Horses and Heat

Horses and Heat don’t mix very well do they? Poo picking, stable chores and riding are sweaty work in average temperatures.

The trouble in the UK is that we aren’t geared up for hot weather. Our native breeds have dense coats all year round, and the temperatures tend to sky rocket for days at a time before dropping again, which makes it hard for everyone to acclimatise.

If we are due only a couple of days of hot weather then I think I sit with the majority of equestrians in either riding early in the morning or giving the horses a day off. It’s also then easy to rearrange my work onto cooler days.

However, if the heat is here to stay, then there’s a degree of acclimatising to do. Especially if you compete. It’s all very well avoiding the heat and riding early in the morning, but what if your class falls at midday? As painful as it is pulling jodhpurs on over slippery, sun creamed legs, you do need to ride during the day so you are both prepared to ride a dressage test in the scorching heat. If a horse is in rehab, or needs to be exercised in order to lose weight then long periods of down time aren’t conducive, so it’s better to do lower intensity work for a few days than nothing at all. For example, I’d say that this week it is acceptable for a pony on fat camp to do less work because he’s unfit and finding it difficult to work and plateau in terms of building fitness and losing weight. Weight is maintained rather than lost, or even worse put on! When it gets cooler, his workload and weight loss can increase again.

However, exercise does need to be adapted in this heat, taking into account humidity, horse and rider fitness, taking lots of breaks, seeking shade, avoiding fast work and jumping in the heat of the day. Some horses cope better with the heat – usually finer coated animals, and those with no excess fat. Older horses tend to struggle with the heat too.

My lessons this week, working around the heatwave, have involved;

  • Hacking with a young client and teaching her about the ground, where it is suitable to trot, how to ride up and down hills, and what to look out for when riding in woods and fields. All the time building her confidence to trot independently on hacks.
  • Long reining and in hand work.
  • Walk poles.
  • Teaching the different types of walk so that rider and pony don’t waste the elongated walk breaks, and to encourage them to have slow and steady schooling sessions for the rest of the week.
  • Taking a horse into the jump paddock and desensitising him to traffic on the other side of the hedge, and riding him around and between jump fillers.
  • Stable management.
  • No stirrup work, as riders are usually happier with shorter bursts of work.
  • Transitions, especially halt transitions.
  • Lateral work and rein back.
  • Bareback.

I like having lessons at an enforced steady pace. Walk is so often overlooked, and improving the walk makes dramatic improvements to the quality of the trot and the transitions. I was really pleased with how one lady started to get a longer striding, swinging walk and then floated along in the trot, truly using his back and looking very supple through his ribcage.

The important thing to remember is that everyone copes with the hot weather differently, and to remember frequent breaks, sun cream, modified riding attire (I’ve not used gloves all week), and to drink lots of water. Each lesson has begun with me asking my client where their water is, and to say if they feel unwell or need to stop for a break. Then I know the lesson will run more smoothly.

Working Horses on Hot Days

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.