Writing Horses: Caring for Horses in Summer

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Summer horsekeeping in a temperate climate is pretty much the ideal, though a strong argument can be made for the crisp clear days of autumn. Heat and flies can be definite issues, and summer storms present sometimes powerful challenges. But the warmer weather, the freedom from ice and snow, the much reduced probability of Mud, and above all, the chance to save significantly on the hay and feed bill by turning horses out on pasture, make the season most horse people’s favorite.

It does take a while to get started. The first real harbinger appears in the still cold, raw days of March, when horses get serious about shedding their winter coats. Shedding out the horses is the horse person’s spring ritual, when between the mud and the flying hair, life with horses becomes a thoroughly organic proposition.

Turning the horse from winter’s yak into summer’s sleek-coated beauty takes daily application of elbow grease. In the wild of course, horses manage on their own. They roll constantly, leaving horse-sized ovals of shed hair. Or they’ll rub themselves on tree trunks, or groom one another, rubbing strenuously with lips and teeth.

In the stable, this job has to be done by the human. Here the currycomb comes fully into its own. Some grooms will use a shedding blade, a one-inch strip of steel with leather or plastic handles, with one smooth edge and one edge like a blunt saw. The latter, scraped along the horse’s body, pulls off winter hair in clumps. Other possibilities include a grooming mitt or, in very recent times, the mighty FURminator.

Spring hair gets into everything. You learn to keep your mouth shut while you work on the horse, or you end up with a mouthful. Everybody you meet knows what color your horse is: he’s all over your shirt, your sweater, your jeans…

At this time, too—somewhere between March and May depending on the region and the climate—the spring grass starts to come in. Horses that have been living on dry forage and grain can’t just be tossed out into the rich green pastures. That’s an invitation to founder, and too many horses every year do just that.

The wise horsekeeper eases the horse up to it. Fifteen minutes a day, then half an hour, then an hour, and so on, until he’s out all day. By that time the grass has been grazed down a bit, and the later growth is less packed with brand-new nutrients. For many horses, a well-maintained summer pasture is an excellent source of nutrition; they may only need a bit of vitamin or mineral supplement to make up for any deficiencies in the soil.

But this is not invariable. Some horses need more calories and roughage than pasture can offer. And some need much less. Ponies and horse breeds designed for tough conditions and poor-quality fodder can overdose on rich grass and, again, founder.

For the hard keepers, additional hay and grain is a must. For the opposite type, the easy keepers, the most grass they may be allowed is a few minutes’ hand-grazing (on a lead, under supervision) once in a while. They’ll have to live in the grass-free paddock or the dry lot, and be watched carefully in case they sneak out into the pastures. Their feed will be a small ration of hay and a bit of vitamin, with maybe a handful of grain.

Besides the shedding regimen and the pasture rotation, the spring routine keeps the farm manager busy. There’s another responsibility, too, which crops up as soon as the weather grows warm enough: to keep the horde of flies at bay.

Horses do not get fleas, despite the epithet of “fleabait” and the color called “fleabitten grey” (which describes a grey horse whose coat is flecked with “freckles” of his base color). They can get lice, though those aren’t common in the modern era, and ticks can and will take hold—and bring diseases such as the dreaded Lyme. Mosquitoes will torment them, and may carry West Nile disease as well as a collection of other neurological nightmares. But the main scourge of the horse is the fly.

There’s a lot more to the fly population than the common horsefly. There are deer flies, moose flies, black flies, face flies, stable flies, horn flies, bluebottle and greenbottle flies—hordes and swarms of them. Some bite. Some carry diseases which can be debilitating or fatal. Some lay eggs in eyes and nostrils and mouths.

The horse is designed by nature to be a smorgasbord for flies, with his thin skin, prominent veins, large eyes and nostrils, and copious manure. He has defenses: the mane and forelock protect the neck and face, and the tail is an effective fly swatter. He will kick and snap at flies that bite him in areas out of range of these barricades.

