Transporting Your Horse to a Warmer Climate

Horses can live in hot and humid climates as long as owners take a few precautions to help keep them healthy.

Photo: Thinkstock

By Siraya Chunekamrai, DVM, PhD, WEVA Board Member

There are many issues to consider when you're planning to transport your horse, especially if he's moving to a hot and humid climate. Veterinarians often talk about ‘acclimatization’ and how a horse must have enough time to acclimatize to a new weather pattern after moving to a different region. But acclimatization is not just about time or simply letting the horse "get used to it"; rather, it's more about how we can help prepare our horse for this change.

As the world gets smaller (or warmer!) and we transport our horses to various countries for competition, breeding, or training, a good working knowledge of how we can make this transition more comfortable and safe is essential.

Water and Electrolytes Horses need these two items both to maintain body function and to produce sweat—the main avenue whereby horses can lower body temperature through evaporation. Evaporation comprises 60% of the body’s ability to lower body temperature; the remaining 25% is by expiration (through the lungs) and 15% by convection. If a horse is dehydrated and does not consume enough electrolytes, we often see them lose their ability to sweat.

Panting Horse

Heavy panting is a sign of hyperthermia.

To compensate, the horse's heart rate might increase as he tries to bring the heated blood to the skin and his respiratory rate might increase as he tries to lose heat through the lungs. Hyperthermia ensues with the horse appearing depressed, refusing to eat, and panting heavily; some can collapse and succumb to heat exhaustion. Add electrolytes containing sodium, chloride, and potassium—similar to horse's sweat--to your horse's feed daily. Many formulas have only high amounts of salt (NaCl) or mostly sugar—sometimes up to 70-85%!

Tropical Feedstuff and Forage Though we try to pack what the horse is used to eating on the trip, you'll likely need to rely on local feedstuff and forage eventually. The key is to ease that transition by mixing the old feed with the new in a gradual change that takes place over the course of two to three weeks.

Feedstuff and forage in the tropics often do not have the same quality and mineral content as those in temperate zones. Most grain and grain byproducts contain large amounts of phosphorus which, if not calculated properly, could create a high phosphorus/low calcium ratio. This will lead to bone resorption, known as osteodystophia fibrosa. In addition tropical grasses mostly contain large amounts of oxalate, a substance that binds to calcium and makes it unavailable to the horse. Hence, it's important to analyze the available feedstuff and supplement with calcium and other trace minerals as needed.

Colic Alert Stress from transportation, dehydration, and feed changes can contribute to colic or gastric ulcers. Remember to pay attention to more subtle signs of gastrointestinal (GI) tract dysfunction and not only the overt signs of refusing to eat or pawing the ground. The amount and character of a horse's feces, the amount of water intake, any change in behavior of eating or drinking (eating/drinking slowly, eating sand, plunking its hay into water before eating, etc.) are signs that you might want to call a veterinarian for advice if you've recently moved your horse to a warmer climate.

Insects and Vectors Insects are a major problem causing nuisance, stress, disease, and sleep deprivation in some horses. Equine infectious anemia (EIA) can be transmitted by mosquitoes, as can most encephalitis viruses (including Eastern and Western equine encephalitis, Venezuelan equine encephalitis, Japanese encephalitis, and West Nile Virus). Larger organisms, such as Trypanosoma evansi (the etiological agent of the disease known as Mal das Caderas or surra in horses), are protozoa living in the blood stream and can be transmitted by larger tabanid flies. Warmer climates also carry the risk of tick borne diseases such as anaplasmosis and lyme disease.

So how can we better prepare for acclimatization?

  • Pay attention to your horse's hydration status and water intake, and supplement him daily with electrolytes.
  • If needed, help your horse cool down by repeatedly applying and scraping off cold or ice water and using fans to encourage evaporation. • Ensure stables have good airflow and paddocks have shade and water available at all times.
  • Have a proper feed analysis and formulate a feeding plan accordingly, if you're using local feed and forage. If the analysis reveals your feed is lacking in certain minerals, supplement those in your horse's feed.
  • Monitor the character of your horse's feces, his water intake, and any changes in feeding behavior. Seek advice from a veterinarian for even subtle signs of GI tract disturbance.
  • Manage risk factors associated with vector-borne diseases: Vaccinate, if possible; reduce areas of standing water; get rid of manure to decrease fly populations; use insecticides or mosquito nets; check horses daily for ticks; avoid allowing your horse to graze in forests or woodlands; and spray him with topical insect repellents.
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