Exhaustion in the Trail Horse, by Dr. Ruth James

With Introduction from Russ Barnett, Owner and President, Outfitters Supply

I hear a lot of stories from customers about horses suffering from exhaustion at this time of year. I think this happens because we all get so excited that first nice weekend and take the horses that aren't really ready for a long ride up into the hills, around the lake, over the next peak and back out. After minimal riding all spring because we were all trying to plant the garden and landscape the backyard and whatever other chores have piled up over the winter, the horses are not in as good of condition as we think they are.

So I thought Dr. Ruth's article would be really useful for all of us. What she doesn't touch on that I wanted to mention were the factors that we need to take into consideration before beginning every ride to prevent exhaustion from ever occuring. For those of you familiar with my articles, you may recognize this list from how to determine how much weight your horse can carry. These same considerations can also be used to determine the distance your horse can travel on a given day:

  • Size and weight of animal
  • Condition and health of the animal
  • Conditioning and fitness of the animal
  • Conformation of the animal
  • Attitude of the animal
  • Age of animal
  • Size, fit and weight of the trail saddle or pack saddle
  • Ability of the trail saddle or pack saddle to distribute weight across the animal’s back
  • Weight of the rider or pack load
  • Ability of the rider
  • Design of the packs or horse saddlebags
  • Distance of the ride
  • Type of terrain
  • Altitude
  • Temperature and weather conditions
Most of these items are simply common sense, but are easy to overlook in our excitement to get out there and ride. Many of the close-calls, as well as tragic stories that I have heard over the years could have easily been prevented if the horse owners had just critically and honestly judged their animals against this list.An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Exhaustion is seen in horses on endurance and competitive trail rides who are ridden beyond their level of conditioning and physical ability. It may be seen with animals who are used on ranches or hunting trips when they are not properly conditioned for the work that is asked of them. It may occur with animals who are accustomed to slow work and are asked to work excessively fast without proper conditioning.. Factors such as heat and humidity may contribute to the problem; indeed, heat exhaustion may be a significant part of the animal's total exhaustion.

The exhausted horse may show any combination of the following signs, but will rarely show all of them; he will be depressed and have little interest in his surroundings. He will have no appetite and may not drink even when he is dehydrated. The eyes may be dull, sunken, and glazed, and the ears may hang limply. Some animals may have tense facial muscles and an anxious expression, especially if the problem is accompanied by colic or muscle problems. The mouth may be dry.

The horse will not cool out, and his temperature may rise to 106 degrees F (41 degrees C). When the thermometer is inserted, it will be noticed that the muscles of the anus are loose, and air may enter the rectum. If the anus is pinched, it may not respond by puckering closed. This is one of the best indications of severe exhaustion. Any feces which are passed may be hard and dry. Urine output is decreased due to kidney shutdown.

The heart and respiration rates are often well above normal and often do not return to normal when the animal is rested, as they would in a normal horse. In some cases, the respiration rate may remain faster than the heart rate. Breathing may occur in a pattern called "thumps" (synchronous diaphragmatic flutter), where the diaphragm contacts with the heartbeat, shaking the entire animal and giving him a rapid, inefficient breathing pattern. The horse may be severely dehydrated. Tying-up may occur along with the other symptoms, but most cases of tying-up are unrelated to exhaustion.

Get veterinary attention for the exhausted horse, if at all possible. If the horse will not drink, intravenous fluids may be necessary to help counteract the dehydration. Treatment for shock may be necessary in some cases. Oral electrolytes should be given if the horse will drink.

The horse will need rest and careful nursing, often for several days. If he is hot, sponge him with lukewarm or cool (NOT COLD) water. If he is cold or shivering or if he is still wet and the weather is damp, cold or windy, blanket him. Get the horse in to a stall with good, deep bedding if at all possible so that he may lie down and rest.

Horses who are used on endurance rides, as well as for other hard work, should be conditioned carefully so that they are able to handle what is demanded of them. They should be encouraged to drink as often as possible, and free-choice, loose salt should be available during the event. Excessive electrolyte supplementation should not be given before endurance rides, as the horse's body may become accustomed to allowing the unneeded minerals to pass through; this may make it difficult for him to absorb electrolytes when he desperately needs them.

Excerpted with permission from How to Be your Own Veterinarian (Sometimes) by Dr. Ruth James, 2015

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Russ On... How Much Weight can my Horse Carry?
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