In which I revisit the issue of keeping a big dark horse cool

The best way to keep a hard-working endurance horse cool during
a strenuous event is to begin with a small, narrow, grey horse.
Preferably an Arab.

My horse is NOT small, nor narrow, not light-skinned...and not an Arab

Fiddle is big:  16 hands, 1200 pounds.  She has a big engine,

Hover-dragon. Photo by M. Bretherton.

and her engine runs hot.

During an endurance ride, cooling is a major issue for all horses.  Here's a quote from an article by Dr. Susan Garlinghouse, DVM:

During a fifty-mile ride in ambient temperatures, the average horse will produce enough heat to melt a 150-pound block of ice, and then bring that water to a boil. If that heat is not removed, the internal body temperature will quickly rise high enough to literally cook the entire body.

Please note that the numbers cited above are for an average horse.  Not a 1200 pound Dragon, who naturally produces even more heat.

And not a Moose, either.

This is Moose.  He is even bigger than the Dragon.

Moose and his rider ran into metabolic trouble at the April Daze ride, which sent me scurrying to my blog archives to find the post I wrote about cooling a big dark horse.  Turns out that I wrote that post in 2010, and (surprise!) have learned stuff since then.  So, this is an update of that old post.

(You can read the old post HERE, but some of the links are dead now.)

Start with science:

Read the Garlinghouse article (seriously, read it!) and then take a look at this article from the University of Guelph.  (You may have to sign in, but the link is secure and they won't sell your data).

The Guelph piece discusses research gathered by the team that contributed information about horses and heat during the Atlanta Summer Olympics, where heat and humidity could have been potentially fatal to working horses.  You will recall that no horses died during those events:  read the research and find out why.

A major point to emphasize:  the heart works hard to circulate blood in order to cool the body.  High heat = high heart rate = fatigue.

Cool the horse (and keep him cool), and the heart won't have to work so hard.  If the heart doesn't have to work so hard, the horse is less fatigued.  All good things.

What I do with this information:
My horse will always be big, and dark, and non-Arab.  I can't change any of that.  But I can manipulate some variables to help her stay cooler while she works.

It's easier to keep a horse running cooler than it is to cool off a very hot animal.  To keep Fiddle's "engine temp" down when we're on the trail, I have a couple of strategies:

It was 104* F on the trail the day this photo was taken.

  • Get the hair outta there

Early-season rides offer a challenge for horses like Fiddle who won't shed out a winter coat until early summer.  If I'm planning a 50 mile ride in March or April, or even a 25-miler that will have a lot of strenuous terrain, I clip her neck and chest in February to aid in cooling.

Clearly, I attended library school, not beauty school.

If your horse is tremendously hairy or takes forever to cool down after training rides, consider a more extreme clip, perhaps leaving only the saddle area and lower legs un-shaved.  YouTube offers plenty of tutorial videos on clipping technique.

Speaking of hair:  a braided mane isn't just "fer pretty" on an endurance horse.

Good hair day

Braids get hair off the horse's neck so that the sweat can evaporate and the moving air can provide cooling.  Braids also make the neck area readily available for sponging and squirting water on the go (see below).

  • Water, water, everywhere.  
Hydration is vital:  you want water inside the horse.  Stop at every tank and every creek if you must.  Offer wet grass if there's some growing by the side of the trail.  Give a sloppy delicious mash before, during, and after your event.  Make sure that water bucket in camp is full, and keep an eye on how much your horse is drinking.  If you are unclear about the reasons for all this hydration, go back and read that Garlinghouse article again!

Water is also useful on the outside of the horse.

I carry a sponge-on-a-string with a wrist loop, and as we go past puddles and creeks, I can toss the sponge into the water at her ankle-level, yank the string to retrieve the sponge, and drench her without losing a beat.  This takes practice.  Start on the ground, standing still.  Practice throwing your sponge around your horse's body and face until that gets boring.  Then do it from the saddle, standing still and then at a walk.  

For dry rides, I keep at least one bottle of water on my saddle that is used just for squirting on my horse as we move down the trail.  I refill the "swampwater" bottle at water tanks and creeks when those are available, and have the bottle marked with black tape so I don't accidentally drink out of it. For longer, hotter, dryer rides, I carry two bottles for this purpose.

Pray for rain.  

April Daze ride 2015:  75 miles of cold rain.

It's miserable to ride in pouring rain for hours, but rain is God's own cold hose, and can keep your big dark horse cooler.

  • Scrape water off promptly.  

Whenever you rinse off a hot horse, the water scraped off will be hot.  If you don't scrape off the water (you can use a special scraper, or the blade of your hand and arm) all that heat stays on your horse's skin like a warm, insulating blanket--exactly what you don't need.

  • Slow the heck down.

A hot, humid day is not the time to push Fiddle for a fast finish.  Neither is the first ride of the season, when emotions (human and equine) run higher and hotter than they will by the third or fourth event.  Strenuous terrain also calls for a lower speed limit.

On sunny days I prefer to trot in the sun and walk in the shade (if there is any) to maximize time out of direct sunlight.  Sometimes that means we change gaits every 1/2 mile, which is fine.

In practice, this means that on a hot, strenuous ride like Renegade Rendezvous we will finish 26th out of 33 horses, whereas on a cooler and less technical ride like Klickitat Trek we will finish 19th out of 53.

  • Watch your recovery times

Keep an eye on the heart rate monitor.  Know how quickly your horse's heart rate normally drops below 100 beats per minute after a steep hill or a good gallop.  If the recovery is taking longer than usual, he is working harder, and it's time to hit the brakes.

