Looking after horses in hot weather

16 January 2024 Written by VRC

With a typically Australian summer in full swing, it is important to ensure that the wellbeing and experiences of horses and participants on race days are as safe and comfortable as possible. Racing Victoria and the VRC each have a number of procedures and policies in place for this.

As the thoroughbred horse evolved from a desert animal used to hot, dry places, they can cope with dry heat pretty well. When humidity increases, however, they are very prone to heat stress. As well as the physical impact of that stress, their mental state must also be considered.

Vets and stewards monitor horse performance under extreme heat very closely, and technology such as the wet-bulb meter, which measures humidity, is employed at all meetings during warmer months , with a limit set to ensure horses are not asked to race in dangerous conditions.

RV’s General Manager – Veterinary Services, Dr Grace Forbes,  says that while horses generally cope well with heat, it is vital to enforce a strong industry procedure that prioritises their welfare.

“The health and wellbeing of our equine stars is of the highest priority to Racing Victoria and the Procedure for Racing in Hot Weather sets out clear and defined processes and responsibilities during these warmer months,” Forbes said.

“While horses generally cope well with heat and have effective cooling mechanisms of their own, it’s important that we put into place measures that minimise the chance of heat stress or associated health concerns.

“Additionally, it’s important that both our clubs and raceday staff are well aware of their responsibilities and what needs to be employed when the Procedure for Racing in Hot Weather is enacted.

While the VRC already has racing policies for each race day, additional measures are implemented on race days where the Racing Victoria Heat Policy is activated.

The measures in place are:

  • A revision of race times, bringing them forward to begin earlier in the day.
  • Programming two-year-old and staying races as early as possible.
  • Assisting regional trainers with the use of visiting boxes for temporary accommodation to travel horses at cooler times of the day.
  • Having horses arrive on course one hour prior to their start time instead of the usually required two hours.
  • Horses enter mounting yard as late as possible prior to the race.
  • Horse stall misters are in operation prior to the first horse arriving to ensure horse stalls are at their coolest throughout the entire day.
  • Mister fans are located in safe spaces throughout horse areas, from float park through pre-parade and into the mounting yard.
  • Hoses are located throughout all horse areas, including horse tunnel. These are run to cold water as each race field goes to the barriers.
  • Large buckets of water with ice, sweat scrapers and sponges are located around the mounting yard and pre-parade, refreshed after each race.
  • Additional buckets provided in the mounting yard and pre-parade for horses to have access to drinking water post-race.
  • Persons in the mounting yard and pre-parade available to assist with the hosing of horses post-race.
  • Bags of ice, fillable ice-boots, and wrap ice-boots are available from vet-block freezers
  • Bottled water and food options are made available for all participants from the strapper café and mounting yard.

These are as well as or in addition to the Racing Victoria Equine Welfare Requirement guidelines, as below.

  • Adequate wash bays and hoses should be available to enable rapid post-race cooling of horses.
  • Adequate drinking water should be available for horses.
  • Hoses with adequate water pressure should be available in the mounting yard and must be run prior to each race to flush water that may have been heated by the sun from the hose.
  • Hoses must be of sufficient length to reach all points of the mounting yard.
  • Large containers of ice water in mobile containers should be available at appropriate locations including the mounting yard, hosing bays and veterinary areas. Empty buckets should also be in these locations to allow water to be put on horses.
  • Sweat scrapers should be available at the mounting yard to assist in stripping water that has been heated by contact with the horse from its skin to assist in cooling the body.
  • The swabbing stalls should be kept as cool as possible for example the operation of sprinkler systems or hosing the roof, ensuring adequate ventilation and by providing fans/air-conditioning.
  • Where possible horses should be located in tie up stalls out of the sun and in areas where there is good movement of air. Tie up stalls should be kept as cool as possible. Consideration should be given to using sprinkler or misting systems.

Racing Participants Welfare Requirements

  • Cold drinking water including appropriate drinking receptacles should be made available to employees at the following locations – starting barriers, horse stalls.
  • Cold drinking water including appropriate drinking receptacles should be made available in the vicinity of the horse stalls area to licensed and registered persons who are required to work at the race meeting.
  • Cold drinking water, sports drinks and ice should be provided in the jockeys' rooms.
  • Sunscreen to be made available in either the secretary’s office or the scales area.
  • Ensure air conditioners or fans are operational in jockey’s rooms

Swimming pools

Post-race recovery is vital, and what better way to cool off on a hot day than a refreshing swim? Equine pools are a great way to exercise and rehabilitate horses and are now a practice integrated into most trainers’ routines. Flemington’s pool facility is a hub of activity all year round, but when the weather warms up, its popularity goes up another notch.

Integrating swimming into a thoroughbred’s conditioning and recovery routines is becoming common practice in horse training. For animals and humans alike, the benefits of cross-training for athletic performance, cardiovascular conditioning, and endurance are well known. When you combine training across swimming facilities, trackwork, horse walker, and other methods, the results can be great.

Swimming horses has many benefits – it promotes aerobic fitness, lowers lactate levels, and elevates heart rate recovery. It can be a valuable tool in building up and maintaining a horse’s fitness with minimum shock impact on its legs. It allows a horse to regain or maintain its condition without causing undue impact or pressure on the hooves, legs, or abdomen, and it is an ideal exercise tool for those that have undergone leg or abdominal surgery, or who are recovering from laminitis. It’s also a useful way to build up strength and coordination.

If they are recovering from injury, it is a beneficial rehabilitation tool. But another added bonus is the psychological effects, for, just like humans, who doesn’t enjoy the freedom and buoyancy of water at times? On a warm summer’s day, a light swim is a refreshing way to break up the routine and diminish mental fatigue.