Horses and riders standing in a pond

Beat the Heat

by Pam Gleason

We are in for a hot summer. A worldwide warming trend combined with the El Nino weather pattern is bringing some of the highest temperatures on record to many places, including the United States.

Although some people may pride themselves on being tough enough to ride on even the most sweltering days, always remember that hot weather is harder on horses than on riders. Not only are they the ones doing most of the work, they also produce more heat and are more susceptible to heat stress than humans are. In other words, if you are hot, your horse is hotter.

Ride in the Morning

If you live in the Southeast, you probably already know that early morning is the best time to ride. In most parts of our area, the coolest temperatures are shortly before sunrise then climb steadily after that. In some places, late afternoon brings relief, but in others, the heat continues to build until sunset. The entire region is prone to dangerous thunderstorms in the afternoon, so morning is not just the coolest time to ride, it is also often the safest.


Be sure that both you and your horse are getting enough to drink. Your horse must have access to clean, fresh, cool water at all times. Some people still believe that it is dangerous to allow hot horses to drink cold water, or that water should be withheld from horses that are working. Extensive studies conducted on performance horses have shown that this is not true. Horses lose a large amount of water to sweat, and they need to replenish that as quickly as possible to avoid dehydration and combat heat stress.

Encourage a horse to drink by making sure that his water buckets and tanks are kept clean through frequent emptying, rinsing and scrubbing. Ensure he has access to free choice salt to help him replenish lost electrolytes and stimulate his thirst. If you put a commercial electrolyte powder in his drinking water, offer him a bucket with plain water too.

Assess Your Horse’s Condition

Horses vary in how well they can tolerate summer temperatures. Fit, lean younger horses are better equipped than older, heavier and more sedentary ones. Excess fat will slow heat loss. Larger horses, even if they are big because they are muscular rather than fat, have a harder time staying cool than smaller horses.

If your horse is more pasture ornament than world class athlete, choose cooler days for your rides and keep them short and easy. If your horse is fit and accustomed to hard work, tailor your rides to the weather conditions.

On hotter days, use interval training – periods of more strenuous work punctuated by walking in the shade – to allow your horse to cool off. If you are competing, warm up and then give your horse a 10 to 20 minute break in the shade before your start time. Preliminary studies have shown that pre-cooling, which you can do by hosing with cold water for about 10 minutes before you ride, might help your horse tolerate longer or more strenuous work.

Is your horse excessively hot, nostrils flaring and breathing heavily even when he is standing in the shade? In hot and humid climates some horses lose the ability to sweat. This condition is called anhidrosis, and usually causes less sweat production, not a totally dry horse. Anhidrosis is not well understood, but seems to happen when the horse “wears out” his sweating mechanism.Horses with anhidrosis must be carefully tended. They may need to be kept inside with a fan and cold hosed periodically. There are various supplements and electrolyte formulas that may help them start sweating again. The old-fashioned, traditional cure? A beer a day, preferably Guinness. Some horsemen swear that it works, but there is no scientific proof. If your horse is having unusual difficulty tolerating the heat, it is best to call your veterinarian for advice.

Stay Out of the Sun

Be sure your horse always has somewhere shady to go. If he lives outside, he needs a run-in shed that blocks the afternoon sun, or a stand of shady trees. If he spends time in the stall, it is often best to keep him inside with a fan during the day and let him out at night.

When you ride, if possible, use a shaded area: a covered arena, down a forest trail, along the edge of a tree-lined field. Riding in the sun will heat your skin and your horse’s skin, making you both work harder to stay cool. If you can, ride on the grass (which absorbs light and heat) rather than in an arena (which reflects it.)

Too Darn Hot

No matter how many precautions you take, there will be days when you and your horse should skip the trail ride, training session or competition.

There are various formulas that assess how dangerous the heat is on a particular day. The heat or comfort index makes a complicated calculation using the air temperature and the relative humidity to arrive at a “feels like” temperature.

You may also have heard of a “horse heat index” that simply adds the temperature and the relative humidity together. The rule of thumb in this system is that if that number is below 120, there should be no problems with the heat. From 120 to 150, you should take some precautions; between 150 and 180 you need to be especially careful and over 180 you should cancel your ride, put your horse in front of a fan and retreat to air conditioning with a nice cold drink.

However, the FEI, which is the organization that regulates international equestrian sport, says that these heat indexes are at best misleading and at worst dangerous. The FEI’s position is that the only valid method of assessing heat risk to horses is the Wet Bulb Globe Temperature (WBGT), a single number that takes into account the temperature, humidity, wind speed and strength of the sun. The WBGT used to be difficult to derive, but now you can purchase a handheld WBGT Index heat stress thermometer.