Sometimes the work doesn't seem harder to you, but the heart rate monitor will tell you the truth.  If the footing is deep or technical, if the incline is perceptible, or if seeing a horse ahead on the trail makes your horse stupid, his heart will work harder and he will tire more quickly.

Don't count on your horse's "willingness to run" as a measure of fatigue, especially if he is new to the game.  Horses are herd animals and they may make bad choices when they feel competitive.  You have to be the brains of the operation.

Experienced horses know that the day may be long, and are more likely to pace themselves, whereas newcomers live moment-to-moment and are more likely to want to sprint.

  • Get fitter slower

Although Fiddle is naturally bulky, I was able to build long, stringy muscles on her by doing a lot of long, slow distance at the beginning.  How much is a lot?  For us, it was a year of mostly walking.  Then another year of walking and trotting, and rarely faster than 14mph in that second year, except for an occasional interval sprint up a hill, followed by a heart rate check to see how fast the recovery was.

That's a lot longer and slower than most endurance gurus will say, because most endurance gurus ride dinky little Arabian horses.  If you don't ride a dinky Arabian, you have to do stuff differently.

  • Use electrolytes to help your horse

I wrote a whole post about electrolytes, which you can read HERE.

I would only update one thing about that 2015 post:  that a very fit horse, no matter how big, won't need as much electrolyte help.  I wrote that post at the beginning of our Very Long 2015 Season , and found that Fiddle's recoveries improved with less salt on board the further we got into the season.  She still needed some, but not as much.

Electrolytes help with hydration, which helps with fatigue.  You DID read that Garlinghouse article, right?

Electrolytes, alas, are not a precise science yet.  But figure out how they can help your horse, because they really can make a difference, especially for our big, dark friends.

Big, heavy, dark, and fun to ride.

When you get to the vet check, cooling a horse so that his heart rate drops can be as simple as standing still or walking slowly in large circles to allow him to catch his breath and let his heart rate drop.  

But what if that isn't enough?

  • Get naked
A saddle, a saddle pad, and all the junk we tie on there can be heavy--and more importantly, it keeps heat in.

If you come in hot, and your horse's heart rate is high, pull off all that tack and let the heat escape.

  • Active cooling
In the pouring rain at April Daze last weekend, some riders stripped off tack and let the rain do the work.

If you lack rain, or if you need more help to actively cool your horse, you will want to put water on the horse and then scrape it off again promptly.  Use a sponge, a scoop, a bucket, a hose, or whatever tool is available to put water on your horse's neck, his belly, and his butt.   Practice this at home first -- you don't want to startle your horse by tossing a bucket of water on his bum for the first time ever in a crowded vet check. 

When the water you scrape off feels cool, your horse is cool.  Check his heart rate: it will be lower.

In cold weather, there is a delicate line between cooling the horse promptly and chilling his muscles, perhaps causing a cramp.  When in doubt, use smaller amounts of water interspersed with a leisurely walk in a large circle.  Walking encourages blood to circulate, which will cool the horse.

In hot weather, go crazy with the cooling.

Standing in a cold creek on a hot day, sponging her face.  It feels so good!

To sum up:

If you ride a large, dark, non-Arabian horse in endurance, your strategy will be different from mainstream.  It isn't necessarily more difficult, but it will not be the same.

Keep your horse running cooler by eliminating anything that retains heat, including extra hair.
Keep him well-hydrated by using electrolytes to encourage drinking.
Actively cool him on the trail by applying water via a squirt bottle or sponge, and remove the water promptly.
Slow down in hot weather and difficult terrain.
Watch your HRM:  if his recoveries are slow, you are going too fast.

When you get to the vet check, encourage further cooling so that his heart rate will drop.
Take off saddle, blanket, splint boots and anything else that will keep the heat in.
Apply water and scrape it off promptly.
Walk him in slow, easy circles to circulate the cooling blood and prevent muscle cramping.

Finally: Ask for help if you need it. 

Volunteers at the vet checks are often experienced riders and crew, and they can assist you with sponging, scraping, and monitoring.

If you run into trouble, consult the vets sooner rather than later.  They are there to help the horse, so let them help!

Fiddle loves veterinarians, especially Dr. Dick Root

Questions, comments, thoughts and suggestions?  The box is open below!


  1. I adore the way you present information - I can read all the way through, no ADHD pill necessary.

  2. Written FOR short attention spans BY short attenti--oh hey, a chicken!

  3. I noticed no one in Europe scraping water after dumping 1-liter water bottles on their horses on the go. I also saw my rider giving honey in a syringe at every vet check. HONEY.

    Um, although Mag is scarily light skinned (lavender?) Arabs should have skin as dark as Fiddle's: ) Mag is a freak - today it's 70 degrees and I took the opportunity to give him a warm bucket bath and halfway through he was shivering so violently, I thought he might fall down. Poor thing, I won't do that again.

    I miss root beer.

    1. A few years ago (ugh, maybe 10 years?!) it was about"thing" to give glucose every hour as an energy boost. Some folks used honey, at least one person used frosting! The theory was that horses are just like people, and what human marathoner would even consider doing an event without a pocket full of Gu packets or some similar glucose product?

      The Problem is the "bonk": if you start running on sugar, you have to KEEP supplying sugar ever hour of there will be a sugar crash that is Just No Fun. And not everyone was good about that. I think that practice is mostly gone now, but I could be wrong.

  4. Thanks for this! I'll be reading up on those links. I 've got a great big beastie as well, with plenty of draft and a dark coat. Right now I'm avoiding the heat of summer rides, which thankfully I can do in my region (MW)


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