June 16, 2022
What do horses need when winter weather gives way to warmer days? We asked veteran veterinarian, Dr. Beth Blevins. She’s practiced animal medicine in the Mission Valley of western Montana for 36 years treating mostly horses and cattle. Get her expert help on the subject in this post!
Warm weather is upon us, along with the opportunity to climb in the saddle again and travel more with our equine companions. But as the seasons change, so do our horse’s needs. Spring and summer are the time to evaluate equine nutrition, fitness level, and water intake.
Need some help navigating the changes? Take some advice from a vet! Here are four horse care items to be on top of to ensure your partner stays healthy heading into summer and the season is more pleasant.
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As you begin warm-weather activities, keep in mind your horse needs time to adjust to a new routine, workload, and... like the rest of us, heat. Hot weather and humidity by themselves are stressors for horses. Add an increased exercise regimen or training schedule and you’ve doubled the strain.
So how do you safely get your horse fit for the riding season? If you’ve ridden consistently through the winter, you can probably ramp up spring training quickly. If your horse has spent the cold months taking it easy in the barn or paddock and is out of shape, you’ll need to gradually increase the duration and intensity of exercise.
“Just as people cannot get off the couch and exert themselves maximally without at least getting sore,” Dr. Blevins said, “a horse cannot come off winter pasture and carry a rider to the top of a mountain without risk of health problems.”
Some deconditioning risks include sore muscles, tendon or ligament damage, and tying up—a painful condition often triggered by dehydration and strenuous exercise in an unfit horse.
“Tying up is a serious complication of exertion,” Blevins said. “The horse cramps, sweats and becomes reluctant to move. Muscle breakdown can also occur, releasing myoglobin from the muscles that can travel to the kidneys and cause severe damage.”
If your horse ties up, allow it to stand quietly to rest its muscles. If you notice red or reddish-brown colored urine, that’s a sign your horse is in danger of muscle and kidney damage. A call to a vet for intravenous fluids is the prescribed treatment at that point. Blevins noted the best solution for tying up, however, is to prevent it before it happens.
“Keeping your horse hydrated and gradually conditioning to increased exercise is the safest way to get ready for a summer of riding,”
Here are some vet-recommended suggestions on how to keep horses cool in hot weather and safely return to fitness:
The transition from winter to warm weather may also mean tweaking your horse's diet, especially if your horse works hard or you plan to travel a lot. Part of a thoughtful nutrition plan may include cutting back carbs in horse feed in hot weather.
Dr. Blevins recommends reducing soluble carbohydrates—like grains and grass—during warm months. Feeding too much can produce excess gas, acid, and endotoxins which cause horses digestive discomfort, colic, and sometimes laminitis.
“Limiting carbohydrate intake when trailering and riding in the heat helps prevent lactic acid buildup in the muscles and ulcers in the stomach,” Blevins said.
If reducing carbs creates a weight loss concern for your horse, consider feeding more roughage (fiber) and fat for energy. Soaked beet pulp, which is high in fiber, and a fat source like vegetable oil are good options. Both are abundant in calories and can help provide energy horses need. As a comparison, fat has a decided edge in dietary energy, delivering 2.25 times the calories as a similar measure of carbohydrates.
When transitioning your horse to a high-fat, high-fiber feed, Dr. Blevins recommends:
You probably already know the equine digestive system is built for slow changes. So carefully and gradually adjust both the type and amount of feed your horse consumes.
Redmond Product Tip: Daily Gold Stress Relief TM is a completely natural daily digestive supplement for horses. It buffers acid, improves nutrient absorption, binds toxins, and helps horses maintain a healthy gut year-round, including during feed changes and increased stress.
Another springtime concern for pasture horses is founder, aka laminitis. New green grasses sprout abundantly in spring. And while they’re lush and delicious, they’re also extremely high in sugars and starch. Too much can trigger laminitis in horses that gorge themselves or have health conditions like insulin resistance or Cushing’s disease (PennState Extension).