Much of what a horsekeeper does in the warm season has to do with fly control. They may buy or manufacture ointments and sprays to repel or kill flies; they might feed preparations that prevent fly eggs from hatching in manure; they’ll put up traps to catch as many flies as she can. A popular, “green” expedient these days is the scattering of fly predators: tiny stingless wasps that feed on eggs and larvae and significantly reduce the fly population on a farm.

The horse meanwhile is literally barricaded with fly masks, fly sheets, fly leggings or boots. These are made of mesh that allow air to circulate but keep the flies from biting the areas they cover.

In addition to flies, horsekeepers worry a great deal about worms. Horses pick up eggs and larvae as they graze along the ground, or flies such as bot flies may lay eggs on their bodies that, once hatched, migrate into the horses’ digestive systems.

Worm damage is bad news. It can cause a range of problems from ulcers to intestinal perforations, and a horse with a large worm load is in visibly poor condition. His belly bulges, his coat is dull, his energy levels are low. If he’s young, his growth may be stunted. He may colic frequently, and he may die.

Every barn has some sort of worming regimen. The very “natural” barns tend toward herbal remedies and such old standbys as diatomaceous earth. More traditional farms use modern chemical wormers, usually fed in the form of a paste every few weeks (6-8 in warm weather or climates, as infrequently as twice a year in colder climates). These wormers will be rotated so that different brands and varieties tackle different types of worms at different times.

Some veterinarians will still tube-worm—pour in the chemicals through a tube into the stomach—though that has gone into disuse as wormers have evolved. There are even daily wormers: pellets that can be fed with the horse’s grain, that clear out the system steadily rather than hitting it with a concentrated barrage every few weeks or months.

Horses need to be wormed year-round, but in summer the worm count tends to go up and the wormer comes accordingly more often.

Pest management, as you can see, is a very big deal in the horse world. So is heat management: keeping the horse cool and hydrated as the temperature rises. Horses will drink considerably more water in hot weather than in cold. They may eat somewhat less, but their systems still require plenty of roughage in order to keep functioning.

Heat adaptation, like cold adaptation, takes time. Wild swings of temperature can be just as much of a problem in summer as in winter, and a sudden heat wave can be just as dangerous as a serious cold snap.

In very hot weather, a horse can’t sweat enough to cool himself off. Then he may need the help of a fan, and frequent applications of water to the body by sponge or hose. He may be kept inside under the fans during the day and turned out at night; he will definitely want shade of some sort, though many horses will choose to bake in the sun rather than chill under a roof.

Summer riding or other work needs careful calculation. It’s best to work the horse in the cool of the morning or after sundown. The trainer is careful not to let him get overheated, and may hose him off both before and after a session. He’ll be worked more lightly than in cooler weather, too, with attention paid to his respiration and heart rate.

Some horses, either through trauma or genetic mutation, lose the ability to sweat. This is called anhidrosis. It’s a serious condition, and while it can be managed, it presents significant challenges. A hot horse who can’t sweat can literally cook in his own skin—and unlike a dog, he can’t pant to cool himself down.

Even for a horse whose sweat glands are in full working order, summer’s heat tests the system to the limit. His caretaker has to be very careful not to overtax him, or the consequences can be fatal.

Luckily, most well-managed horses cope perfectly well with hot weather. Some heavier or hairier breeds may need to vacation in cooler climates, but the lighter breeds, especially the Arabian, will thrive in the heat. Just keep the water coming, sponge the horse off when the heat reaches its height, and ease up on the work regimen until it cools off again.

A writer can use this to excellent advantage. That desert trek, that battle in the Holy Land in July, or that sudden heat wave in your allegedly temperate setting, make for great plot twists. They add further, suitably chewy complications to the characters’ lives as they struggle to keep the transport (or the magical heart-companion) alive and functional.

Judith Tarr’s first novel, The Isle of Glass, appeared in 1985. Since then she’s written novels and shorter works of historical fiction and historical fantasy and epic fantasy and space opera and contemporary fantasy, many of which have been reborn as ebooks. She has even written a primer for writers: Writing Horses: The Fine Art of Getting It Right. She has won the Crawford Award, and been a finalist for the World Fantasy Award and the Locus Award. She lives in Arizona with an assortment of cats, a blue-eyed dog, and a herd of Lipizzan horses.

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