Wednesday, May 28, 2014

When is it too hot AND humid to ride?

I've spent a lot of time thinking about (and a little time researching) how heat and humidity factor into conditioning for horses.  I think there is a lot more research about people, and I even found a couple of websites that provide pretty specific guidelines for different types of livestock.  However, despite reading something at some point that said a new method for calculating a heat stress index for horses had been developed as a result of (or maybe prior to?) the Atlanta Olympic Games in 1996, I've been unable to locate a specific formula other than Temperature + Humidity (and sometimes - Wind Speed) = Heat Stress Index.  I should note that the Heat Stress Index is different than what is sometimes called the Heat Index (or occasionally referred to as the Steadman Index).  The Heat Index is based on a formula used by NOAA and is designed to tell you what it "feels like" outside.  I think the Heat Stress Index might be more valuable, partly because it is easier to calculate, but I still wish I could find a formula specifically for horses.

Because I live in Virginia, I have the joy of experiencing all the fun of winter plus southern summers.  Southern summers are characterized by fairly high temperatures (85-100 plus) combined with fairly high humidity (50-100 percent).  While we don't get the extreme heat experienced by some western states, I think the humidity levels add an extra layer of information that needs to be considered when conditioning for endurance.  It particularly matters to me because I have a big, black, warmblood/draft type horse who probably doesn't cool as efficiently as a smaller, lighter breed.

Last year, I used this rule (which is based on assorted guidelines I've seen in general heat stress articles, but a little different than the standard - I'll explain why in a bit).  If the Heat Stress Index (Temperature + Humidity) was:

  • Under 130, no worries (Unless the actual temperature was over 90 degrees, then I would take it a little easy).
  • Between 130 and 160, take it easy on anything particularly strenuous.
  • Between 160 and 180, do mostly walking work and keep dressage schooling to short bursts with frequent breaks.
  • Over 180, don't ride.
I should explain that most articles I've seen use 150 as a breaking point between OK and be careful, rather than the 160 I used.  The reason I adjusted my breakdown is because I noticed that it was really hard to find a time during the day when the Heat Stress Index wasn't over 150, particularly during July and August.  To my way of thinking, there has to be some level of acclimatization for a horse that lives outside or in a non-air-conditioned barn.  So, I decided that because Nimo was essentially constantly living in the 150 or above range, he wasn't going to be as bothered by that level of heat and humidity as a horse for whom that level was unusual.  I never experienced any problems with conditioning Nimo in the 150 range (or actually at any point - his heat/humidity tolerance is higher than mine).  However, I did start to notice problems with me once things got over 160.  If I didn't manage myself pretty carefully, I would feel pretty bad after rides. 

In terms of using electrolytes for Nimo, I didn't use any commercial products last year because my thinking was that it just didn't seem necessary for rides less than 25 miles.  I did add about a half tablespoon of salt to every feeding and to all post-ride mashes (in addition to making sure a salt block was available in the stall and paddock).  But, I'm thinking that I'd like to expand that protocol a bit this year.  The reason is because I've found that for me, drinking Gatorade (even though it really is not that great of a product due to the high sugar content) makes the difference between feeling fine after a hot ride and feeling like I want to die.  And, if it makes that much difference to me, maybe it would make that much difference to my horse.

So, I'm planning to do a little experimenting on my conditioning rides this year.  Because I feel best if I drink Gatorade before, during, and after a ride, I'm going to try doing a minimum of a pre- and post-ride mash with electrolytes in it for Nimo.  If I can get a during-the-ride mash in for rides longer than 2 hours and where there are opportunities to drink, I'd like to do that too.  I don't think I'll start out using a competition level of electrolytes for Nimo.  Instead, I'll probably use maybe half as much to start and go from there.

