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.

The Art of Rugging – a lost skill?

I’ve neglected my blog a bit but in my current state of permanently exhausted pigeon as parent to a toddler in the midst of the terrible twos I’ve only been getting as far as thinking that something would make a good subject for a blog. I’m like a writer with lots of titles at the top of empty pages in their book.

My musings over the weekend, after clipping Phoenix and overhearing numerous conversations about what rug to put on – a hot topic every autumn. I believe that the art of rugging a horse so that they are a happy individual is being lost in the details over rug thicknesses and the theoretical side. Rather like how old horsemen had the intuition and connection to horses, which has become lost in modern day horse ownership.

Years ago, about fifteen I’d say, you’d buy a lightweight rug, which is from zero fill to about 150g filling; a medium weight rug which goes up to about 300 g filling; or a heavyweight rug which has in excess of 300g filling. You didn’t know the exact weight of the rug, but could get a good idea based on it’s feel. You’d then put said rug on depending on the weather, if your horse was clipped, if they were stabled and so on. It was simple and ultimately you stuck your hand inside, just by the shoulder, and could feel if the horse was too hot, too cold, or just right. Then you made adjustments accordingly.

Nowadays (I feel so old saying that!) every rug has the filling weight listed on the label. Which is useful in deciding if this lightweight is heavier than that lightweight. But the whole rugging system has become so mathematical.

All I hear people say now is “I’m putting on a Xg rug tonight… You’re only putting on a (X-50)g rug?… But so and so is putting on a (X+50)g rug.” yes, I do realise my use of X harks back to my A-level maths days. But you get the idea. Everyone now compares their rugging decision to their stable neighbour; and looks at the precise weight of the rug, perhaps tweaking layers on an hourly basis, but less attention is taken to the weather and environment – is it wet cold or dry cold? Is the wind easterly? Will the shelter in the field protect them from the wind coming from that direction? And does the horse actually feel warm or cold?

I worry that everyone is getting bogged down in the numbers of rugging, and not listening to their horse, or judging the actual weather conditions. And of course, knowing the precise weight of rug which is on each horse means direct comparisons are forever being made. Without consideration for the horse’s individual tolerance for the environment.

For example, Phoenix needs more rugs than she should theoretically given her condition score and breeding. But she shivers on the damp, cool nights, is tight over her back the following morning, and generally not as pleasant to ride. I’m taking the layering approach this year so I can remove the top rug in the morning and replace it at night with ease; last week I was using a couple of lightweights (50g each to be precise) as she hadn’t been clipped. She needs slightly more protection on wet days due to her personal preference and lack of shelter in her field. But that’s just her. I was irked to discover that someone had been interfering; horrified that she had two rugs on, on an evening when heavy rain forecast. Believe it or not, she was comfortably warm when that someone checked under her rugs. And the next morning she was a dry, warm, very happy horse. Besides, those two 50g rugs only equal a 100g rug, which is still classified as a lightweight rug, if you want to be pedantic. It’s just easier to remove one rug rather than remove a thicker rug and replace it with a thinner one. And I’m all about an easy life!

I think the moral of the story, is to stop getting waylaid by the numbers on rugs and what your stable neighbours are doing, but focus on responding to your horse’s feedback and reading the weather forecast. Every horse is an individual and tolerates different temperatures differently – some don’t like being too hot in rugs and actually run a bit hot. Others don’t mind being slightly warmer in a rug and struggle with the cold, particularly when it’s also wet and windy. It’s down to us as owners to read the signs from our individual horse, rather than focusing on the numbers or making comparisons. You know you’ve got it right when your horse is dry, not changing weight in a negative way (they’ll drop weight if they’re cold, and put it on if they’re hot); aren’t tucked in, shivering or holding themselves protectively; and not grumpy!