How can I cool my horse off in the summer after exercise?
One more thing you need to manage in the summer is your horse’s cooling off after exercise. This is critical - as his vital signs will be climbing, which can put your horse into heat stress and even heat stroke. You can learn more about your horse’s vitals (Temp, Pulse, and Respiration also known as TPR) here, and read the primer about how your horse sweats and why it’s tricky to manage. This will give you some great background before we dive into cooling off your horse.
Know your horse's baseline TPR!
In the summer, the heat and humidity can add a ton of stress, to us and your horses. Add exercise into the mix, and you have some serious management to do. A note before we get into the heart of cooling off - if your horse is conditioned to exercise (fit) and he’s acclimated to the current weather, you have it pretty good. If your horse gets ridden hard once or twice on the weekends, and sits around the other days, he is at greater risk from heat related complications. Be fair to him and consider his fitness level before you go trail blazing.
I can’t stress this enough - you need to know your horse’s baseline TPR. This is the only way you and your Veterinarian can determine what’s normal for him, and if you don’t know what’s normal, you will not know to what degree he is distressed. That being said, start to take vital signs before and after workouts.
Your horse’s temp can rise as high as 104 degrees after exercise. If it goes higher, this is a sign of heat stress, and you must intervene and begin aggressive cooling right away. Have a barn mate call the Veterinarian and touch base, just in case. Heat stress can also be measured by his pulse going over 80, and his respirations going over 40 or 50. His breath may also be shallow. Check his gums, if they are red or muddy colored, this is a sign his circulatory system is in danger. (Pale or blue gums are also a sign of serious trouble).
It’s also prudent to discuss when your horse will be exercising. In summer, it’s typically cooler and more humid in the early morning hours. This is the preferred time to exercise. Research tells us that cool and humid is better than hot and less humid.
Cool off in the washrack - and don't dry in the sun!
When your horse is done with exercise, time to strip tack and take temps. Often, in the height of summer, I will go to the cross ties, strip tack quickly, douse and scrap with water, and hand walk a few minutes in the shade. Finding a breeze helps, too. Then I can return to the cross ties and really get down to it.
Use cool water to rinse your horse. I like to use super cold water on the legs to cool the tendons, you can also use super cold water on the major vessels of the hind legs on the inner side of the gaskin area. This cools the blood returning to the heart. You absolutely can use cold water on the barrel and body, but my horses both flinch and suck up when I do that, so I start will cool water and adjust the temperature down as they get used to the cold. Scraping the water off is just as important as putting it on. Water not scraped off will act as insulation and heat up, thus heating your horse. Get coordinated and learn to hose with one hand and scrape with the other. (I think it’s best to practice this when your friend is in the next wash stall over, your lack of coordination will get them pretty wet.)
You can also use an alcohol (not beer, think rubbing alcohol) and water mix to douse your horse with. Alcohol evaporates faster. This 50/50 mixture is also handy to have ringside in a squirt bottle to spray the neck and inner hind legs with during a work out session’s walk breaks.
Drying your horse in a breezy and shady spot is great, a fan or fan/misting system is also good. It’s the evaporation of water by the air flow that helps your buddy cool off. Avoid using the sun to dry during hot days.
So, let’s address some myths here. It’s fine and even really encouraged to allow your horse to drink cool, fresh water immediately after exercise. The only exception might be an insanely intense work out. The thirst drive is highest right now, if you wait 15 minutes, the desire to drink could be gone. I worked at a barn where we filled buckets hanging just inside the cross ties for the horses to drink. We would untack and unwrap legs as they took some sips, then we could hand walk them a bit.
Let your horse drink after exercise!
Another myth is that of using cold water on hot muscles, this is totally ok and has not been proven to cause muscle cramping. If your horse is not in dire straights, you can always start with cool water and then make it colder.
Your horse should be back to his normal TPR within 40 to 60 minutes. If not, buzz your Veterinarian and ask for help. Stay cool this summer!!
What is in your horse's cooling off routine?