Monday, June 25, 2012

Stay Cool and Safe in the Heat this Summer

With the rising temps here in North Carolina, I think it is worth reviewing some of my top summer barn safety tips.

Hydrate, Hydrate, Hydrate!  

Hydration is key for horses and humans alike.  Always bring plenty or water to the barn and keep drinking.  Bring a water bottle to the ring for your lessons and don't be shy to ask for a water break.  I try to given plenty of walk and water breaks to my riders, but also want my riders to feel comfortable asking for an additional break if they really need it.  I find water and low calorie sports drinks to be more refreshing than carbonated or caffeinated beverages.  

I always monitor my horses' water intake, but I pay special attention to it during the warm weather.  Dehydration can cause serious health complications for horses, including colic, which can be fatal.  If I find a horse isn't drinking enough, I use this tip given to me by a wonderful equine vet I know on Long Island -- Put a handful of sweet feed in a half bucket of water.  Even my pickiest horses love the taste and will drink the two and a half to three gallons of water in order to get the handful of mushy grain on the bottom.

When is it too Hot to Ride?

As a general rule, I do not schedule any lessons during the hottest parts of the day in the summer.  It is best to schedule your rides in the morning or late evening hours to avoid the midday heat and humidity. Sometimes riding midday or in the afternoon is the only option, but there are times when it really is just too hot to ride.

So, when exactly is it too hot to ride?  A good rule of thumb is to use the following equation:

air temperature + relative humidity - wind speed = answer.

If your answer is...

Less than 130 - Go ahead and ride as usual.  Assuming they are healthy and properly hydrated, horses should be able to cool themselves naturally and stay safe.

130-170 - Use caution and lessen the length and intensity of your ride.  In this range, a horse's natural cooling mechanisms will function less efficiently.  Shorter, less intense workouts and proper cooling management afterwards are necessary to keep your horse safe and healthy.

Over 170 - Avoid riding.  A horse's natural cooling mechanisms are not able to function properly and serious cooling management will be needed to keep the horse from overheating.

The above assumes that the horse has adjusted to the warm weather already and is otherwise healthy and fit.  Also keep in mind that horses, like people, are individuals and have varying degrees of heat tolerance.  Some horses may not be able to tolerate heat and humidity as well as others.  I would be much more conservative when deciding whether to ride an unfit or heat-sensitive horse.  I only ride those horses earlier in the morning to beat the heat.

If you notice your horse isn't sweating as much as usual or isn't sweating at all, consult your vet as soon as possible.  Anhidrosis (lack of sweating) can be a serious, life-threatening condition for horses.  Luckily, most anhidrotic horses can be successfully managed, but owners should consult with their vets to determine the proper management protocol.  If your horse appears to be overheating, but not able to sweat, call your vet immediately and treat the horse as if he were overheating. (See next section for details on overheating horses.)

Take your own comfort level into account also.  If you are highly sensitive to the heat and humidity, be even more conservative.  If you start to feel sick or dizzy while riding, stop immediately and dismount.  Get yourself into the barn, shade, or AC and stay hydrated.

Cooling out after Your Ride

Offer your horse water after your ride.  It is an untrue old wives tale that allowing a horse to drink water while the horse is hot will cause the horse to colic.  I like to fill a 4 quart bucket with water and offer it to the horse in cross ties after untacking.  Allowing immediate access to small amounts of fresh, clean water can help avoid dehydration after exercise.  Once I have untacked and cared for the horse, the horse goes back in its stall or pasture, where it always has access to clean water.

Hose and scrape your horse.  Scraping the excess water off your horse is as important as hosing them in the first place.  If you don't scrape the excess water off of your horse's body, it won't evaporate as quickly, especially if it is humid.  The horse's body heat will then heat the water on them, causing the water to insulate them instead of cool them off.

If your horse is overheating, continuously hose with cold water and scrape until the horse's respiration returns to normal and the water you are scraping off the horse is cool.  It is another untrue old wives tale that cold hosing a hot horse will cause them to colic.  Hosing with cold water and scraping repeatedly is the fastest way to cool down an overheated horse.  If there is another person available, one person should hose one side of the horse, while the other person scrapes the opposite side.  Continue switching sides and hosing/scraping until the water you are scraping off the horse's body is cool and the horse's respiration has returned to normal.  Once that happens, allow your horse access to fresh, clean water and monitor water intake.

Summer Stable Management 

Horse's require access to fresh, clean water at all times, year round.  Monitor your horse's water intake to avoid dehydration.  Dehydration can lead to impaction colic, which can be serious and even fatal.

All horses need access to shade in the summer so they can have some relief from the hot sun.  My pastured horses have sheds that allow them access to shade during summer days.  Horses whose pastures do not have shade all day are kept inside under fans during the hottest parts of the days.  I will also sponge or hose and scrape any horses that are sweating a lot to give them some relief.

I also go to great lengths to prevent biting insects on my farm.  My barn has a Pyrahna® Fly Spray system that mists the barn several times a day, killing biting insects and spiders.  I also have battery-operated fly sprayers in my run-in sheds.  From April through October, I put out Fly Predators in my pastures to help naturally control the fly population.  Proper manure management also helps keep biting insects at bay.  I pick my stalls throughout the day and store manure in a covered dumpster.  I pick or drag my pastures frequently, as well.  Finally, I dump, scrub, and refill my outdoor water troughs every couple of days to cut off the mosquito life cycle.  My horses may also wear fly masks and/or lightweight fly sheets to give them much-needed relief from the flies.  I use fly spray on my horses before riding to repel biting insects.

When my horses are in the barn during the day, I always make sure to wet down the concrete aisle with a watering can before sweeping.  This helps prevent the dust from getting airborne and then inhaled by the horses.

