The last few days we have been experiencing a heat wave. Temperatures in the high twenties, low thirties.
Yes I know, you South Africans/Americans/Australians, it’s not that hot but for us British it is!
This brings me onto the slightly controversial topic of should we work our horses on hot days? Some say it’s cruel. It’s cruel to send anyone to work on days like today in my opinion. Other’s find it a necessity.
For my job, I need it to be a necessity otherwise I don’t earn any money, but there’s a difference between working a horse and, well, working a horse. If you’re a competition rider then you need to be able to perform well come wind or shine; you wouldn’t not go to championship show just because it was halfway through a heatwave, would you?
First of all, if you look at the forecast for the week and notice one day is particularly hotter than others then perhaps you can organise that day to be their day off, or if you can’t do that then organise your day so you ride early in the morning or in the late evening.
Then of course you can adjust the actual workload you do with your horse. Choose a cooler day or time of day to jump or do any intense riding. Pick a shady route for your hack, or just ride for a shorter period. Of the horses I’ve ridden this week I’ve taken some for quiet hacks in the woods, others I’ve schooled for half an hour before taking them into the woods for a good cool down. During the schooling sessions I tend to focus on lateral work, especially in the walk, and have frequent rest breaks, or walk work to try to stop both of us from overheating. And of course keep the canter work to a minimum, with a good breather between reins.
I think the important part when working with horses in the heat is to listen to your horse. Does he have a thick coat anyway? Is he a horse who doesn’t like the heat? How fit is he? Does he tend to sweat up anyway? One of the horses I rode today, a Shire cross, came out in white foam on a walk hack – there’s little point trying to school him in this weather unless it’s before nine am. He won’t appreciate it.
Once you’ve decided what the best form of exercise is, it’s important to remember to take lots of breaks, and make your cool down longer than normal, and if you feel the horse is getting tired, or lethargic in his way of going, then call it a day and cool down on a hack. Even if you’ve only spent twenty minutes schooling instead of his usual forty five minutes. Working in the heat is far more exhausting than during normal temperatures. The aim is to exercise the horse, not kill him.
With a long cool down their breathing should return to normal, but their muscles don’t cool down that much, so the next important step is washing them off. Lots of water, a big sponge, wipe away excess water as it warms and douse them with fresh, cool water. Offer them a small drink, and leave them in the shade for a bit, just like you would do after exercise.
Some people, especially those who’s horses don’t have shelter in the field, bring their horse in for the day when it’s hot. I left Otis in today, mainly because of his thigh sweet itch rug, but I found it was stifling in the barn whereas there was a small breeze across the fields, so I’m not a hundred percent sure which option was better – in with no rug, or out with rug. Also, you should make sure your horse is happy to be in. Some are creatures of habit, and resent change so can get worked up in the stable, which is counter-productive. The best solution really is to have a nice high hedge on one side of your field (or a tree!) so they can shelter there.
Other hot-weather care includes sun cream, to both horse and human; fly spray (again to both horse and human); checking that the water troughs are clean and filled up.
When horses get dehydrated they lose the desire to drink, which can make it very difficult to rehydrate them. Which is why it’s so important to make sure there’s clean, fresh water, in the shade if possible – I hate drinking from a water bottle that’s been in the sun! You can add electrolytes to their feed or water to help replenish the salt they’ve lost through sweating. Providing a salt lick can be beneficial, and adding some apple juice to a bucket of water can help entice them to drink.
I always have this problem with Otis at competitions. The water is from home, yet he rarely drinks. So I make his breakfast quite sloppy to get some liquid into him, and offer him buckets, wipe his mouth with a wet sponge, and totally drench him after riding in the hope that water goes in somewhere! At home he goes straight to the field, where he sometimes drinks from his trough. If a venue has some lush grass I let him graze before loading him because there’s a higher water content here than in his haynet.
So really, it’s not that bad riding during a heatwave, you just want to adjust your day and exercise plan according to what suits you and your horse best. Being sensible, taking shade and riding at a slower pace, are all sensible precautions that will keep both of you more comfortable. Then of course, pay extra attention to hosing them, and you, off afterwards so that their core temperature is brought back down to normal.