5 Tips for Keeping You and Your Horse Cool in the Heat

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Amy Dragoo photo

Recognize Heat Stress

There are some persistent misconceptions about exertional heat stroke, which may cause people to miss critical early-warning signs. One common myth is that people suffering from exertional heat stroke stop sweating altogether and have dry, hot skin. In fact, individuals suffering an exertional heat stroke can have dry, hot skin or sweat on their skin. Another myth is that heat stress is always progressive, beginning with a milder form and potentially worsening if not treated. Individuals can actually suffer an exertional heat stroke without experiencing any other exertional heat illness beforehand.

Know the Range of Exertional Heat Illnesses

Exercise-induced muscle cramps, experienced as painful, involuntary muscle contractions

Heat syncope: a fainting episode caused by blood pooling in the extremities

Exertional heat exhaustion, with symptoms including nausea, fatigue, weakness, tachycardia

(a heart rate of over 100 beats per minute), and loss of concentration

Exertional heat stroke, a serious, life-threatening condition that presents as central-nervous-

system dysfunction, with symptoms such as confusion, irritability, and aggressive behavior.

Plan Your Beat the Heat Strategy

If you want to ride in the hot weather—and especially if you plan to compete, when you cannot choose your ride times—preparation is key to staying as safe and comfortable as possible. You already know some of the main strategies, such as riding during the coolest part of the day (often the early morning), wearing light-colored and moisture-wicking clothing, and staying hydrated. But there are some additional and important ways to prepare your body to perform in the heat.

Get fit. You may not relish the thought of sweating even more, but physical inactivity is strongly associated with increased thermal strain during exercise in the heat, which ups the risk of exertional heat illness. If you stay active out of the saddle, you’ll be better prepared to function in the heat.

Acclimate to the conditions. Heat acclimatization is a broad term used to define the series of physical adaptations that occur in response to heat stress. The process takes seven to fourteen days to reduce the chances of harmful effects of heat stress. Experts caution that it’s important to strike a careful balance between preparing in harsh weather and zapping energy needlessly; but if you’re going to have to perform in extreme conditions, you must gradually accustom your body to those conditions beforehand, or you’ll run the very real risk of experiencing a heat-related illness.

Pre-cool. To increase their bodies’ capacity to store heat, some athletes cool their bodies in advance of activity. Called pre-cooling, this approach is designed to limit the increase in the body’s core temperature during work. Pre-cooling methods include everything from using fans and donning cooling vests or other cooling garments, to whole-body immersion in ice or cold water.

Horses Need Cooling, Too

Horses are naturally well-designed to handle heat through evaporative cooling. But the presence of sweat alone is not an accurate way to determine the heat’s impact on a horse. In hot and dry conditions, sweat evaporates rapidly, leaving a salty residue on the skin and haircoat. Although the horse may not appear to be sweating copiously, rapid evaporation results in large fluid and electrolyte losses, which can lead to dehydration and heat-related distress.

Cooling techniques. Hosing or bathing with cold water is an effective and safe way of cooling, but don’t cover a hot horse with a wet towel or blanket as these layers rapidly heat up and prevent evaporation from the skin they cover.

Acclimate your horse to the heat. A horse can find itself transported in a matter of days or even hours from a cold climate to a hot one. A rule of thumb for southbound “snowbirds” is to give a horse a week to 10 days after arriving in the warmer climate to adjust to the sudden change.

Know your horse’s norms. Establish your horse’s baseline range of normal rectal temperatures. Take his temp every morning and evening at home for a few days to learn what’s normal for him. “Normal” in an adult horse at rest is under 101 degrees F, usually in the range of 99.5 to 100.5. Moderate exercise in temperate conditions may induce a rectal temperature of around 103, but intense exercise can spike it even higher. The temperature of a horse not suffering from heat stress should return to the normal range within about 45 minutes after stopping exercise. Be aware that horses can suffer from heat stress even in conditions considered moderate or cool.

Find Resources That Can Help You

The University of Connecticut’s Korey Stringer Institute has online resources to help athletes and sport organizers learn how to assess hydration levels, recognize, and treat heat-related illnesses, and more.

Learn more at ksi.uconn.edu.

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