Finally, plan your horse's meals around exercise.  Absent a health concern requiring otherwise, my horses have access to hay or pasture at all times.  I never feed my horses grain within an hour of exercise.  That means, I wait an hour after feeding grain before riding and also wait at least an hour after riding before feeding a grain meal.  If I need to ride around feed time for some reason, I will give the horse to be ridden just a small handful of grain when the others are fed.  Then, an hour or more after we finish riding, I will give the horse its regular meal.

Have a Fun Summer!

With a few precautions and some common sense, summer can be a great time to get your horse fix!  Don't forget the sunscreen!

Monday, June 4, 2012

Robyn's Rule

The first and most important rule on our farm is Robyn’s Rule:  Every rider must wear a properly fitting, ASTM-approved helmet with the strap buckled at all times while mounted.  Contrary to popular belief, we didn’t create this rule for insurance reasons or because we are afraid of getting sued.  In fact, this has been my personal rule for nearly a decade, ever since I made a promise to a woman I never met, who lives more than 3,000 miles away from me. 

That woman’s name is Regina, and on August 8, 2003, she lost her teenaged daughter, Robyn, as a result of injuries suffered in a tragic riding accident.  Witnesses say Robyn was mounting her horse bareback to go on a trail ride.  She was not wearing her helmet, even though that was something she always did.  Her horse began walking off down the barn aisle before Robyn had her balance.  Robyn slid off his neck and landed on her head.  Despite immediate, expert medical attention, Robyn never regained consciousness.  After four weeks in the pediatric ICU, she was deemed stable, though she remained in a coma.  The day before she was to be released to a rehabilitation facility that specializes in waking comatose patients, her heart simple gave out.  She left behind her mother, father, brother, and many more friends and family members who will never stop missing her. 

While Robyn’s accident was a complete “freak” accident and no one’s fault, it serves as a startling reminder that life is precious and horses are unpredictable.  Robyn had a phenomenal trainer, a loving family, and a great horse.  I cannot possibly express the rest of my thoughts more eloquently than Regina herself did, so in her own words: 

. . .  I've read all the threads about helmet laws or improved helmet laws and freedom to wear or not to wear one and other such political issues. Everyone, please understand, that for whatever reason my daughter did not have on a helmet, the fact remains she is dead. My best friend is gone. You can argue rights and politics until the cows come home, but, until you stand over the casket of your 18 yr old daughter who had so much left to give, but was taken so suddenly, please don't stand on principle about your rights. Get off your soap boxes and realize that what people are trying to tell you is that they love you and don't want to see you hurt. That's it. No politics. No infringement on your rights. Plain and simple, they love you and don't want you to get hurt. Not to wear a helmet is not "exercising your rights." It is a selfish act that has the potential to leave devastating grief behind for those who love you. You may pass on with your principles intact; but the friends and family you leave behind will suffer indefinitely.

So, to anyone who asks why we are so strict about our helmet rule, the answer is simple:  We care about you and want to see you enjoying horses safely for many, many years.  Nothing will ever make horseback riding 100% safe, and a helmet cannot protect you from every injury…  but they are a simple, inexpensive way to prevent many serious injuries.  We strive to instill safe handling and riding practices in our riders – and helmets will always be mandatory here. 

Top Flight Farm is forever grateful to Regina for bravely sharing her story and for allowing us to share it with others.  If sharing Robyn’s story causes just one more person to reach for a helmet every ride, it will be worth it.

To be clear, while helmets will always be mandatory on our farm, we are not advocating laws requiring all riders to wear helmets.  Rather, we are encouraging people to choose to reach for their helmets every ride because we want everyone to safely enjoy horses for many years.   

On that note, here are some of our Helmet Tips to help keep you as safe as possible:

DO get properly fitted for a helmet before purchasing.  The same sizes in different brands may fit differently, so one size or one brand does not fit all.  Your helmet should be snug all the way around your head and be adjusted so that, if you wiggle the brim, your eyebrows will move.   

DON’T buy a helmet on looks alone.  You can be stylish and safe, so make sure that helmet fits properly first.

DO store your helmet in a cool, dry place when not in use. 

DON’T keep your helmet in your car.  The high temperatures inside a locked car, especially in the summer, can start to degrade the protective Styrofoam in your helmet. 

DO use only a damp cloth or helmet cleaner to clean your helmet.  Better yet, buy a helmet with a removable, washable liner, so you can just toss the liner in the wash.  You can also store your helmet with a lightly scented dryer sheet inside to keep it from getting smelly. 

DON’T put your helmet in the washing machine or dishwasher to clean it.  The water and high temperatures will degrade the helmet’s protective Styrofoam.  In fact, don’t ever submerge your helmet in water or subject it to very high temperatures. 

DO replace your helmet every 3-4 years or every fall, whichever occurs first.  The interior of your helmet is designed to crack or break upon impact to protect your head.  Always replace your helmet after any fall in which you hit your head.  If you are lucky enough to not have any falls for 3 or more years, congratulate yourself with a new helmet!  Check with your helmet’s manufacturer to see the age at which they recommend replacement. Absent a fall, my rule of thumb is to replace my helmets every 3 years no matter what, even if the manufacturer recommends a longer time period.  You should choose whatever makes you most comfortable, but don’t exceed the manufacturer’s recommendations. 

DON’T ever buy a used helmet.  Even if you can confirm the age of the helmet, you cannot guarantee that it has been properly handled and never involved in a fall. 

DO fit your helmet straps snugly and buckle your helmet before you mount. 

DON’T ride with your helmet unbuckled.  It doesn't work if it's not buckled!