Safe in the Heat

Heat affects all horses differently, but especially those from different areas of the country who don’t live in hot, humid conditions all summer. Here’s how competitors at the 2020 NRHA Derby presented by Markel are putting their horses’ health first.

By Jennifer Paulson

Horse in front of fan cooling off
Some horses more easily adapt to the heat and humidity of Oklahoma in mid-June, but they all appreciate cooling off in front of a powerful fan. Photo by Lindsay King

Ask anyone about the weather Oklahoma City in mid-June, and they’ll point out the heat—especially if they’re not accustomed to the weather. While the rider halves of the pairs competing at the 2020 NRHA Derby Presented by Markel find ways to just get by, they go the extra mile to keep their horses healthy, happy, and comfortable so they’re ready to perform when the time comes.

We spoke with three exhibitors to find out how their horses are adapting to the mid-90-degree temperatures and near 50% humidity experienced during the 2020 NRHA Derby presented by Markel. Apply these strategies next time you’re concerned about the heat in regard to your horses’ health. Read about other tips for staying cool at home and at the show here.

Sally Berg, Boulder, Colorado

Coming from 5,430 feet in elevation (that’s more than a mile above sea level) to Oklahoma City’s 1,201 feet means a big climate change for Berg’s horses. This year she brought her mare Had Us At Hello, a 4-year-old mare by REF Black Mamba and out of Dunit N Continental, to compete after a stellar 2019 NRHA Futurity. Obviously, show conditions in June are much different than they were in November and December, so Berg planned ahead to safeguard her mare’s well-being.

“It starts from the beginning, when we get on the trailer to haul to the show” she explained. “We load them up with electrolytes to maintain hydration on the trip there. Once we arrive, we put two box fans in each stall. We also rented a port-a-cooler to keep in the alleyway—that helps move the air a lot.”

On top of her mare’s living conditions, Berg carefully considers her riding schedule to be sure her horse is fresh come show time.

“I’m really conscious each time I ride her,” she explained. “I allow extra time for each maneuver so she can air-up between. While I might circle 15 times in one direction at home, I only go six times when we’re here, for example. People whose horses are from down here have somewhat of an advantage in that regard—their horses are acclimated, so you can ask more of them.”

Berg also took advantage of the salt-water spa to keep her mare’s soft tissues and muscles in good condition. Then it was time to show in the preliminary go-round.

“Before I showed her in the go-round, I warmed her up in Barn 6, took her back to the stall to get a drink, and then went to show,” Berg said. “We keep a close eye on how much she drinks, but I don’t know if I’ve ever had a horse so good about taking water when it’s offered to her.”

Bud Lyon, Tioga, Texas

Living in Northern Texas gives horses and riders a strong advantage when it comes to handling the heat of the summer. NRHA Professional Bud Lyon says easing into it makes all the difference.

“The heat doesn’t smack us in the face as much as it does those who come from the mountains or the coast,” Lyon said. “Gradually transitioning is much easier on all of us. April and October are the best months to be here, but May is the best month to allow your horse to adapt to the climate.”

Hydration is at the top of the list of importance for Lyon’s horses. He also employs fans and port-a-coolers and takes his horses to the saltwater spa. He’s also careful to try to ride at night as much as possible, but admits it’s not always an option at the horse show due to schedules, so he doesn’t count on it. One thing he does rely on: a steady feeding schedule.

“I don’t change my horses’ feed or hay,” he shared. “I stick as much to the same routine as possible. This helps cut down on stress, which keeps our horses happier. I feed a mix of alfalfa and timothy hay, and keep that in front of my horses 24/7, and I add more electrolytes if a horse needs to drink more water.”

Shannon Quinlan, Sharpsville, Pennsylvania

A 17-hour haul from Pennsylvania to Oklahoma means NRHA Professional Shannon Quinlan ensures that her horses are exceptionally fit before they even get on the trailer and head to the show.

“Some horses handle it better than others,” she shared. “I do my homework and use all my resources to know what a horse might need before there’s a potential issue. I got lucky this year and had a few hot days at home before I left, so I was able to test my Derby horse and ensure that he has a lot of wind. It allowed me to determine how he feels in the heat at home, how his water intake changes, and prepare for whatever might come up.”

Quinlan stays very aware of how her horses are feeling at all times and adjusts their training schedules at the show accordingly.“If I have one that doesn’t handle the heat as well, I might just lope some circles outside during the day and save any schooling for when we can be in the air conditioning,” she explained. “But overall, my horses might need less riding because the climate wears them out, even if they are in great shape.”