This summer is proving to be the hottest on record. All over the world temperature records are being broken, with scorching and dangerous temps reaching triple digits and remaining there for weeks. Climate change is here and accelerating, so how do we adapt our riding and horse management to ensure our animals (and ourselves) can perform and remain safe during extreme heat events?

Horse-Canada spoke to two professional horsewomen from different parts of North America to get some insight into how they manage their show and sales barns in the summer. Sarah McKibben of Scottsdale, Arizona, who has earned 15 Amateur and Open American Quarter Horse Association World Championships, operates McKibben Performance & Versatility Horses with her husband Mozaun. McKibben contends with a dry desert climate that has been under a severe heat dome for much of the summer with no relief in sight. Maya Markowski from Guelph, Ontario, is a FEI level dressage rider and trainer who copes with the heat-plus-humidity factor her part of the world is famous for. While both women are thousands of miles apart and work in different disciplines, they shared similar coping mechanisms that any rider can adopt and adapt.

When it comes to basics like keeping horses comfortable in extreme heat in the barn, there are some simple tricks. “In preparation for the hot weather during the summer months, we switch the horses to night turnout beginning the end of May until right into October, weather permitting. They come in at 7:30 am and go back out at 5 pm,” Markowski says. “They have much more energy this way as they are not coming in from the field already hot.”

“Living in Scottsdale, Arizona, easily gives you over 100 days of 100-plus degrees. This year potentially will break the record of 110-plus consecutive degree days,” McKibben says. “We have a 20-stall barn that is very well insulated, and each stall has a fan. Every horse gets a shower some time throughout the day as well.” She adds that her horses in the barn stay on alfalfa, but the horses kept in the pasture are fed strictly grass hay. “When the alfalfa breaks down to sugar and gravitates towards their feet it can make them extra hot, and we worry about too much heat in the feet and laminitis.” Her horses always have access to fresh water and salt/mineral blocks.

In terms of her barn, Markowski says it’s also well ventilated with big windows in all the stalls as well as ceiling fans which help keep a good amount of air flow in the barn. “They definitely enjoy it as there is a lot of snoring coming from the stalls during the day. They are all very quiet and content.”

When riding in extreme temperatures, McKibben gets a little help from Arizona’s famous desert dry heat, with virtually zero humidity. “Here, the shade means something. We have a covered arena, and the temperature is about 20-25 degrees cooler than being in the direct sun,” she explains. “We can ride all day. We don’t ride in our outdoor arena when it’s starts to get 90 degrees. The footing is too hot.”

Markowski says that horses do acclimate to the heat, but she also is aware of how each animal feels under saddle. “While riding I always pay special attention to their breathing and to how much or how little they are sweating. These can be indicators of your horse getting overheated,” she explains. “I try and keep the training sessions short on these above-normal temperature days, giving the horses and riders lots of breaks. Pick one exercise maybe to do that day and keep it light and simple. I tend to pick something the horse is good at to keep the ride short.”

She adds that she also schedules her rides on each horse at different times of the day so that she’s not riding the same horse at the same time of day every day. “I know which horses do better than others in the heat and try and ride the ones that get hot more easily earlier in the day,” she says.

A woman riding a dressage horse.

Maya Markowski dreams of having a pool for horses and riders some day! (Amy Tremaine photo)

As for cooling down post-training ride, Markowski takes her horses straight into the wash stall for a bath. “I run room temperature water over them continuously until they feel cooler to the touch. We then put them in the grooming stalls to dry where we have fans to also help cool them down,” she explains. “All our horses get salt added to their grain to help with water intake and hydration as well as electrolytes and a muscle recovery supplement.”

McKibben has a similar approach after a schooling session, showering the horses and giving them access to water. “Overheating and heat exhaustion is serious and can be life threatening. Just like people some horses handle the heat differently,” she explains. “I try to be a smart rider for me and my horse. If my horse is starting to have labored breathing or continuous sweat. We take a break. I let them cool completely down under a fan and water and if they need more riding we start again.”

As for signs that riders need to look for to assess if their horse is struggling in the heat, Markowski says to watch their breathing. “If you bring your horse in from the field and they are already breathing heavier than normal, then that could be a sign that they are already quite hot. Riding them could exasperate the issue,” she explains. “You also want to make sure your horse is sweating enough based on the workload, but also not more than normal. Their level of fitness must also be taken into consideration before riding them in the extreme heat.”

Markowski also suggests that if you are concerned about your horse being overheated, take their temperature. And if their temperature is high or they are showing other signs of being overheated, keep running water over their entire body continuously until they are cooler to the touch, and keep them out of the sun.

As for their own sun and heat protection, both Markowski and McKibben ride multiple horses per day so they need to watch their skin, water intake, and other precautions. “I drink lots of water and use an electrolyte to help with my own hydration,” she says. “I take breaks in between horses to cool down and always wear my big visor when outside.” The key is staying hydrated.

“A little of the Arizona sun can go a long way, but I love it and would much rather work in the heat than the cold,” McKibben says. “If I ride outside in the sun, I wear a long-sleeved shirt and hat. I never complain about the sun or the hot days. We just have to be smart and take care of all the animals accordingly.”

Markowski has one more idea to conquer the heat ‒ or at least a fantasy. “I continue to dream of having a pool for both horses and riders one day!” she says.


Related reading:

To Scrape, or Not to Scrape? Busting an Old Belief

Keeping Horses Comfortable in Extremely Hot Weather

Recognizing and Preventing Exhaustion in Horses

Getting Your Horse to Drink

Cool ponies: Ice blocks with treats great entertainment for hot horses