Notes From The Summer, Part II: Hydration

Oct 14, 2014 - 11:26 AM
Catherine Haddad Staller shares some valuable insight on traveling with top sport horses in this blog about her summer tour in Europe with Mane Stream Hotmail. Photo by Sara Hellner.

Dear Rita,

After making the decision to stay in Europe and not pursue a spot on the U.S. team last summer, I set about dealing with some issues that came up with Mane Stream Hotmail while I was still in Europe.

If you recall his unusual history, I had purchased Hotmail, aka Scottsdale, in 2012 as a 10-year-old third level dressage horse, hoping to advance him to Prix St. Georges and sell him in Florida within a short time.

Hotmail’s incredible ability to learn the whole Grand Prix within six months derailed that plan. I decided to keep him and see how good he could become. He ended up getting his first ribbons in dressage in Florida at Intermediaire II, and last winter he made a small mark on the international Grand Prix during the winter circuit.

Scottsdale had learned a lot of dressage, but as I was soon to discover, he still had not learned how to travel for competitions. Dehydration became an issue, and while this subject might be somewhat dry, it’s an important one if you ever hope to compete at the highest level when travel demands increase.

Air Travel

When transporting your horse by air, keep one very important guideline in mind: For every hour in flight, your horse will require one full 24-hour day to fully recover. In other words—six-hour flight, six days to recover; 10-hour flight, 10 days to recover.

When planning for international travel, I do normal work up until the day of departure and make sure my horse gets light work or at least some hand walking the morning before he travels. I always give oral, liquid electrolytes at sunset the day before traveling by air, and then again six hours before takeoff time. I don’t know if there is any science behind this timing, but it has worked for me. Only give electrolytes if your horse has a fresh water supply readily available.

All horses traveling by air are offered water in flight. Some drink, some don’t. Tips for getting your horse to drink after landing are included in the Overland Travel section below.

Assuming my horse is very fit (always) before embarking on the trip and I have observed good preparation protocol, hand walking (or stall rest if no walking is possible due to quarantine) for one to two days after arrival and then very light work for a few days is usually all it takes for my horses to bounce back after air travel. I can normally have my horse back in fighting form six to seven days after a transatlantic flight between the East Coast of the USA and Europe. I could shorten that time for competition if necessary (like in 2007 on the trip to World Cup in Las Vegas), but shortened recovery time means more down time after the competition. Don’t forget that.

So if you are about to embark on a four-month competitive tour of Europe, take your time and give your horse the chance to fully recover after the transatlantic flight.

All that being said, the air travel was easy for Hotmail. It was the overland shipping in Europe that would kick his butt until he learned how to travel and compete. And yes, Rita, horses can learn that gypsy lifestyle just like we can!

Overland Travel

In Europe, it’s commonplace for top competitors to spend 10-17 days at home, then pack up and drive to a competition somewhere on the continent—usually within a four to 12 hour drive. My plan was to slip into that old lifestyle as soon as I arrived in Europe last April.

Our first show in Hagen, Germany, was a mere two hours from our base in the Netherlands. That was not much of a test. But our second show was in the Austrian Alps, 12 hours driving from our base. I had planned the drive as two six-hour legs over two days with a stopover in central Germany. But of course the best laid plans can go awry, and we ended up making a detour to Munich in southern Germany, which added six hours to our first day of travel, 12 hours on the road in all with one more leg to travel on the following day.

Hotmail was bewildered by the long travel and refused to drink the whole way. I put him in his stall in Munich after our late evening arrival, hoping he would drink, sleep and bounce back by morning.

No such luck. Hotmail was tired when I rode him lightly the next morning. He was uncharacteristically quiet and uninterested in his new surroundings. He had dropped weight, and the typical skin pinch on his neck revealed that his hydration level was waning. And I knew I had to put him right back on the truck and travel another six hours to the show in Treffen, Austria, that afternoon. By the time we arrived in the Austrian Alps, he was exhausted, dehydrated, and refusing to eat. And I had only 24 hours before the jog.

Vets in Europe are not in the habit of rehydrating horses by administering IV fluids—except in the direst of circumstances—for some solid, logical reasons, and I stand by these. For instance, the horse’s digestive tract is made to function with the intake of water from wet food sources (grass being the best example) and by the intake of water itself. When you rehydrate through a horse’s vein, there is no direct hydration of the digestive tract. If you can get a dehydrated horse to drink, it is the best possible medicine for him. If the gut is working properly, it is the most effective way to rehydrate any horse.

So, how do you lead your horse to water AND make him drink if you find yourself in this situation?

Through personal experience and many observations of dehydrated animals, I can tell you that once your horse becomes dehydrated, he may not have the urge to drink when he is just standing around in his stall. He feels like hell, and he wants you to go away and leave him alone so he can hang his head and rest. So you have to find a way to pique his thirst. Here are some tips for doing that before resorting to IV hydration:

1)   Graze your horse. Nine out of 10 horses will drink immediately after being brought in from 20-30 minutes of grazing. The grass will also initiate the rehydration process. Fresh grass is made up of 80-90 percent water. If your horse refuses to eat fresh grass—especially in the Austrian Alps where the quality is exceptional—call the vet.

2)   Buy a big, whole watermelon and feed it to your horse chunk by chunk. This has always worked for me. Watermelon contains natural electrolytes and like grass, is made up mostly of water. Try getting him hooked on watermelon before he travels.

3)   Feed a soupy mash spiked with pieces of apples and carrots. Some horses will drink the standing water off the top of a mash before eating. This is a very good sign.

4)   Add apple juice to your horse’s water. Personally, I have never gotten this one to work, but everybody tells me to try.

5)   After your horse starts drinking, administer oral liquid electrolytes and hang fresh water in his stall every few hours or offer him water from a hose. Like all mammals, most horses prefer fresh water from a running source rather than something that sits stagnant, especially in warmer temperatures. (Keep that in mind when building your dream stable. Fresh water on demand from automatic waterers is big a hit with most horses.)

For Scottsdale, grazing did the trick at Treffen, Austria, but he was still not in his best form when we had to compete there. We learned a tough lesson on that trip. The information gained about my horse would help me get him comfortably through the rest of the summer, however, and we pressed on with newfound knowledge.

For every trip thereafter we would take precautions. Electrolytes were administered at sunset the night before traveling. We shortened the individual driving legs of our trips whenever possible. Hotmail got wet hay while traveling, and we found a place to graze him at every horse show. Grass, carrots, apples and soupy Fibre Beet mash kept him interested in the intake of water.

We had no further problems traveling to the shows in Munich (Germany), Rotterdam (the Netherlands), Perl-Borg (Germany), Falsterbo (Sweden) and finally, Cappeln (Germany).

I’m Catherine Haddad Staller, and I’m saying it like it is from Califon, N.J.

Training Tip of the Day: Teach your horse to travel.

InternationalDressage.com

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