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Horses & high altitude

From: Michele

I am planning on a 3 week trip to Colorado with my 7 yr old Missouri Foxtrotter. She is 16.1 hands & is in good shape.

I will be there 1.5 weeks before the trail ride on the Colorado Trail which takes us up to the continental divide. We will be travelling 20 miles a day usually at a walk.

What is the best way to acclimate my horse and get her ready for this trip? What should I do for the 1.5 weeks before the trip when I'm in Colorado to help her get ready for the ride? On the trail, what signs do I look for that she is under stress? If she shows signs of stress, what is the best thing(s) to do?

I want this to be a successful trip and I don't want her to get sick or hurt. We were in Colorado earlier this summer for 5 days and she did fine on 3-4 hr trail rides at a walk.

Your input is greatly appreciated. Michele

Hi Michelle! As long as you and your mare are both healthy and fit, and as long as your training and conditioning work at home have enabled you both to handle the equivalent ride (in terms of time, distance, and terrain) at home BEFORE you leave for Colorado, the increase in altitude shouldn't present a problem.

The ten days you'll spend in Colorado before you begin the actual ride will be plenty of time for both of you to become acclimated. When it comes to altitude sickness, horses don't seem to have as much trouble as humans do.

Be aware that working at a different altitude does put slightly different demands on the respiratory and cardiovascular systems, but you'll be trail-riding, not racing at high speeds, so you and your mare shouldn't have any trouble dealing with the changes. Heat and humidity are typically much greater stress factors, even for horses participating in truly demanding competitions.

I don't know where you live, but just in case you're in an area that's much more humid than Colorado, remember that the air where you're going is very dry. If your mare tends to sweat a lot, then she could experience extreme sweat loss without you realizing it, since the dryness of the air means that sweat will evaporate easily. This is pleasant for riders - much nicer than riding when both of you are wet with sweat - but always remember that dry air allows you to stay dry even when you are sweating and losing fluids. It's important for both of you to keep drinking and stay hydrated.

If you're already in the habit of offering your mare electrolytes when she's likely to be experiencing stress, that's good, just bring them with you. As at home, always be sure to offer your mare the choice of electolyte-laced water or pure water. Offering ONLY the electrolyte-laced water could actually put your mare at risk for dehydration, because if she wants pure water and is offered something else and doesn't want to drink it, she may choose not to drink at all. Always give her the choice.

During your ride, be aware of your mare's energy level and reaction time. If both are normal for her, and she's enthusiastic about going places and interested in her surroundings, don't worry about her. If you are in any doubt about her hydration status at any time, use the pinch test. Just pinch the skin on the point of your mare's shoulder and count the seconds when you release the skin. If it pops back into place instantly, no problem. If it takes two seconds to snap back, she is mildly dehydrated. If - heaven forbid - the skin stays "tented" for five or six seconds before settling back into place, you will know that your mare is severely dehydrated. A WORD OF CAUTION HERE: practice this at home, and in Colorado before you begin the ride itself, so that you will have a chance to become very familiar with your mare's hydration level as reflected by the pinch test. All horses are not identical, and some horses' skin is more (or less) elastic than the skin of other horses. Practice doing the skin pinch test, learn what's normal for your mare, and you won't have to wonder how to interpret the test when you're on the trail.

I'm sure that you won't give YOUR mare the chance to become dehydrated, but just in case someone else is less careful or their horse less well-conditioned, I'll give you a little more information that might help you help someone else on the trail. Severe dehydration is very dangerous, can be fatal, and should be treated immediately. If another rider's horse seems dull and disoriented, uninterested in eating or drinking, and the rider can't remember when the horse last urinated, check the inside of the horse's mouth. The gums of a healthy horse should be wet and pink. Test capillary-refill time by putting brief thumb-pressure on the gums - this should result in a white spot that quickly - almost instantly - becomes pink again. If the horse's mouth is dry and its gums are pale and/or don't get their colour back quickly when you use thumb pressure, that's a strong indication of extreme dehydration. Such a horse would be in BIG trouble, and would need immediate help from a veterinarian.

I don't think that the above will be a problem for you; you sound far too attentive and careful. When you get to Colorado, give yourself and your mare a day or two to adjust, then resume your usual riding and training program so that you'll both be fit and ready for your big trail ride. Monitor your horse's fitness, comfort, and hydration levels, just as you would at home, but with added awareness because of the altitude and dry air. Walking twenty miles a day on the Colorado Trail should be very pleasant and enjoyable for both of you, and I hope you have a wonderful time.


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