Thoroughbred Logic: Surviving (& Thriving in) the Heat

“You may have to build up to proper condition in tiny chunks and short hacks… But, riding through the heat and incrementally tackling these temperature challenges sets horse and rider up for success…”

Welcome to the next installment of Thoroughbred Logic. In this weekly series, Anthropologist and trainer Aubrey Graham, of Kivu Sport Horses, offers insight and training experience when it comes to working with Thoroughbreds (although much will apply to all breeds). This week ride along as Aubrey discusses her logic on riding when it’s hot out.

I walked outside early this morning to check on horses after the myriad fireworks for the Fourth of July and found that as I opened my door I was hit by a solid wall of humidity. It is already a steam box out there. And then I remind myself that while 75 and sunny with a light breeze sounds like heaven, this 95-degree heat doesn’t particularly bother me.

A steamy sunrise and a visitor before the start of Sunday’s Thoroughbred Logic Clinic at Kivu Sporthorses. Photo by author.

Yes, you all can think I’m insane. I am probably certifiable, but for some reason, the fact that I like the hot days really clarifies that for a lot of folks. In 2010, for the first time in my life, I made intentional decisions about where in this country I wanted to spend my time. Being warm (verging on hot) was definitely a driving force that located me in Atlanta. (Have I mentioned how much I hate the cold? No? Just wait for January).

The unfortunate thing, though, is that while I don’t mind the days that are downright scorchers, the horses often do. On one hand, there are tons of articles out there about how to set up fans, add salt and electrolytes, refresh waters and hose down major muscle groups and arterial lines for quickest cooling. Those are critical.

Rhodie snuck a few sips of water during his hose down after schooling at Chatt Hills during a particularly blistering summer day in 2021. Photo by author.

I’ll add to those baseline care guidelines that with Thoroughbreds (as with most horses), they will sweat out the calories. Yet again, we just revamped our turnout so that the thinner kids (right now my mares) are not decreasing their girth size by baking in the midday sun.

Even when shelter and shade are provided, these heat-seekers will still stand and sweat in their usual spots. I try to bribe them into the shade by tossing hay near the trees, but while they will snack, they soon head back to sun. They might as well unfold their aluminum sun reflectors and rub on baby oil. So, night turnout it is for the thinner kids. Fine.

Rikki (Tiz So Fine) does not mind the heat, but she’ll also sweat off all the weight I have pumped back onto her, so night turnout it is. Photo from the most recent Thoroughbred Logic Clinic (yes, we both were very warm by this point) by Cora Williamson

But here’s the bigger thing: There are a lot of voices on the internet and elsewhere that call for not riding in this heat. OK, that’s totally cool. Ride early or don’t ride. But that doesn’t quite work when you run a training facility. And that doesn’t work for situations like this past weekend, when Thoroughbred Logic Clinic times ran through the afternoon and simultaneously, the Area III Eventing Championships were blasting around cross country at Chatt Hills. Last year was the same thing — the heat struck when I had a large number of the Kivu Team headed out to Poplar Place Farm all with afternoon ride times.

If you’re going to be showing in the heat, there’s a big push to condition ahead of time to build up heat resistance and to know how you and your horse respond. Photo of Batîste (Pentatonic) at Poplar Place Farm by Candice Skelton

So here’s my take: Condition. The first day of the heat is always the worst only because there has been no way to get used to it yet. So take it easy. But do some small things. As the heat drags on, condition yourself and your horse if there’s any chance that you might be riding on a schedule you didn’t make. Thoroughbreds are pretty temperature flexible. While they are not quite the Arabian who can run the desert sands all summer, those bloodlines have stuck around making them able to work in the type of heat that could be far more challenging to a bigger boned, drafty-type.

Around here, conditioning takes the shape of shorter rides or hacks in the field. There’s a lot of walking for warm up, followed by about 15 minutes of light to moderate work with plenty of walk breaks added in. And we build from there. While on more rationally temperatured days, I’ll ride eight or nine horses, right now I’m getting on maybe six. So the amount of work is toned down a little for everyone. But we still ride.

Crypto (Cryptorithm) got a quick jump school in during the heat of the day complete with many walk breaks and fewer fences than on a 70-degree day, but he still got a ride in. Photo by Alanah Giltmier.

And this means that when both my horses and I need to go stand in the sun, wait for stadium and then head straight from there to run around cross-country, we’re fine. Yes, we’re both soaked in sweat. That’s a good thing. Yes, at least the horse is going to go stand under running water for quite a few minutes until their core temp resumes normal. And yes, I’m going to pay attention to any signs of things going south — not sweating, extreme panting, signs of colic, dullness etc.

Even baby horses (he’s 3) like Tackle (Kampeska) get to come out for quick rides in the heat. Photo by Alanah Giltmier.

But if I expect to compete and clinic in this weather, my horses will at the very least be used to it and ready for that added challenge. Better yet, if there is a horse who does not do well in this weather, who might have minor anhidrosis, or simply falls apart if they work in the heat, I’ll already know. They won’t get put on the show calendar or inserted as my afternoon ride at the clinic. They’ll be my 8AM horse who does not compete until the weather gives up the ghost and cools the hell off.

But if I don’t condition, I don’t know who can and cannot tolerate it. And that data, almost more than anything else, is absolutely critical. I think one can probably say the same thing of riders in the heat too…

You won’t be seeing Wolf (Louisiana Moon) out and about until it cools down a bit. He’s on the struggle bus with the combination of the Georgia heat and his process of letting down. Photo by Cora Williamson.

This is the same theory that I apply for the rain and the cold. I don’t have the luxury of being a fair weather rider, so my horses need to understand how to jump in sloppy footing in the rain. I never want a show to be the first time they experience that. Equally, they have to understand how to flat in a quarter sheet in the blistering wind, because that dressage warmup on top of the hill at Chatt is going to be a hell of an eye-opener if we have not practiced at home.

I was grateful that I had schooled Louis (Unbridled Bayou) in the rain at home when the sky unzipped for his first BN at Poplar Place Farm last summer. Photo by Cora Williamson.

And so, the same goes for “hell’s front porch” season. You may have to build up to proper condition in tiny chunks and short hacks. This might limit a rider to focusing on one skill a ride. But, riding through the heat and incrementally tackling these temperature challenges sets horse and rider up for success, even if, at the end of the ride, it looks more like you went swimming than riding.