Much of the United States has been blanketed in stifling humidity and record heat this summer. In our area of the Northeast, we beat last year’s total number of 90 degree days in early July (August is usually the month for hot, and it’s coming in steamy). Our southern and western neighbors are probably thinking double digits would be a welcome cool spell, but it’s tough to take when you’re not used to it (come on up in January and we’ll giggle as you shiver at balmy days in the 20s). Whether you’re in Arizona, Texas, North Carolina, New England or any other area of the country, you and your horses have probably had it with sweating, sweltering and sun burn. Take heart – you’re not alone. Get smart to ensure you and your horse can be happy with your time together and both of you stay safe. Here are some ideas to help you keep your cool (and please add your ideas in the comment section below as others will surely welcome your insight and experience).
- School horses early in the morning. On the East coast, it’s light enough at 5:30 a.m. to ride right now and this is the best time to escape the insects, heat and humidity. It takes too much time to cool down in the evening (hours after sunset) and the bugs are brutal. Some go to the health club early in the morning. Why not use your pre-work time for riding exercise instead and use the club for a shower. If you really want to ride the bike, tackle the stairs or lift weights, take advantage of the air conditioning at lunch or after work.
- Turn horses out at night and bring them into the barn during the day. Even if you have run-in sheds, they don’t provide enough protection from the bugs and the heat when the weather gets steamy. Well-designed barns are much cooler than sun-drenched pastures.
- Pull out the fans to keep the air moving for you and your horse when in the stall.
- Go swimming. Most horses really enjoy a lake, river or deep pond respite and riding a horse through water deep enough to have their feet leave the ground can be a lot of fun. Just be careful as those legs get moving with dangerous velocity and force. Iif you manage to get one of your body parts in the way you’ll probably break bones. Always keep your legs in front of the shoulder and make sure you’re stable and balanced enough to stay aboard.
- Make sure you and your horse have ample and constant water to stay sufficiently hydrated. In this heat, it’s important to keep drinking water as you work (for you and your horse). No guzzling while you’re working hard – that will cause a belly-ache for both of you and that’s so not good with horses – but make sure you have water available at all times for your horse during rest. When the heat’s really draining your mount might appreciate a few sips while working. Be very careful how much and how quickly you allow a horse to drink after work, while cooling out. It’s best not to allow more than 10-15 sips every three minutes or so while a horse is still hot and sweaty.
- Hit the trails. While bugs can be more prevalent in the woods, it’s usually a lot cooler where the trees are tall and thick. If you do this in the early morning, bugs are not a big factor. Consider using hot weather time to do some conditioning work at slow paces that cover steep hills and various sights and challenges to keep your horse’s body fit and supple while offering an alternative to discipline drilling that keeps his mind engaged and interested. Changing the riding environment can also help you learn more about you, your horse and how to come up with ideas together to make training fun for both of you.
- Give you and your horse a day off from the routine. Sometimes it’s just too hot to discipline train. If you’re facing an unrelenting heat wave, you can still work on activities that help build rapport and understanding, but don’t require tack. Think about what you can do in the stall or in-hand to improve your human-horse communications skills (both ways). Often, lessons learned on the ground are better remembered and easier to accomplish than what you do under tack. Use this time to develop a bond that includes sympathetic responses. You may find you make great strides in your next ‘real’ lesson that you hadn’t imagined possible.
- Make sure your horse has access salt (and ample water – they’ll drink more as they ingest salt) as heat descends. Of course, horses should always have access to free-choice salt, but it’s particularly important in hot conditions.
- Shorten lesson time and offer more frequent breaks. When the heat’s too much to stay at full performance as usual, back off a bit. Better to ask for one good response and end on a good note than to push the both of you to exhaustion. Give both you and your horse a break on the perfection scale and allow ‘good enough’ to be the end-game.
- Have the heart to cancel a competition appearance if it’s just too dangerously hot. Finger Lakes was the only East Coast race track that didn’t cancel racing several weeks ago when the heat was just too much to bear. Some scratched (good for them), but others continued to run. After so many horses dropped from heat stroke on Monday, you’d think that would be cause for pause for the card on Tuesday. It wasn’t. Sometimes you need to make the hard call to pull out and forgo the entry costs and possible win money with an eye toward tomorrow.
If you’re struggling with the heat, your horse probably is too. Slow down the pace, reduce the demands, be thoughtful about providing shelter and relief and use the time to get creative about how you can spend new and interesting time together. You might learn something and your horse will likely thank you for the consideration.
How do you beat the heat with your horse? Have you found fun and inventive activities to keep you both cool as you wait out the sauna? Do you have a great story to tell about how you withdrew from an intended event to come out a winner as a result? Please share your comments, ideas, experiences, opinions and stories below. Thanks.