Summertime is cherished by equestrians. Competition season is in full swing, Mother Nature is finally giving us a break from cold, wet weather, and students have more free time to ride during summer break. Many people consider it to be the best time of year.
However, the season can spell trouble for your horse. There are a multitude of summer-related health issues including heat exhaustion, skin issues, swollen eyes, hoof problems, and more. As an equestrian, it is important to be well-informed about these potential afflictions so you can take preventative measures and know what to look out for.
Horses can over-exert themselves in the summer heat and cause their body temperatures to rise dramatically, resulting in heat exhaustion. This is characterized by profuse sweating, an increased respiratory rate, change in gum color, and a long capillary refill time. These horses are often dehydrated and are therefore unable to cool themselves down. Without intervention, heat exhaustion can lead to stroke when the horse’s temperature climbs to 106-110 degrees.
If your horse starts to show signs of heat stress but is still alert and their temperature is below 104 degrees, they just need to cool off a bit. Walk them out, get them some water to drink, and hose them off with cool water so their temperature will start to lower. If they are showing signs of more severe heat exhaustion, immediately stop working them. Get them in the shade, let them drink as much as possible, and hose them down. In this stage, it is imperative to quickly gain control of their temperature before their fever raises too high which could cause stroke or brain damage. Always alert your vet if your horse is having a medical emergency.
Make sure your horse is hydrated during the summer months to prevent heat exhaustion. They should always have access to fresh water. Adding a salt block in their stall or electrolytes to their water is a great way to encourage drinking, especially if they aren’t taking in enough water.
There are several skin issues that can affect horses in the summer. The most common one is sunburn, a painful reddening of the skin caused by overexposure to the sun. Horses with pink skin are very susceptible to sunburn. You can help prevent these burns by using fly masks and fly sheets as well as applying unscented sunscreen to vulnerable areas.
If the burns are more severe and painful with blisters or scabs, this is likely photosensitization. There are two types of photosensitization: primary and secondary. Primary photosensitization occurs when the horse eats a photodynamic plant like alsike clover or St. John’s Wart. Secondary photosensitization occurs when the horse’s liver cannot process photodynamic compounds. They need to have all pink areas shielded from the sun while their skin heals and the root cause is determined. Secondary photosensitization is hard to prevent, but you can prevent primary photosensitization by checking your pasture and hay for any toxic plants.
Equine insect hypersensitivity, or sweet itch, is another summer-related skin problem. It is an allergic reaction to biting gnats. The affected areas will be so itchy, the horse may damage the skin by rubbing. Horses may develop welts or hives on their body from fly or mosquito bites, too. Keeping up with fly prevention methods like fly sheets and fly spray can help prevent sweet itch and other bug-related issues.
Fungus and bacteria thrive in the summer due to the hot, humid climate. Rain rot (raised crusty clumps of hair, usually over the topline area), ringworm (crusty, circular lesions), and scratches (crusty scabs on the horse’s legs) are a few examples of fungi that can affect horses in the summer. Keep your horses and tack dry and limit their access to wet, muddy areas to help prevent development of fungus. It is also a good idea to keep an anti-fungal spray or shampoo around just in case.
Eye issues are more prevalent in the summer because horses are itchier due to flies and other bugs. They may scratch their face on their leg or against the fence in their pasture and accidentally irritate their eye. This typically results in a weepy, swollen eye. It could be due to something simple such as dirt or hair stuck in their eye, or something more serious like a laceration or corneal ulcer. It’s important to note that a swollen eye is considered an emergency, and you should call your vet before attempting to treat it yourself. Eye issues need to be treated because even small things like conjunctivitis (inflammation of the mucus membranes due to irritation) can lead to much larger issues if left untreated.
The humid weather and fly problems mentioned earlier can also affect their hooves. Rapid changes in moisture can cause hooves to become dry and weak, and prone to cracking, breaking, or contracting. They also tend to stomp their hooves on the ground to ward off flies, which can lead to injury to the hoof wall or bruising. Fly protection methods and limited turnout can help prevent hoof injuries.
Since bacteria thrives in the summer climate, thrush is also common in the summer. Thrush is characterized by a terrible odor and dark, black areas of the hoof that should typically be white or gray. It’s caused by bacteria that gets trapped deep within the hoof, causing infection. Left untreated, the infection could spread and become a serious threat. Pick your horse’s hooves out daily and limit access to wet, muddy areas to help prevent thrush.
While summer is a fun time of year, it can quickly become dangerous for your horse. Keep your horse hydrated, protected from flies, and away from muddy paddocks to support them during the summer months and prevent certain summer-related issues. Don’t exercise them if it is too hot or humid outside. Stay vigilant and keep an eye out for anything unusual with your horse. Summer should be fun for your horse, too!