or the use of common water sources. These are ideal conditions for disease spread. Airborne virus particles, such as respiratory-disease-causing influenza, can travel more than 100 feet to infect other horses, so avoiding nose-to-nose contact is not always enough for preventing infection. Some diseases, such as strangles, also pass from apparently healthy carriers, usually via shared equipment, direct contact, or human hands or clothing. Work with your veterinarian to develop a vaccination schedule for your horse. Many competitors arriving on show grounds are now required to have records of influenza and rhinopneumonitis vaccinations given every six months.

6. First aid

Maintain a well-stocked first-aid kit in your barn and trailer and a smaller kit to put in your saddle bag for trail rides. Talk to your veterinarian about dispensing prescription anti--inflammatories such as phenylbutazone or flunixin meglumine, and their correct dosing and frequency. Replace anything used-up or expired each spring. 

7. Travel documents

Most states require a current negative Coggins (equine infectious anemia) test and health certificates prior to border entrance. A few states also require brand inspections, which you can schedule. We have entered the age of apps and electronic Coggins and health certificate forms, some of which allow veterinarians to take horses’ photos rather than drawing their markings. You can keep these digital forms in your inbox for easy access. Though 30-day health certificates are required for long-distance travel through several states, many regions now allow six-month “Go Passes” good for travel to neighboring states. 

About the Author

Wendy Krebs, DVM

Wendy Krebs, DVM, is a partner at Bend Equine Medical Center in Bend, Oregon. She grew up in western Oregon where she participated first in 4-H and later in eventing. She graduated from Oregon State University College of Veterinary Medicine in 2002 and performed a yearlong equine internship, followed by a four-year American College of Veterinary Surgeons Equine Surgery residency. Her practice interests include surgery and performance horse care, as well as comprehensive preventive care. She lives on a small working ranch in Tumalo with her husband, two young children, and a bevy of animals, including nine horses. She enjoys riding her Oldenburg mare, Aria, emergency schedule permitting.

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