Keeping Our (Horses) Cool

Much like the Shakers, our farmers use draft horses to provide horsepower for a variety of purposes—to work the sorghum press, till certain fields, transport people and more. Because of the high visibility of the ever-popular Horse-Drawn Wagon Rides through the Village AND the vast number of hot days this summer, we receive questions from guests about our horses’ well-being pretty often. As equine and stable assistant, my main purpose is to care for, train and spoil the horses at Shaker Village. (Yes, I have a cool job.) As the heat rolls in during these summer months, our horses continue to get the five-star treatment they deserve. So, what makes horses happy?

Fun Fact: Animals such as cows, pigs, goats and sheep are unable to sweat… but, horses do sweat, which makes working in the heat a more bearable activity for them. You might see our horses working into a sweat while giving wagon rides on hot weekends, but there’s no need to worry. As a matter of fact, if the horses aren’t sweating, then I begin to worry. The sweat on a horse is doing an important job in the process of thermoregulation (more on that later). In fact, almost 70 percent of the horse’s body heat is lost through sweat evaporation. There are two particularly interesting benefits of sweat. Equine sweat produces a specific protein called latherin, which causes it to appear foamy and white as the harness makes contact with the skin. (This is where we get the saying “working up a lather.”) The latherin allows the sweat to spread further. Also, the sweat is slightly hypertonic, meaning it has more salt than other fluids. Increased salt content allows for more fluid to be drawn to the skin to cool. Together, these functions of sweat lead to a more efficient cooling rate.

Now, what about those really, REALLY hot days? Sometimes it’s just too hot for our horses to work—sweat or not. We pay close attention to the weather and follow a strict heat index policy, which considers both the temperature and the humidity. If the heat index rises to 100 or higher, our wagon rides are canceled for the day and the horses stay in shaded cool areas with plenty of water. On the days that it doesn’t reach the heat threshold, we utilize the best of our resources to keep the horses comfortable during their daily tasks. Water becomes our main concern. The average horse drinks 5-7 gallons of water in cool weather, at rest. With hotter weather causing elevated water loss through sweat, we see horses drink 20 gallons or more in a single day! Water is provided in our horses’ pastures via automatic waterers that provide unlimited fresh, cool water. Our horses also have access to a salt electrolyte block, which helps to restore the salt lost in their sweat. In between tours, the horses are given water and placed in front of a fan to cool them off. During their lunch break, they receive a large pile of hay, along with unlimited water.

Anyone know what thermoregulation is? (It’s the ability of an organism to keep its body temperature within certain boundaries, even when the surrounding temperature is very different.) Horses are pretty efficient at this, but we help them out a little. The quickest way to cool our horses is by utilizing convection and conduction. Translation: after a good day’s work, our horses get to enjoy a nice cold hose down. Our horses are hosed until the skin and muscles become cool to the touch. Water on, water off, water on, water off…  As we hose our horses, we scrape the water off and continue to apply water so that the heat is transferred from the horse to the water. Once the horse has become cool to the touch, we scrape the last bit off water off the horses. Water that is left on the horse will trap and insulate the heat of the muscles. So, a horse that is turned out wet in the hot sun is at risk to become super-heated since the water is unable to evaporate before it becomes heated and stays trapped on the skin. Hosing them down is a process, but they enjoy every minute of it.

The horses at Shaker Village are well loved by staff, not to mention all the guests they get to meet on a weekly basis. You could say they are local celebrities around here. I’m lucky to work closely with such sweet, gentle horses. Whether it is our retired team of 25-year-old Percherons (the same breed the Shakers kept), or our younger active breeds, all of our horses are shown the best care possible. Plan a visit to learn about all the members of our farm family and the roles they play at the Village. Wagon Rides are available Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays through the end of October. Our horses can’t wait to meet you, and I look forward to seeing new faces and answering any questions you may have. I’ll be the one driving the wagon! Until then, happy (cool) trails!

Explore 3,000 acres of discovery by horseback! Harness your favorite steed for a backcountry ride through Kentucky forests, fields and creek crossings. The Preserve’s trail system includes 37 miles of horseback riding and carriage-friendly trails. Overnight boarding and Annual Equestrian Passes available. Learn more.

Gabriella Kreinbrook, Equine and Stable Assistant