Summer management: How top riders keep their horses happy in hotter climates *H&H Plus*

  • When the mercury does decide to rise on home turf, riders who have spent stints in sunnier climes are well prepared for keeping their horses in peak condition, finds Madeleine Silver

    Former Badminton winner Sam Griffiths has an admission. When he made the move from Australia to the UK in 1995, he welcomed hard ground with open arms.

    “All the British riders would pull their horses out and so you had more of a chance of doing well,” he laughs. “Obviously over the years my attitude has changed a bit – it is very much case by case for the horses.”

    More recently, when Japanese eventer Kazuma Tomoto arrived at William Fox-Pitt’s yard in 2017 from his base in Tokyo – where temperatures average 31°C in mid-summer, with nearly 80% humidity – the cool Dorset breeze came as a welcome relief.

    “It’s definitely easier looking after horses here than in Japan,” says Kazuma. “The nights in the UK are very cool, even in August, so horses are able to recover their physical condition [after a hot day].”

    But it is not just the favourable contrast in temperatures that means that riders like Kazuma and Sam are able to sail through British summertime; hard graft in a hot and humid climate means they’re well qualified for any horse management quandaries that the British summer weather throws up.

    A finely-tuned routine

    Spending time in Spain and Florida meant that when dressage rider Jade Ellery returned to the UK last year to base herself in the Cotswolds, the 21-year-old’s summer routines had been finely tuned.

    “When you first start riding in a hot country you get so sweaty and short of breath, and the horses were exactly the same. But after two weeks you both get used to it,” says Jade, who swiftly learnt to build in a longer warm-up and cool down. “We spent a lot more time walking the horses before riding and then I’d often take them for a hack around the property afterwards for a good 20 minutes.”

    Attention to detail when it came to washing off was also paramount in the heat. “In Florida we were lucky because the paddock had sand underneath it, so it was nice footing. But we had to wash their legs with shampoo or an antibacterial wash, because if the horses got a graze then the combination of the sand and the heat meant that their legs would swell. Once they’d been washed, we’d put ice boots on and walk them around in the sun to dry off, and then in the afternoon they’d go on the spa if necessary. We spent a lot of time on aftercare.”

    Thorough washing off was similarly instilled in Sam, who started his career in Queensland, Australia, where temperatures could reach 40°C.

    “I sometimes find that people only do the bits they can see, like the neck and under the saddlecloth, but I like to hose the whole body,” he says, “focusing on the hidden armpits and rump which aren’t always obviously sweaty.

    “In Australia, we used to be up and riding almost in the dark at 5am, before mucking out and feeding and then sitting in air conditioning for the middle of the day,” remembers Sam, who uses summer sheets here with neck covers to avoid coats being bleached by the sun.

    Life for eventer Vittoria Panizzon, who grew up near Rome before moving to the UK when she was 17, followed a similar pattern, riding early in the morning or late in the evening. It’s a routine she follows at home in Gloucestershire if temperatures soar in summertime, but she warns: “You have to consider competing as well, and so I also do the opposite if a horse is aiming for a big event in the summer. You want to make sure they have galloped in a bit of heat because otherwise it’s going to hit them harder – after all, if you have a 2pm cross-country time, you’re stuck with it.”

    Managing expectations

    Keeping things simple is Vittoria’s biggest mantra when it comes to dealing with the heat. “I don’t like using things that aren’t necessary,” she says. “Don’t go for the flash bandages that look pretty if you don’t need to, because it will just make your horse hot. There’s enough kit to clean and put on and take off as it is, so I like to question why I’m using things and weigh up the pros and cons.”

    Growing up in Italy has also taught Vittoria to manage expectations when it comes to summer going.

    “Sometimes what they call hard ground here is not like what we had in Italy. I think people sometimes expect too much from the lower level events [in terms of ground]. If a sound horse is suitably fit and you are running it at a sensible pace, you shouldn’t have that much trouble,” she says. “Obviously if a horse is prone to getting jarred up then, of course, I would be more careful and would be advised by a vet, but otherwise I’d be more concerned about running on uneven ground.”

    As British-based Australian eventer Bill Levett says: “In Australia, horses have to go on the hard, so there’s no choice a lot of the time. Some horses will cope and some won’t.”

    When Bill’s former head girl, Emily Littlejohn, flew down under for six weeks to groom at Adelaide in 2015 for Australian eventer John Twomey, she was given an eye-opener into dealing with fiery temperatures.

    “Having only worked in the UK and then gone over there and walked their five-star track, I realised they were way more relaxed about hard ground. And their approach to cooling was much more intense, with fans, heaps of ice and a big, shaded marquee,” she says. “I’m not a hot-weather person – I’m originally from the north of Scotland – and so I remember thinking: ‘This is tough to work in.’”

    Ref Horse & Hound; 4 June 2020