Here in the Southwest, I worry about my horse in the summer. I trail ride early, but I don’t always make it back before the day really heats up. How can I keep my horse cool? What are the signs of overheating?
Any tips for riders, too?
Janie, the fact that you’re asking this question tells me that you’re already planning ahead and considering your horse. That’s great. Riding in the heat can be a challenge, especially in the South or Southwest.
I grew up in Florida and remember riding every day of the year, even in the heat and humidity.
The horses could get hot easily, and riding gear wasn’t lightweight, especially the full English and show-jumping gear. During Florida’s summer, there’s so much humidity, you feel like you can barely walk through it. In the Southwest, you’re dealing with the sun beating down on you, but it’s a little easier to keep riding without the humidity. Keep this general rule in mind: If you’re feeling hot, your horse is feeling hot, too.
Plus, even as an active rider, your horse is carrying you. You’re doing less work than he is. If you’re feeling hot and sweaty, your horse is feeling that and more. Here’s my three-step guide to keeping your horse safe and comfortable in summer’s heat, plus rider tips.
1. Watch the Weather
Since you’re in the Southwest, humidity isn’t a big factor as you plan your rides. But in other parts of the country, humidity can be a great challenge. If the humidity is higher than 50 percent, or the air temperature is greater than your horse’s body temperature, sweating and even shade become ineffective coolants. If you’re in a dry area and there’s available shade and, one hopes, a little breeze, you and your horse should be able to cool down.
2. Keep Him Cool
In the Southwest, it cools off at night and in the morning. Morning is best for trail riding. Get ready to go before dawn, and ride from 4 a.m. to 9 a.m. In the deep South, where there’s high humidity, riding at night when the humidity is at its lowest can be a great treat. Just because it’s hot doesn’t mean you have to stay at a walk — but if it’s too hot, or your horse is already overheated, stay at a walk. Or, hop off, and lead your horse. Just carrying you is a lot of work for him. If you ride in the morning and plan on asking him to work, push him early in the ride, before the day heats up. Walk when it’s hot. If you see or feel signs of heat exhaustion (see below), stop, dismount, let your horse rest, and allow him to drink as much water as he’ll drink.
3. Know the Distress Signs
Know your horse, be aware that he has limits, and pay attention. Horses can take a lot, but they do need to be considered and monitored. If your horse is fit and conditioned for working in heat, he may be able to do more or go farther than an unconditioned horse. Still, it’s your responsibility to know the signs your horse gives you that tell you he’s too hot under duress. Your horse is counting on you to know when to cool him down and to get home safely. His signs of heat stress will be somewhat individual. Observe him when he’s rested and relaxed so you can see and feel the difference when he’s exhausted. There are two simple signs that are easy to pay attention to as you ride: nostril dilation and expansive breathing. Here’s what I mean.
Nostril dilation. Know the difference between how your horse nostrils look at rest, with moderate exertion, and when he’s at maximum capacity, so you’ll know when he's at his maximum exertion level. When your horse is at rest, and even on normal trail rides, his nostrils are much smaller than they are when he’s working at max capacity. When his nostrils are all the way open, you’ll see a large oval, and you’ll be able to easily
see inside — his nostrils go about a third of the way up his skull. To check your horse’s nostrils as you ride, ask him to turn his head to the side so you can see his nose. To do so, apply gentle pressure on one rein as you release with the other. Does his nostril look just like it does when he’s at rest in the barn, or is it enlarged and dilated?
Expansive breathing. When your horse is rested, note his natural, relaxed breathing pattern so you know when it feels different. On a ride, if he’s reached his maximum ability to take in air, you’ll feel his expansive breathing as his lungs and ribcage expand beneath you. If you can feel him gasping, immediately stop and rest, preferably in the shade. In fact, stop and rest if you’re concerned about your horse’s heat and oxygen level at any time. When I led pack and trail rides in the high-altitude mountains, we’d stop and rest every 10 minutes. This is a good rule of thumb in tough, steep terrain.
If there’s water on the trail, stop and rest in the water crossing, and cool your horse’s legs. Water is the best way to cool down, and the large blood vessels in his legs will help him cool down fast.
Also, tie a sponge to your saddle. When you reach a water crossing, dip the sponge into the water, and sponge cool water all over your horse’s neck and back. (Try this at home, first, to make sure he accepts this type of stimulus.)
Just because it’s hot doesn’t give you an excuse to dress inappropriately. You need protection from brush, branches, and the sun. Wear long pants, riding boots, and a good riding shirt. Look for fabrics made for athletic ventures. And of course, always wear a riding helmet. Today’s helmets are so lightweight and vented that “it’s too hot” isn’t an excuse to go without one on the trail or off.
For more information on equine behavior, see Julie Goodnight’s new book, Goodnight’s Guide to Great Trail Riding available from www.EquineNetworkStore.com. Also, watch the Horse Master television show, airing each Monday and Saturday night on RFD-TV.
Julie Goodnight (www.juliegoodnight.com) lives in central Colorado, home to miles of scenic trails. She trains horses and coaches horse owners to be ready for any event, on the trail or in the performance arena. She shares her easy-to-understand lessons on her weekly RFD-TV show, Horse Master, and through appearances at clinics and horse expos held throughout the United States. She’s also the international spokesperson for the Certified Horsemanship Association (www.cha-ahse.org).
Heidi Melocco (www.wholepicture.org) is a lifelong horsewoman, equine journalist, and photographer based in Mead, Colorado.