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Beat The Heat - Tips For Summer Riding

Updated on March 5, 2013

Summer is great.

Longer days mean more time to ride, and the height of the show season is a challenge for those who choose to do so. A quiet summer trail ride can be the best thing ever.

However, summer also brings its own challenges, chief amongst them the heat. For those in warmer climates the heat can be unpleasant and even dangerous. How do you best deal with it for both you and your horse?

Horses and Temperature

Horses are cold climate creatures. They are, on the whole, comfortable in lower temperatures than we are. Room temperature, to a horse, is about 55 degrees.

This means that if you are hot, your horse is even hotter. Horses can and do overheat much more easily than humans. A sensible rider takes precautions to avoid this. It's also important to keep yourself cool. Heat exhaustion and dehydration are dangerous enough when you aren't sitting on a thousand pound animal.

Drink Plenty

Both you and your horse will need more water in the heat. Horses should have water available at all times when not being worked. The old fashioned practice of offering water only at intervals is tolerable in cold climates, but should be avoided in hot ones. (In any case, even in colder climates, it does increase the risk of colic).

Horses should also be fed plenty of salt. A free choice salt lick is the best method - horses know how much salt they need and have the sense not to overdo it.

For yourself, in very hot weather, gatorade, or a fifty percent dilution of gatorade and water is better than water alone. Getting plenty of salt is very important - in extreme climates, it is recommended to eat more than usual and make sure at least some of it is salty snacks (do not eat low sodium snacks in very hot weather and even those on a low sodium diet should slightly increase their salt intake).

Is it safe to ride?

In very hot weather, you should ask the question of whether it is safe to ride at all. To establish this, take the outside temperature in Fahrenheit and the relative humidity and add them together.

If the total is below 120, then no problems. If it is between 120 and 150, then your horse will definitely need extra water. Between 150 and 180, take it easy, and if it is over 180, the recommendation is not to ride at all. Humidity is generally more dangerous than temperature - horses can often handle a dry heat better than a wet one. Mules and donkeys are much more tolerant of heat than horses.

When the heat and humidity are particularly unpleasant, it might be a good time to just take your horse for a quiet walk in the woods, school entirely at the walk or work on ground manners.

Cooling Off

The best way to cool your horse down if it is hot and sweaty is the traditional one - a cold water hose. If your horse is iffy about being hosed, then late spring is a good time to train him to accept it.

In a dry heat, you can just hose the horse down and leave it. If humidity is high, it is vital to remove the water immediately, otherwise it will just sit there, warm up, and make your horse feel worse. Multiple applications of water followed by removal with a sweat scraper may be required.

Like humans, horses will appreciate cold water most on 'pulse points'. On horses, these are the inside of the legs near the top, the underside of the throat and the head and ears, although not all horses will tolerate you putting cold water on their ears.

Some horses like to drink from the hose, and if they do, why not let them? However, a very hot horse should not be allowed to drink too much too quickly, as this can make them sick.


Heat exhaustion - human

Don't neglect yourself in favor of your horse. Watch yourself for symptoms of overheating and dehydration. If trail riding, always take a canteen of water...for longer trail rides consider adding electrolytes.

The symptoms of heat exhaustion are excessive sweating, nausea, headache, lightheadedness and sometimes muscle cramps. If you get any of these symptoms...stop. Get off and take a rest, drink plenty and splash water on yourself. If there's a stream handy, jumping in the stream is a very good way to cool off. (Rangers who work in the Grand Canyon, where temperatures can exceed 130 Fahrenheit in the summer, often start their shifts by jumping in a creek fully clothed). Your horse will enjoy it too. If there is a place you can take your horse swimming, this can be a great hot weather activity for both of you. If you are at the barn, stop riding. If on the trail, turn back and keep things as gentle as possible. Remember that if you are hot, your horse is feeling it even more. Once back at the barn, drink as much as you can, making sure you either add electrolytes or eat salty snacks.

If you...or anyone with you...becomes confused or lethargic or stops sweating, this is a medical emergency and should be treated as such immediately. The same is true if you or another is so nauseous from heat exhaustion that you can't drink, as this might mean you need IV fluids.

Heat exhaustion - horse

Horses can also suffer from heat exhaustion. This can be the result of work, but horses have also experienced heat exhaustion when transported and even just in their stall.

Symptoms to watch for? If a horse's ears droop in the heat, it may be suffering from heat exhaustion (many mules, however, routinely carry their ears drooping or level). If the horse seems stiff and lacking its normal impulsion or bounce, then this can also be a symptom. Some horses will whinny or make other distressed noises. If a horse is absolutely covered in sweat, then this likely means it is too humid for sweat to evaporate properly, and this often leads to heat exhaustion.

If you think your horse might have heat exhaustion, stop work immediately. Hose the horse down with cold water, scraping the water off immediately and then repeating the process. Allow the horse to drink cold water, but don't let it drink too quickly - it's both safer and more effective for the horse to drink small quantities at a time. Electrolytes are important, but some horses will refuse to drink them when they are hot. If you live in a hot climate, accustom your horse to the taste of electrolytes by giving them sometimes when they are not needed. (If you can't afford expensive equine electrolytes, a solution of 25% gatorade and 75% water works well for horses). If you have a stream available, stand the horse in it.

The old fashioned treatment for heat exhaustion is a room temperature or slightly warm bran mash. I have seen this treatment work very well in combination with hosing down and rest in a shaded area, but it takes a bit longer to put together, especially if you are not used to doing so. Some barns still routinely feed bran mashes to horses after heavy work such as a day hunting. It's worth learning how to make one, especially as a bran mash can tempt a horse that has a reduced appetite.

If your horse stops sweating, this is an emergency and work must be stopped immediately. Call the vet right away. Hose the horse down. Sometimes applying an ice pack to the head can help a lot. As the horse cools down, rub him with towels...sometimes horses that overheat can end up getting chilled as they cool down.

More tips for staying cool

1. Shade. Provide shade in your pasture. Trees are the best method, but if you do not have any, then you can provide artificial shade. An old fashioned run-in with one open side may be enough. Some people like to use shade awnings or an open-sided outdoor storage building.

2. Fans. Horses benefit a lot from fans in the barn. Keep all fans in good condition and unplug them when not in use so they don't turn into a fire risk.

3. Misters. Some sprinkler systems can be activated in a mister mode - these are a very good idea for large barns and indoor arenas. Riding under a mister can make a huge difference. A very small water nozzle in front of a fan and directed into the horse's stall is extremely effective if you can set it up. Non-pressurized water fans, however, do not work so well in a humid environment.

4. Haul horses early in the morning or late at night. Make sure your trailer is well ventilated and provide water at least once an hour.

5. Ride early in the morning or late at night. Choose shady routes on trail rides if possible. Consider purchasing a helmet shade - these look horribly goofy but can be removed when you don't need them and can make a huge difference. Always use sunscreen.

6. Avoid riding in poorly ventilated indoor arenas unless you have to ride after dark (or have misters). It is not uncommon for it to be even warmer in an indoor, especially one between barn aisles, than it is outside.

7. Keep your horse outside, with shade provided, as much as possible...don't leave it in an enclosed stall for hours. Leave all barn windows and, if security allows, doors open to maximize airflow. (Barn windows should, in fact, never be closed, even when it is cold in the middle of winter).

8. In extreme dry heat, a long-sleeved, light colored shirt is actually cooler to ride in than a T-shirt or tank top.


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