So, to answer my title question...For me, it is too hot to ride if the temperature is over 95, regardless of humidity level.  I just don't tolerate heat well, and I don't see any reason to torture myself even if Nimo doesn't mind.  I also consider it too hot and humid to ride if the Temperature plus Humidity is over 180 because I think the effort needed to ensure proper hydration and cooling just isn't worth it.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

My New Favorite Riding Shirt

I admit that for the nearly 30 years of my riding life I have been more than happy to ride in a t-shirt.  In fact, I have an assortment of t-shirts that are old, unstylish, fit weird, are stained, have paint on them, and may or may not have holes in them.  Many are like old friends because I've had them so long. I began to ride more in the heat and humidity last year, I realized that I might have to move on to something better.  I held on the tradition as long as I could, but a couple of weeks ago, I broke down and went to Dover Saddlery to take a look at athletic-type riding shirts.

I had purchased a special riding shirt a couple of years ago, but it had a collar, which I hated.  So, I was in search of something with no collar that didn't cost $100 because it had some sort of special brand name on it.  Kerrits had a tank top that I thought might be a possibility, so I actually bought 3 of them.  (In for a dollar and all that...)

As it turns out, I am now in love with this tank top.  It is lightweight, breathable, comfortable, and comes in fun patterns.  It is the Kerrits Air Flow Tank (pictured below).

And it only cost $30, which is kind of a steal compared to the $50 and up price tag of more annoying-looking shirts (by that I mean shirts with collars and other unnecessary accoutrements, such as horizontal stripes and strange patches).

Anyway, along with a couple of other purchases (about which I will write over the next couple of weeks), this top makes me feel like I might soon be an endurance rider.  And hopefully, it will keep me comfortable enough to keep training right through what promises to be another lovely Virginia summer, so I can actually go to an endurance ride soon:)

Monday, May 12, 2014

A Mother's Day Ride

One of the things I love about my husband is that he didn't even question me when I said I was planning to haul Nimo out to the Shenandoah National Park for some mountain climbing on Mother's Day.  I realize that it might be more typical to go to the spa, have a family outing, or just relax, but I have to admit that I was ready for a ride in a familiar location by ourselves going a slow enough pace to relax and take pictures.  I've been focused on dressage lessons and conditioning for a few months, and it was just time to take a break from that and remember why I'm training for endurance rides in the first place - because I love riding and I love being with my horse.  Nimo definitely has his moments, but overall he's a pretty good guy, and I wanted to enjoy him, rather than do any specific kind of training.  I wasn't leaving my conditioning completely behind, though, because we haven't ridden this trail since last fall, and it is much closer to the type of climbing I'm likely to see at OD rides than other places I ride.  So I figured we'd go slow, stop for pictures, hang out in streams, and enjoy the beautiful day.

It's about an hour and 15 minute haul from Nimo's barn, and this is what the Shenandoah Mountains look like as we approach from the intersection of 211 and 522:

We parked at the 4-H center near Front Royal and I was surprised to see a couple of endurance riders pulling in just in front of me.  I know that this section of trail is often used for conditioning, but I've never seen anyone else there unless I was meeting someone to ride.  I decided to give these riders a head start because I expected them to be riding faster and longer than me, and I didn't want to get in their way or have Nimo worry about keeping up with them.  Nimo actually did really well when the two riders took off.  He whinnied once and then was happy to hang out while I got him tacked up.  The other thing he did really well was hold his ground when faced with a speeding motorcycle just after we got on the road.  Nimo actually handles traffic pretty well (as long as he doesn't have to wait too long), but motorcycles are a lot like bicycles, which are not Nimo's favorite mode of non-horse transportation.  We were unfortunately in a place where there was just a small amount of room to get off the road, and while the motorcyclist did move over a little and slow down a little, it wasn't enough to make me comfortable.  I could tell Nimo was VERY alert, but he faced the motorcycle without moving and then we were on our way.  Whew!

