Ask the Vet: Beat the heat, pt. 2
Yesterday, our new columnist Dr. Jen Johnson talked us through the science behind equine body temperature. Today she explains how to put that knowledge to work via an effective hot-weather post-workout routine.
Review Part 1 here.
The benefits of aggressive and immediate cooling
It is unhealthy for any living being to have a severely elevated temperature for prolonged periods of time. Cellular functions become disrupted and, if high enough, an elevated temperature can cause brain damage and even death. It is rare for post-workout temperate elevations to cause death in horses, but there are still severe consequences to health and performance if a horse is left to cool on its own without any intervention. Horses cooled out properly are less stiff because there is less lactic acid build up in the muscles. Horses will have less severe electrolyte imbalances and dehydration, which are easier to correct without veterinary intervention. Body functions are regularly maintained, leaving the horse able to fight disease and colic. Cooling the legs specifically allows for the reduction of heat and inflammation in the tendons of the legs, and leaves the horse less prone to injury. So even if your horse’s exercise is taking place in a relatively ideal temperature, there are athletic performance, recovery and health benefits to properly cooling him out.
How is it done?
Not many of us have access to the cooling tents and misting fans available at prestigious events. Similar effects can be achieved with a little elbow grease and knowledge. The ideal cool down includes a combination of short walks and application of (ice) cold water to the entire body. One common mistake is applying cold water only once, and allowing it to sit on the coat. The water, in contact with the skin, rapidly heats and acts like insulation, which is counter productive. Even on an ideal day, the water does not evaporate quickly enough to be an effective cooling mechanism without scraping. Cold water should be applied and scraped off before it has a chance to become warm, then reapplied and scraped again. This should be repeated until the horse is cool to the touch. Short walk breaks can be used to prevent lactic acid build up. If mixing hosing and walking is not practical, your first aim should be to cool your horse with cold water rinses then walk to prevent stiffness.
Myths about cooling…
It is okay to allow your horse to drink water, even cold water, in moderation after exercise. This will rapidly replenish the fluids lost in exercise. It is also desirable to rinse horses with cold (even ice cold) water. Cold water will not cause cramping; in fact, it helps diminish lactic acid buildup which leads to sore and stiff muscles. Most distance runners will spend time in ice baths after long runs – the same benefits can be achieved for your horse.
Rapid and proper cooling post exercise can increase recovery time and diminish post-exercise soreness. The added benefits far outweigh the additional few minutes it may add to your post-ride routine, and is essential on days when the ambient temperature leaves your horse unable to efficiently fend for himself.
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