Survival Mode

Every place has a season, or seasons, when the goal is simply to get through it and survive. Whether it be extremes of heat or cold, wet or dry, it’s the season the inhabitants dread–openly or behind a mask of determined pride. We’re tough, the latter declare. We Survive!

In the northern tier of North America, that season is usually winter. As you go south, the endurance gauge shifts toward summer. By the time you get to the Southwest, where winter is a blessing, summer is something you either run away from screaming, or endure with gritted teeth and air conditioning cranked up to high. And if you don’t have A/C–as many people still do–you hope your evaporative cooling works, or discover the bliss of a patch of shade and a wet bandana.

For horses in the Southwest, summer is the tough season. In northern parts, when a horse is old or ill, people wonder if he’ll make it through the winter. Down here, it’s, “Will he still be alive by fall?”

Horses are designed by nature for steppe and tundra. Their ideal temperature range is in the 50sF/low teens C. Some breeds, notably the Arabian, are adapted for desert heat, but even they tend to do better at lower temperatures. Their bodies are designed to retain heat rather than expel it, and for the heavier breeds, heat can be a misery.

The saving grace for horses as opposed to dogs or cats is that, like humans, they sweat copiously through the entire skin. As long as they’re sufficiently hydrated (which varies greatly depending on the size and weight of the horse, the temperature, the humidity, and how much work he’s doing, but will fall somewhere in a range of 10 to 50 gallons per day), they can cool themselves as they go. It still helps to sponge or hose them off if possible, and to go easy on the work load during the heat of the day; and also give them free access to salt. Electrolytes can help as well, though they can be overdone.

Horses are amazingly adaptable creatures. They can handle extremes of heat or cold quite well, with appropriate suport. It usually takes about ten days to two weeks for them to adapt to high heat; during that time, it’s vitally important to keep the water coming and keep the work down to a minimum, plus offer salt and shade. One trick that’s popular among experienced horse people is to wet down the feed–hay and grain both–so that the horse is basically drinking while he eats. They might toss in a bit of salt, too, to encourage him to drink.

It’s not just that he might get heat exhaustion, either, though that is by no means a trivial thing. A horse who does not drink enough fluids cannot keep the proper flow of roughage running through his gut. Dry roughage clogs up the system and creates an impaction.

Impaction colic, as it’s called, is bad. The first line of defense is to feed oil–mineral oil for choice–in the feed. If that doesn’t work, the vet or handler will try to pour it in via nasogastric tube. This is an old remedy, but it often works to loosen up the clog and get the system moving.

If the system doesn’t move, the gut will start to die, and so will the horse. Then the only option is surgery–and colic surgery is difficult, expensive, and extremely hard on the horse. (For one thing, it involves opening up the horse and pulling out literally hundreds of feet of intestine, looking for the clog.) Many horses do survive and even go on to have full and productive working lives, but many also go septic and die.

Not a pretty picture by any means, but with care and attention and lots of water both inside and out, horses generally make it through the Southwestern summer without colicking or collapsing from heat exhaustion. Their riders and handlers work with them in the cool of the early morning, or even after dark–shows and gymkhanas shift to the opposite side of the clock, and will run from late afternoon until as late as midnight. The old adventure-story dodge, sleeping through the heat of the day and traveling at night, isn’t fiction for the hot-climate horse person; it’s simple survival.

Dry heat is not the only challenge of the Southwestern summer. The heat tends to peak in late June, when records are broken and the air can become so hot and thin that airplanes can’t lift off the runway. Then, around the beginning of July, the winds shift and the moisture begins to stream up from the tropics, fed intermittently by tropical storms and hurricanes. The heat is still dramatic by most standards, but now the humidity climbs with it, and daily storms bring ferocious lightning, strong downpours, flash floods–and a sudden wash of cooler air after the intensity of the heat.

This is called the monsoon, and it is literally and technically the same pattern as the more famous Asian version. It brings a whole new set of challenges for the horse: sometimes wild shifts in barometric pressure, which can upset the stomach and cause gas colic on top of the impaction colic from too much heat and not enough water; plus a plague of flies, gnats, and mosquitoes that feed on the horse’s thin, blood- and moisture-rich skin and generously share whatever diseases they carry. Much of the horse handler’s energy in this season goes into keeping the insects at bay with horse clothing (fly sheets and nets and masks and leg protectors), baths, insecticides, repellents, traps, and natural predators, from bats to tiny wasps that feed on fly larvae. Horses can go lame from stamping to get flies off their legs; may break out in rashes and hives from insect bites; can rub themselves raw to get away from the itching.

None of this is nearly as bad as the fly plague in temperate zones or in consistently humid climates, but it’s still a challenge. Horse handlers dream of winter, when the insect infestations drop precipitously along with the temperature and the humidity–even in the winter rains, the humidity is never as high as it can get during the monsoon.

Luckily all of this passes. The humidity recedes. The heat rises again for a few weeks, but then, usually in late October, it breaks. The days are mild; the nights are cool, and even crisp. Then horses and their human handlers can breathe and move freely again, and stop sweating and stamping and swearing and hiding from the sun.

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Survival Mode — 3 Comments

  1. It always amazed me to read of the explorers who used ponies in Antarctica — just about as opposite as you can get in climate, from yours. The animals only survived there with considerable human support, but I suppose that is the same in the southwest.

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