The best thing about this trail is that it is 2.5 miles up a mountain.  The grade fluctuates from easy to steep and everything in between throughout the trail, which makes for a great workout.  We started off by riding on a county road to a boundary access point to the park, which looks like this:

Shortly after entering the park, we crossed a stream.

I finally remembered to bring my sponge-on-a-leash that I bought last fall after it was too cold to really use it.  I had practiced swinging it around while riding, but hadn't actually dipped it in a creek and dripped water on Nimo yet.  Because it was 80 degrees out, I figured this was the perfect opportunity.  For whatever reason, Nimo loves this little creek and never wants to leave it once he gets in, so we just hung out for a while and I dipped the sponge and whacked Nimo's legs and head with it.  Aside from briefly assessing the sponge's potential as food, Nimo ignored it, so I can finally check that training task off my list!

Just after the creek, we got to a giant tree that was blocking the trail:

It may not look that big in the picture, but at it's lowest point, it was still much higher than Nimo's knee (and there was a hole made by another tree's roots coming out just on the other side of the lowest point, making it impossible to go over the tree at that point anyway).  And it was made more difficult because we were going up hill.  I decided that because I had a perfect mounting block, I'd just get off and help Nimo figure out how to get over the tree.  He ended up sort of climbing over it (all the while groaning about why I make him do these stupid things), and then I got back on and we kept going up, and up, and up.

There are a lot of smaller diameter logs used as what must be erosion control for the trail.  They usually look like this:

There are also mini-rock walls that serve the same function.  And they probably do help with erosion control, but they definitely add to the difficulty of the trail because of all the additional stepping that must be done to get over them.  And there is one section that is borderline dangerous:


These steps lead up to Skyline Drive (one of the most heralded roads along which to see fall color in this area).  They are probably great for hikers and they aren't too bad for horses going up.  But coming back down them means the horses are likely to step just behind the logs, which are unstable and may slide forward, especially if the footing is muddy.  I always hold my breath a bit because in addition to negotiating the steps up, we have to stop before crossing the road due to typically moderate traffic who probably can't see us coming out of the woods very well.  It's the one feature of this trail that I really don't like.  But we got through it just fine.  I've even learned to trust Nimo more coming down the steps by dropping my reins to the buckle and giving him his head.  I always feel like I'm going to shoot right over his head, but so far, so good:)

My original plan was actually to stop the ride just shy of the infamous steps and turn around, but Nimo felt pretty good (likely because of the frequent breaks he insisted that he needed), so I decided to cross Skyline Drive to head a short distance down the logging road/hiking path on the other side.

There are always hikers here, who many times want to pet Nimo and take his picture.  While I absolutely understand that Nimo is a beautiful horse, I sometimes feel a little bit like a tourist attraction instead of a fellow visitor to the park.  Luckily today there were no photo requests (or even worse, people taking pictures without asking), although there were a few families out and about.  To give Nimo a breather before we turned around, I stopped him and gave him some carrots and just enjoyed the day.

Our trip down the mountain was pretty uneventful, and Nimo even figured out how to get over the fallen tree that had stumped him (pun totally intended!) on the way up.  It wasn't pretty, but he got the job done:)

We took one more break in Nimo's favorite stream:


And about 15 minutes from the trailer, I got off and walked the remaining distance with Nimo.  I've been planning to start walking more with him to help me get in better shape for our rides, and I have been procrastinating about it.  I actually enjoy hiking, so it was really a mental thing of realizing that we're not just trail riding anymore where no self-respecting rider would walk when she could ride.  Instead, I need to think of our rides as more of a team effort where my job isn't just to sit there and steer, but to be able to help by carrying my own self around to give Nimo a break if he needs it.  I even got to thinking that I might try to work up to hiking this trail with Nimo to make sure I can handle a couple of miles of fairly rugged uphill terrain.

All in all, it was a great ride.  We got some climbing work in, we practiced with our sponge-on-a-leash, and we just rode and enjoyed nature and each other's company.