Summer sure is heating up! Over the past week, many parts of North America have experienced dangerously high levels of heat and humidity, with potentially record-breaking temperatures on the horizon. Heat advisories warn us to stay indoors as much as possible and limit strenuous activities.
Unfortunately, summer is ALSO the time of year when most riding school owners make most of their revenue.
How are you supposed to keep your students, horses and instructors safe from heat exhaustion — or worse — without canceling all of your lessons?
Here are a few ideas for keeping your cool AND maintaining a regular lesson schedule during hot summer months:
Teach heat safety
Some day, your students may be on their own on a trail ride or at a horse show, facing some tough decisions in extreme heat.
Will they know how to keep themselves safe and protect their horses?
Devote an important lesson to teaching students how to evaluate heat index, recognize signs of heat illness in horse and human, and cool down a hot horse. Discuss the merits of leaving a horse wet versus scraping (always a hot topic!) and let students create “hydration stations” for horses, flavoring buckets of water with herbs, feed or fruit slices.
While you’re at it, discuss correct hydration for humans. (Hint: Iced coffee doesn’t count!)
If your students take away only one thing from this lesson, it’s that it doesn’t take much to overheat a horse on a muggy day, and that heat illness is dangerous for EVERYONE.
Now is not the time to be jumping courses, running barrels, or seeing how long your students can post without stirrups.
Instead, teach mounted lessons entirely at the walk or walk/trot, with the goal of challenging your students mentally more than physically. This can be a great time to break down or introduce complex skills, or hone in on a particular aspect of a student’s position.
Think walk lessons sound boring? You might just need to expand your collection of exercises. We have found that students of all ages enjoy slow lessons when they are presented creatively and enthusiastically, and advanced riders tend to appreciate them the most!
A few activities you might try:
Play water games, such as Rubber Duck Rescue or water balloon relays. Or set up a sprinkler and have more advanced students practice desensitizing techniques to help the horses gain confidence in the water.
We like to set two barrels in the arena and place a bucket of ice water on top of each barrel. Students are encouraged to stop by the buckets and splash around during frequent mid-lesson breaks.
Cooling neck towels or bandannas can be dipped in the bucket for a refill, or you can provide plastic cups and allow students to pour water on the back of their necks. (Just make sure horses are comfortable with the sensation of water falling from above!)
Prior to mounted lessons, run a hose over school horses and encourage students to wet the inside of their helmets or their hair. Use a garden hose attachment to provide a cooling mist; if feasible, allow students to stand in the mist before, during and after lessons.
Remember that water can wash away sunscreen, so you’ll want to remind students and parents to use a product for water sports and apply it thickly.
Take your lessons on location
Riding on hot sand can intensify summer heat! Look for opportunities to get your students out of the ring, even if they are only capable of a leadline walk around the property.
A shady trail is ideal, but even just riding in a paddock or field can drop the temperatures of your workspace.
Teach students to ride in the open using ideas in this Boss Mares blog post: Happy Trails: Hack Your Horseback Riding Lessons
Ground your students
Hot summer days can be the perfect time to emphasize groundwork. Combine hands-on practice in the arena with horseless exercises and simulations in the shade.
The horses will appreciate not having to carry around a saddle and rider, and your students will appreciate the opportunity to wear shorts!
Create unmounted learning stations in the shade
If it’s just too hot to trot, devote your lesson time to unmounted activities instead. Set up a shade canopy and run electrical cords for fans if necessary. (We currently teach unmounted lessons in a converted tool shed with a window AC unit… which doubles as storage space for ALL our horsey teaching materials!)
Students can explore HorseSense topics, play learning games, and practice off-horse exercises designed to improve their riding. Let students feel the effects of various hand position faults by holding a bit, or teach your jumping enthusiasts how to design a course and measure stride using Breyer models and to-scale poles.
We used to run full-day camps with twice-daily riding sessions — until the summer we realized it was hitting 115 degrees on the arena sand every afternoon and we had a bunch of not-so-happy campers, to say nothing of the horses and instructors!
After that, we offered half-day camps with the option to extend camp to include an afternoon of unmounted programming.
To our surprise, almost ALL of our campers enthusiastically chose the full day option — and the few that didn’t opt in before camp changed their mind after the first day!
This was a great reminder that most children — and many adults — really just want to spend time with horses, and learn about them in the company of other horse-loving friends. We don’t always need to be riding or accomplishing big goals for that time to be valuable and memorable.
Now we have our “Too Hot to Trot Protocol”, which uses the heat index chart to determine the day’s activities:
Trust your instincts and your training, and put the welfare of your students and horses before your riding agenda
Whatever hot-weather policy you create for your program, make sure to put it in writing and communicate clearly with students and parents. This can prevent lots of last-minute texts and schedule-induced headaches.
Don’t be afraid to make exceptions for highly heat-sensitive students. We’ve known a handful over the years who could go from “I’m fine, let’s ride!” to dizzy spells and weakness in just a few short minutes.
And if Mother Nature asks you to slow down, embrace the shift in focus, and encourage your students to do the same.
Horsemanship doesn’t always have to be fast or flashy to be valuable and fun!