According to the FEI’s WBGT Index (developed for eventing horses in the Atlanta Olympics), when the reading is less than 28 centigrade (82.5 Fahrenheit), there is no danger. From 28-30 C (82.5-86 F) some precautions are necessary. From 30-32 C (86-89.6 F) working horses will need to be cooled aggressively and from 32-33 (89.6-91.4 F) the conditions are hazardous. Once the WBGT Index is 33 or above, the conditions are “not compatible with safe competition.”

Horsemen are always advised to put their horse’s welfare first, and this summer, that is especially important. But after their horses are squared away, people need to take care of themselves too.

Wear sunscreen and loose fitting, light-colored clothing. Moisture-wicking fabrics and those treated with chemicals that produce a cooling sensation when they are wet can help keep your skin cooler. Many riders use cooling vests. These may be vests with pockets for ice packs or they may be made of material that absorbs water and then slowly releases it over a number of hours to provide an evaporative cooling effect.

Always be on the lookout for symptoms of heat stress, including muscle cramps, dizziness, nausea or headache. Cool yourself off and get out of the heat as quickly as possible. If you don’t feel better soon, seek medical attention. Heat stress can progress to heat stroke, a potentially life-threatening condition that kills over 600 people in the United States every year.

Stay safe this summer, take good care of your horse, and remember that there will be cooler, drier days ahead.


Cool Down

A working horse generates an immense amount of heat. For example, an endurance horse makes enough heat to bring 25 gallons of room temperature water to a boil at a rate of two gallons per minute. In order to keep his internal organs at a safe temperature, a horse needs to rid himself of this heat. He has four ways of doing this. They are:

  1. Evaporation: Sweat coming off the skin, and water vapor coming out of the lungs, has a cooling effect. The key is that this sweat must dry up in order to provide cooling. When the humidity is extremely high (generally over 75%) sweat may simply sit on the coat, creating a blanketing effect.
  2. Convection: Wind or air from a fan blows over the horse’s skin, carrying heat away with it.
  3. Radiation: Heat rises off a horse’s body and dissipates into the atmosphere. A healthy resting horse has an internal temperature of 99-100.5 Fahrenheit. Any time the air temperature is hotter than this, radiation will not help cool a horse.
  4. Conduction: Contact with a cooler surface or material draws heat out. Cold hosing or ice water baths are the most common ways that horsemen use conduction for cooling.

The best way to cool out a hot horse is with a combination of these methods. Cold hosing or ice water bathing is the primary and most effective way to bring a horse’s temperature down (conduction.) Cold water should go on the whole horse: it does not cause muscle cramps or damage. Once the horse is no longer hot, he should be scraped to make sure there is not an insulating blanket of water left on his coat. Then placing the horse in front of a fan or walking him in the shade will allow convection to help evaporate the remaining water off his coat.


Hot Legs

Do you ride with wraps or boots to protect your horse’s legs from impacts or to provide support for tendons and ligaments? Some recent research suggests that it is time to rethink this practice.

Horses’ lower limbs rely mostly on convection cooling: the movement of air across the skin surface that carries heat away. Leg wraps and boots insulate the leg, hampering this cooling process. A 2021 study carried out by a team at Middle Tennessee State University measured the temperature of horses’ legs during exercise wearing six different types of leg protection as well as uncovered. They discovered that horses wearing leg wraps during exercise experienced potentially dangerous overheating in their lower limbs, while uncovered legs actually became cooler as the horses worked. Not only that, but after the wraps were removed, the previously wrapped legs stayed hot for several hours after exercise. Uncovered legs warmed somewhat after the exercise was completed and stayed warm, but they never got as hot as the legs that were wrapped.

The superficial digital flexor tendon that runs along the back of the cannon bone relies almost entirely on convection cooling since it is “hypovascular” meaning without an abundant blood supply to carry away heat. Tendon cells show negative effects from the heat after about five minutes at 104 degrees Fahrenheit or more. At temperatures above 109, the cells begin to die. The horses in the study with bare legs had skin temperatures of about 82 degrees, while the wrapped legs got as high as 97 degrees. Since the core of the tendon is typically about eight degrees hotter than the skin surface, this means the wrapped horses may have had tendon temperatures in the cell damaging range. This could contribute to micro tears in the tendon fibers and tendonitis – the dreaded bowed tendon.

So should you wrap? Decide whether your horse really needs those boots or polos or if you are just using them out of habit. Although more research needs to be done to make positive recommendations, the Tennessee study suggests that if you do wrap, you should remove any leg protection as soon as possible after you dismount, and it would not be a bad idea to cold hose your horse’s legs after your ride.





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