Competing in the Heat: What You Should Know
Competition season is in full swing and hopefully by now the horses are fit and ready to go in their respective divisions. As the year progresses the temperatures will only increase, especially in Singapore’s warmer climate. Heat may mean a decrease in performance levels and even longer-term issues. However, if competition preparation is done with clear intentions and caution, it is possible to excel even in a hotter climate.
In order for the horse to perform their best, they must be given access to sufficient amounts of water and electrolytes. In the heat horses will drink more, and it is up to you to ensure that they have enough water both before, after, and even during (e.g. after warm-up or while waiting for jump-off) competition. There is a myth that giving worked horses water (especially cold water) straight away after exercise can cause colic, but removing all water sources from a dehydrated horse can prove to be even more dangerous (SUCCEED Equine). A dehydrated horse: is less likely to cool down correctly, is at higher risk for heat stroke, is at greater risk for impaction colic, will have a reduction in metabolism, and takes a greater amount of time to recover. A working horse spends more energy on muscles than on digestion, which is why dehydration leads to greater risk for colic (hence why you should give your horse plenty of opportunities to drink). When it comes to electrolytes, they should already be a part of your horse’s diet. If you want to start giving electrolytes, start with 50 grams between two feeds (Marlin). When giving a horse electrolytes before, after, or during competition you have the option of electrolytes in feed, pastes, or water (around five to six grams of electrolyte for a liter of water). However, do give your horse an option of plain water if you do choose to supplement electrolytes through water.
When it comes to the actual event, you have to keep four things in mind: acclimatization, travel, warm up/cool down, and the actual competition. Making sure your horse is accustomed to the heat is a vital part of your preparation. This means about two to three weeks of exercise in the heat (Marlin). It is important to take your time here and not start acclimatizing your horse only a few days prior to the horse show. In the first few days of acclimatization, the horse’s ability to perform in the heat will decrease, so extra exertion may be dangerous for your horse. Trailering your horse in the heat means leaving either extremely early in the morning or extremely late in the evening. A horse standing around in a burning hot trailer (if there is no air-conditioning) can lose up to five kilograms in an hour and be dehydrated after the journey. When it comes to the warm up on the day of the competition, do consider that horses need less time for their muscles, tendons, ligaments, and other soft tissues to warm up in the heat. This means that you should aim to spend about half as much time warming up and instead take the time to make sure that your horse feels sufficiently cool (using water or ice). Cooling down is just as important if you wish to keep your horse healthy and ready for the rest of the event/season. The best way to cool down is to hose the horse down with cold water, paying extra care to the area behind and in front of the saddle. In the competition ring, you should be ready to do less in extreme heat. This is due to the fact that horses will create more adrenaline and use up their glycogen (muscle energy storage) rapidly in the hotter weather. It may be tempting to ask for a bit more from your horse in order to get that win, but it is more important to consider your horse’s long-term health.
The horse should always come first, so be on the lookout for signs that your horse is uncomfortable with the heat. Signs of heat exhaustion include: lethargy, nostril flaring, greater rectal temperature, lessened thirst/appetite, darkened urine, lessened urination, muscle spasms, irregular heart rhythm, decreased recovery post physical activity, poor performance, decreased recovery time, panting, and synchronous diaphragmatic flutter (“thumps.”) If these signs are ignored, the horse’s condition can quickly progress to heat stroke, eventually leading to ataxia (which can cause the horse to fall over). If the horse’s condition does reach this state, continue to cool him/her down while seeking immediate veterinary assistance.
If you are planning to compete during extreme heat, start doing your preparations now. Besides making sure that your horse is drinking a sufficient amount of water and receives enough electrolytes, it is vital to ensure that the horse is accustomed to the heat. However, even if your horse is used to performing in a hotter climate. Give him/her the best chances at success by considering the time at which you travel for the competition, what you do during your warm-up, and how you will help your horse cool down. Besides that, always work with your horse and monitor their condition. No ribbons are worth your horse’s well-being.