A Guide to the Unique Challenges of Keeping Horses in the Desert.

Here’s a quick, no-nonsense guide to what can go wrong in the desert, and, in most cases, how to prevent it.

There’s a reason Arizona booms with team roping snowbirds each year—it’s paradise. Glorious, warm winter weather and jackpots and roping arenas aplenty are the siren’s call that can’t be ignored. Still, the desert can be a tough environment, particularly for your horse. Here’s a quick, no-nonsense guide to what can go wrong in the desert, and, in most cases, how to prevent it.

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SAND

It’s the defining characteristic of the desert, and it’s not always a good thing.

Colic: This results from horses ingesting sand.

Solution: Employ off-the-ground feeders, over a matted area so your horses aren’t picking up sand while consuming the feed or hay they’ve tossed. Additionally, a psyllium supplement, given one week out of each month, should be part of any Arizona roper’s feed program.

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Dry Hooves: These are common for horses that spend an extended amount of time in the desert. The sand performs like sandpaper, constantly working to deteriorate the hoof ’s periople (protective layer).

Solution: Apply a conditioning treatment to a preferably wet hoof—so after hosing your horse off, for instance. Biotin additives are another useful, top-dressed solution.

Help your horses hooves with a pair of Soft-Rides:

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DESERT PLANTS

Cacti certainly warrant attention in the desert, but even if you’re never riding outside the arena, there’s another plant you should familiarize yourself with … and then avoid at all costs.

Oleander: Arizonans and Californians alike should know this beautiful blooming plant well as it’s a common choice for landscaping projects big and small in both states. Unfortunately, it is extremely toxic to horses— far more so than to humans or dogs. And, since every part of the plant is poisonous, even rains can create a toxic tea.

Solution: To start, don’t use it for landscaping and, if you’re buying a property where it already exists, eradicate it. Even on windy days, be aware that it may blow in from neighboring properties that just trimmed their bushes, for example. If your horse does get sick, it will present as colic but, since the plant possesses a cardiotoxin, your horse’s heartbeat will be very irregular. Get to the vet for fluid therapy as soon as possible. 

Cactus Spines: It may seem obvious, but cactus spines are harmful. Particularly those that get lodged in a horse’s joint or tendon sheath, which can require surgery and, on occasion, can be fatal if a resulting infection is left untreated.

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Solution: Though you want to be mindful of keeping your horse booted up for too long, a full set of protective boots, or even polos, can do a world of good on the trail. Know how to identify and avoid chain fruit cholla, commonly known as jumping cholla, and aptly named for its ability to seemingly jump onto passersby— human and equine alike—and hitch a ride with its barbed spines. Hit the trail with a large-toothed comb to remove any aggressors, then give your horse a thorough exam after the ride, paying particular attention to his legs.

HYDRATION

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Temperature Swings and Other Stressors: If you were competing in the middle of an Arizona summer, we’d no doubt be addressing the heat. But, while triple-digit days aren’t a winter concern, wildly variant temperatures that swing a full 40 degrees between day and night can be. Similarly, long travel, especially surrounding intense performance periods (hello, World Series Finale in Las Vegas) can put similar stress on a horse’s everyday functions.

Solution: Water and electrolytes. Horses have a demanding GI tract, so keep an eye on water consumption, even turning the automatic waterer off if need be and swapping it out for a bucket for a day or two. For electrolytes, Dr. Andrea recommends a recipe of table salt and baking soda and mixing up a big tub of it, then administering a tablespoon a day.

SNAKES

Rattlesnake Bites: Another obvious danger that should be avoided (and often can be by granting the snake a wide berth), but what’s not commonly known is its medical solution.

Solution: Antivenom. It’s real and, if administered within 6, or even up to 12 hours from the time of the bite, it can save your horse’s life.

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ALLERGIES

Episodic Equine Asthma: Admittedly, this one is not common, but in Dr. Andrea’s experience, presents itself almost exclusively in team roping horses that are within a month of their arrival in Arizona.

Solution: The asthma, which may present as heavily labored breathing or even coughing up blood, isn’t well understood, but is an allergy to something in the environment. If your horse’s breathing turns irregular between runs, for instance, don’t ignore it and don’t take your next run.

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Dr. Andrea is a Chaparral Veterinary Medical Center partner specializing in equine surgery and sports medicine, who provided consultation for this article. She graduated with honors from Washington State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, completed her equine surgery residency at the University of California, Davis, became a Board Certified Equine Surgeon and, in 2001, joined the CVMC team. Additionally, as a barrel racer married to a team roper and raising rodeo kids, Dr. Andrea is acutely aware of how desert living can challenge equine athletes. 

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