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Horses, riding, heat, and humidity

From: Melissa

Hi Jessica, Hope you are well. I thank you for all your advice as it has helped me deal with some tough situations in my training! I have been searching through the archives to find this and hopefully it was not in front of my face (which would not suprise me in this heat)but I really don't see it!

I have felt the need to postpone a few lessons, due to the absolutely unbearable heat and humidity, for the sake of the horse and student. Even our evenings when I have scheduled these have been the sweat while standing type.

I remember reading somewhere that there is a heat index limit for riding especially horses that are not in perfect shape or not used to this type of weather. I did find something that said 190 but that seems too high! I wanted to share this info with my young students so they realize that it can be dangerous not only for the them (especially with the old felt helmets w/out air-vents!)but equally so for their horses. Maybe this would help them not to become quite so dissapointed about having to postpone their lesson!

Thanks Jessica! Melissa

Hi Melissa! There are times when it is simply too hot and humid for comfortable and safe riding, and on those days, it's better to leave the horses out to graze in the shade and catch whatever breezes may be passing. If the horses are confined to stalls where there is no breeze, the use of fans can help keep the horses comfortable.

There are various formulas that people use to calculate whether the combined heat and humidity make it suitable - or not - for riding. One such formula - the easiest, but not necessarily the most accurate - is to take the outside temperature in Fahrenheit, and add the relative humidity. If your total is below 120, you should be able to do whatever you like without risking heat stress to the horse. The horse may not even sweat much, or at all, in those conditions. If the total is between 130 and 150, the horse will be sweating, and you will need to pay attention to its water intake, but the horse should be able to maintain a reasonable core temperature. If the total is between 150 and 180, then heat stress is more likely, but much will depend on the relative values of temperature and humidity! This is where your own judgement must take precedence over any quick formula. For example, if the temperature is 105 and the humidity is 60%, your total would be 165, but it would be safer to ride under those conditions than if the total were the result of temperature of 90 and a humidity of 75%. If the total is over 180, then it's a good idea not to ride at all.

The above "formula" is a general guideline, NOT an absolute truth, and extremely wet or dry conditions will make it less helpful. If you like the mathematical approach to the "too hot and humid" idea, there are better, more accurate,and much more complicated ways to calculate the heat index - here is a URL for a very useful page from the Weather Channel website:

What's most important is to keep in mind the difference between a warm-down and a cool-down. On hot, humid days, your horse will need BOTH after exercise. The warm-down, which can be as simple as the traditional "walk the last mile back", is just a way to help the horse's muscles rid themselves of lactic acid. If your lesson horses are working in a field away from the barn, have your students walk the horses once or twice around the field on their way back to the barn at the end of the lesson - and then WALK back to the barn. If they are working in an arena, spend the last ten or fifteen minutes of the lesson at a walk. (If the heat and humidity are truly horrible, consider doing the entire lesson at a walk.)

Follow the warm-down by a cool-down.

The cool-down involves helping the horse lower its body temperature after exercise. This is often done with the help of a water hose and a sweat scraper. If you can do this in the shade - in a covered wash rack, in an indoor wash stall, or even under a tree - the process will be easier and faster.

The way to use water to help a horse cool down on a hot and humid day is to hose the horse with cool or cold water, then immediately use your sweat-scraper to remove as much water as possible from the horse's coat. The reason for removing the water is that after the initial application of the cool water, it's actually the evaporation of the water that helps cool the horse. The water that you put on the horse will quickly become hot, as it picks up the heat that the horse is throwing off. In dry conditions, the water will evaporate quickly, and that process will help cool the horse. In humid conditions, the water will not evaporate, and the horse will be cooler for a brief moment whilst the water is being applied. Then, as the water becomes (instantly) warmer, the horse, instead of being made cooler, will be made even hotter by an extra layer of hot water - the layer will create a sort of "water blanket"! The only way to sustain any cooling action is to remove the now-hot water (scrape) and then put more cool water on the horse, etc., etc. So the formula for a cool-down is: Cool water-scrape-water-scrape-water-scrape, and you continue repeating both elements until the water on the horse's body stops becoming hot. When the water on the horse feels not much warmer than the cool water coming out of the hose, you'll know that your efforts are paying off, and the horse's body is cooling down.

