When it gets hot in the South, it gets really hot, so I’ve learned a thing or two over my years of riding about how to continue to train, condition, and enjoy my horses in extreme summer temperatures.
When it gets hot in the South, it also gets humid. And when a regular southern summer heat meets an extreme heat wave or the dreaded “heat dome”, riding and training horses can be a miserable chore- luckily, there are ways to make riding in extreme heat more tolerable. While I’ve previously written on the necessity of special care for horses in a heat wave in this article, we’re talking about rider care in heat waves.
In this article, you’ll learn tips for riding in the hot summer heat from professionals, that they use to take advantage of time in the saddle even when the temperatures are extremely hot.
1. Try high-tech Riding Gear
100 years ago cowboy is and equestrians didn’t have much choice and equipment when extreme summer heat settled in the region, but today advances in athletic and performance fabrics have created entire wardrobes of riding breeches, tops, helmets, and boots that are designed to keep riders cool.
Summer show gloves, CoolMax™ socks, ventilated riding helmets, and even cross-country vests designed to maximize airflow and minimize insulation can help keep riders cool when riding in extreme heat. The good news is you don’t have to purchase an entire wardrobe of riding equipment to enjoy riding in the summer, even upgrading one or two pieces each summer can help make a noticeable difference in your comfort level in the saddle in extreme heat and humidity.
2. Get Creative to Save Wear and Tear on Tack
Everyone knows that water is the enemy of leather, so when extreme heat makes our horse sweat buckets during a workout, how do we minimize the damage to our tack? For some riders, the answer is cleaning tack thoroughly after every single ride, but I prefer to ride a little smarter and work a little easier.
When it’s extra hot outside, I use minimal tack, opt for hose-off options like synthetic leathers, and use washable liners under my saddle pads. These washable liners, originally called baby pads when they were adapted from infant changing pads, but now widely available as thin, unpadded saddle pad liners. Baby pads can help absorb sweat and form a barrier between sweaty horses and expensive, hard to clean saddle pads.
3. When you hose your horse off, give yourself a spray.
If you’re riding in the summer you should already be wearing minimal, quick-dry riding gear. So when you use water to cool down your horse, give yourself a spray too- and just like a horse, be sure to scrape that extra water off. In humid environments, water is more likely to sit on the skin instead of evaporating, forming an insulative layer that actually makes us hotter. Instead, be sure to use a sweat scraper after hosing your horse off on a hot summer day and, if you give yourself a spritz, use the palm of your hands to scrape excess water off your skin.
4. Ride where there’s maximum airflow
During heat waves, and especially during heat domes (when atmospheric air isn’t moving much) it can be hard to find a breeze, but finding even a little bit of moving air can significantly impact your comfort level and how much you can push your horse during a ride on a hot summer day. For some riding environments, it’s obvious how you can improve ventilation – like turning on box fans, large industrial fans, or just choosing to ride outside instead of in an indoor arena – but for others finding a breeze on a hot day might require a little bit of creativity. For example, try riding on higher ground, since hillsides and treelines can block what little breeze there might be.
Many riders are tempted to ride without a helmet in the hot summer months. However, a study of cowboys riding in Australian summer heat found that helmet wearing did not make it harder for riders to regulate their temperature.1
5. Consider night or early morning rides
In the South, thick humidity hanging in the air on hot days means that there’s not much of a cool-off when the sun goes down- the most tolerable weather tends to be early in the morning around dawn. Early morning rides are best for horses and riders when peak summer heat and humidity hit, but riding at night works better for many people who have access to an arena with good lighting. (and for those who enjoy the community of a horse boarding stable, there’s more of a crowd in the evening when folks are awake and active)
6. Drink more water than you sweat while riding
Both riding and chores in extreme heat can cause our bodies to sweat a truly amazing amount. To stay healthy and be able to enjoy your time with your horse, keep drinking water. It’s easy to remember how important hydration is for horses, but it’s also really easy to forget about how much of an effort we, as riders, need to put into taking in water. Not drinking enough and high heat can cause lethargy, dizziness, headaches, and even heatstroke – a serious and life-threatening condition.
[learn the warning signs of heat illness from the CDC]
Keep a water bottle with you throughout the day and drink constantly – set a reminder if you have to. If you don’t like water, do what you need to do to make hydration easier – whether it’s lemon juice, additives, electrolytes, or even Gatorade. Avoid caffeinated drinks and especially energy drinks, caffeine and heat can do more harm than good.
Pro tip: when I know I’ll be spending a few hours at the barn on a hot day, I freeze a few reusable plastic water bottles in my freezer the night before. When I leave for the barn, I’ll take two frozen bottles and one bottle of liquid water, usually by the time I finished it the frozen bottles contain ice cold, but thawed, water perfect for refreshing when I’m hot.
Cooling Caps & Helmet Liners
My riding instructor recommended cooling caps to me for a recent summer clinic that I attended. Cooling caps are head-shaped cloths (like beanies) that you soak in cold water before placing on top of your head under your helmet. A charged, wet cooling cap feels delicious, especially if you don’t care about helmet hair or are already wearing a hat, especially a vented riding helmet.
I found mine at REI, but Amazon has a large selection as well. Cooling caps like the one I use can be found in sporting goods stores or the sporting goods department of your local discount store.
7. Wear light colors
I thought the advice to wear light colors and heat was a myth and tell one’s summer festival in my 20s when I was wearing a black shirt. As the blazing sun shone down, I was sweating buckets, but as soon as I change to the shirt that I brought as a backup, which was white, I was immediately cooler – it turns out that advice that’s been passed down for generations is solid advice. Darker hues absorb more light than bright colors, because light colors reflect sunlight – this helps us stay cooler in and out of the saddle.
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8. Try Cooling Sunscreeen
In extreme heat, when the sun is blazing, both horse and rider should have sun protection to prevent sunburns. For humans, new developments in sunscreen technology mean that sunscreen doesn’t just protect us from the sun, but can actually help our skin feel cooler. Check out Banana Boat’s Cool Zone Refreshing Sunscreen to give it a try.
Sunburns on horses are common, though sometimes attributed to a skin allergy rather than the result of UV light hitting sensitive – usually pink- skin on muscles or under white markings on horses.
In this article, I’ve shared seven tips, some standard and some creative, for staying cool while riding in the summer heat. I’ve learned these heat-busting treks from years spent in barns, shadowing professionals who couldn’t take a day off over the summer, and from studying the trends in equestrian summer gear. What about you, what are your tricks for staying cool in the saddle in the summer, I love to hear your ideas, drop me a line below in the comment section.