New York’s En­chant­ing Trails

Trail Rider - - JULY/AUGUST 2014 - BY DEB BAL­LIET

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 Florence via e-mail

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.


Watch the Weather

Julie Good­night

As you plan your sum­mer rides, it's your re­spon­si­bil­ity to know the trail con­di­tions and the weather.

If you have a smart­phone or tablet, down­load the weather apps of your choice. I like The Weather Chan­nel app, which al­lows you to check hourly fore­casts.

First, cal­cu­late the day's pre­dicted heat in­dex — the sum of the heat (in de­grees Fahren­heit) plus the rel­a­tive hu­mid­ity.

If this num­ber is less than 130, it should be okay to ride a fit horse, al­though you may still need to take pre­cau­tions. You may be un­com­fort­able, but there's not a big risk of heat ex­haus­tion.

If the num­ber is greater than 130, the con­di­tions are highly risky for heat ex­haus­tion. If the num­ber is 150 or higher, stay home, and plan to ride an­other day — or get out and back very early!

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.


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.


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's 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.)

Rider Tips

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. TTR

“If there’s wa­ter on the trail, stop and rest in the wa­ter cross­ing, and cool your horse’s legs,” ad­vises Julie Good­night. “Wa­ter is the best way to cool down, and the large blood ves­sels in his legs will help him cool down fast.”

“Just be­cause it’s hot doesn’t give you an ex­cuse to dress in­ap­pro­pri­ately. You need pro­tec­tion from brush, branches, and the sun,” notes Julie Good­night (shown). “Wear long pants, rid­ing boots, a good rid­ing shirt, and, of course, a rid­ing hel­met.”

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