Give your horse the best help by applying cool water to the legs, the neck (especially the underside of the neck, the throat area) and, if your horse will allow it, the head. These areas are ones in which there are major blood vessels just under the skin. Another vital area is that of the horse's hindquarters and back. The blood vessels aren't just under the skin here, but these areas are packed with large muscles that throw off a great deal of heat.

Keep a bucket of drinking water available in your wash rack, or wherever you are when you cool down your horse. Let the horse use it freely and drink as much as he likes. Some horses enjoy drinking from the hose - find out if your horse likes this! It's another good option. And don't forget to have a drink yourself, because you, too, are probably in need of water by now.

As for your school horses, you'll need to consider the type, age, and condition of each horse and its ability to cope with heat and humidity. A fit, toned, just-this-side-of-thin, endurance-trained Arabian will be much better able to throw off heat than will a horse that is more heavily built and/or unfit, overweight, or elderly.

Consider the history and comfort of each individual horse - some horses will begin to wheeze if ridden in hot and humid conditions.

Consider also the nature of the horse itself! Horses are cold-weather animals, not hot-weather ones. Most horses can adapt reasonably well to high temperatures as long as the humidity is low, but the combination of high heat and high humidity is uncomfortable for horses, and can become dangerous and even life-threatening. When it comes to hot and cold weather, horses do not have the same standards as humans do; overall, horses are more comfortable than humans at lower temperatures, less comfortable at higher ones. A winter day that feels uncomfortably cold to you will feel very good to your horse; a summer day that feels "somewhat" too hot and humid for you will feel VERY MUCH too hot and humid for your horse.

And finally, consider the work you are asking the horse to do. In a group lesson, when the temperature and humidity are soaring, I suggest that you have your riders perform drill-team type patterns AT THE WALK. They can work on their seats, aids, timing, and ablity to bend and straighten their horses and influence the horses' length of stride, all without creating undue amounts of heat and stress. Bring out a "boom-box" and play suitable music if you like - it will help the riders focus on rhythm and tempo, and make the sessions more enjoyable.

Good sense, as always, is your best ally when it comes to taking care of your horses. If you step outside and feel as though you have walked into a sauna, if the temperature is high, the humidity is high, there is no air moving and no possibility of any sweat drying, and your lungs are having a hard time dealing with air that feels wet and heavy, it's a good day to ride before sun-up, after sun-down, or avoid riding altogether.

Students need to learn horsemanship, not just riding - and part of horsemanship is knowing when it's best NOT to ride. If you find yourself needing to cancel a lesson, why not just change the lesson format, and make it a lesson (in some cool, indoor area) on bits or saddles? Or turn the lesson into an exercise class, giving your students a series of exercises to help them develop their flexibility and strength, stretch their Achilles tendons, or improve their balance? If riders and their parents understand from the very beginning that not all lessons will be MOUNTED ones, you will already have the flexibility to spend an occasional lesson at a tack shop, at the vet clinic, or at some other suitable teaching venue. If you know in advance that the weather conditions will be impossible for a riding lesson, you can cancel the lesson - or, if you have built this option into your lesson contract, you can turn it into another kind of lesson entirely. If you are familiar with the basic Pony Club curriculum, you know just how much there is to learn, on AND off the horse. It's a good idea to make your students and their parents familiar with that curriculum, so that it can be clear that YOUR students are going to learn about horse management, tack, nutrition, etc.

The bottom line is that even if your students are disappointed to find that an occasional lesson will take place OFF the horses, they will get more, in the long run, out of learning how to respect and care for horses properly. Teach them how to notice when a horse is beginning to suffer from heat stress, and teach them how to follow up a warm-down with an effective cool-down. They and all of their future horses will benefit from that lesson.


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