Some signs of laminitis in horses include:
Generally, grass is most dangerous for horses during daylight hours and into the late afternoon. This is when plants are exposed to sunlight and accumulate high amounts of sugars and starch. Blevins said grazing horses at night, when grass is not actively photosynthesizing and plant sugars are lower, is one good way to help horses avoid founder. If laminitis does occur, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories are the best treatment, along with immediately removing your horse from the pasture and feeding dry, low sugar hay for feed.
The importance of hydration year-round can’t be overstated. After all, a hydrated horse is a healthy horse! But while horses need access to fresh water 24 hours a day during every season, warmer temps and increased sweating during summer double the need for your horse to drink.
Horses lose tremendous amounts of electrolytes (minerals that assist in hydration and keep muscles and nerves functioning smoothly) in sweat. And since electrolytes are not stored in the body, they must be replenished to help horses rehydrate and recover.
“Feeding electrolytes free choice and giving your horse salt and loose minerals is one way to keep a horse drinking and sweating to assist cooling,” Blevins said.
If your equine opts not to eat electrolytes free choice, she suggests mixing a dose with water or applesauce to make a paste and administering it orally through a catheter-tip syringe. Doing so encourages the horse that’s led to water to drink.
If you’re confused about when to offer salt vs. electrolytes to horses, or even what the difference is, check out this blog. Feeding both is important.
If horses don't receive adequate salt and electrolytes in hot weather, they may become dehydrated and imbalanced, leading to other conditions. Symptoms of an equine electrolyte imbalance include:
“Thumps,” or synchronous diaphragmatic flutter, can occur in horses engaged in prolonged exercise with profuse sweating—like endurance athletes.
“The horse exhibits twitching in the flanks or may even look like a person with hiccups,” Dr. Blevins noted. “Low calcium and electrolyte levels make the nerve that stimulates the diaphragm more irritable, and the diaphragm starts contracting with every heartbeat.”
Oral electrolytes usually relieve thumps. But if not, a veterinarian can administer intravenous fluids with calcium and electrolytes to help a horse recover.
Product Tip: Redmond Rock Crushed TM loose mineral salt supplement meets your horse’s daily mineral demands and helps horses stay hydrated. Redmond Electrolyte TM is a paste that comes in an easy-to-use syringe for quick dosing when your horse needs additional electrolytes.
A horse that’s not drinking water is an immense concern. Change and stressful situations can cause horses to go off water, putting them at risk for dehydration and colic. This is especially true on the road.
The rigors of hauling, a disrupted schedule and new environment all affect a horse’s inclination to drink. And the taste or smell of new water can be especially off-putting to a picky drinker. In addition to salt and electrolytes, Dr. Blevins suggests this simple trick to help your horse stay hydrated when hauling:
“If you’re traveling with a horse and dependent on a variety of water sources, give your horse water with an additive to flavor the water before traveling,” she said. “The water will have the same flavor as it did at home, helping your horse to keep drinking.”
Find six additional tips to get a horse to drink away water in this blog.
Product Tip: Rein Water TM is an all-natural horse electrolyte drink mix that stirs easily into a water bucket. It alkalizes with natural minerals and masks the taste of unfamiliar water. Most horses love the natural flavor!
The riding season is exhilarating and exciting. Head into it with confidence! These simple horse care tips—gradually conditioning your horse, adjusting equine nutrition, and offering water, salt and electrolytes—will help you and your horse enjoy summer safely and successfully.
Dr. Beth Blevins is passionate about animal agriculture and raising healthy animals to raise healthy families. She owns All Creatures Mobile Clinic, and Beth and her husband tag team running the vet business and Rafter E Angus cattle operation. When she’s not caring for horses, Beth often rides them for work and play. She and her family barrel race, rope, ranch, and enjoy pack trips in the mountains. Watch their fun story about work life and living in northwestern Montana in this video.
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