Too much sun is bad. Just about everyone can agree on that. And as a rider, some of the worst sunburns I’ve gotten have been from long summer days at the barn and horse shows. Aside from joking about farmer’s tans, skin cancer is a very real thing – my grandmother has a sizable chunk of skin missing from her forehead to prove it. The genetic predisposition, combined with a skin colour that has been compared to tomatoes and flamingos, means I’ve had a complicated love-hate relationship with the sun my whole life.
A turning point occurred when I managed to let go of my tan-hungry vanity and resign myself to a life of paleness (or “pinkness”). I started wearing UV-protective shirts anytime I was doing any kind of sunny outdoor activity. I stopped sulking when I realized how much more relaxing it was to know that I wouldn’t get burned. Instead of stressing about what sunscreen to apply and re-apply when, I could just pop on a stretchy shirt and go.
But I found it confusing to shop for such shirts. What exactly does “UV protection” and “UPF” mean? If you wear UV fabric, does it mean you don’t have to wear sunscreen? Does a “regular” fabric provide any sun protection?
UPF rating: This is roughly equivalent to the SPF rating on sunscreens. For example, a UPF 25 fabric will only let in 1/25, or 4% of the UV rays it is exposed to.
To make a long story short, every fabric has some degree of UV protection. Any textile that goes in between the skin and the sun is going to block some rays. As a general rule, the thicker the fabric and the tighter the weave, the more protection it provides. For example, denim actually has quite a high UPF rating – so the western riders are really onto something there.
Luckily, there are breezier alternatives to a Canadian Tuxedo.
This is where UV fabrics come in. They are specifically designed to breathe and wick while providing the maximum amount of protection from the sun. They strike a balance: they are lightweight and airy, but tightly woven enough to block rays.
As you can imagine, this is a complicated feat to pull off. How can a fabric let heat escape from your body, but block light? Textile scientists look at the exact end use of the product and design accordingly. A rashguard for a surfer will be slightly different than a sun shirt for a rider or a jersey for a road biker. Some fabrics even have minerals such as zinc and titanium woven in, which help reflect UV rays in the same way that sunscreen does.
But what about horses?
From dulled out coats to peeling pink noses, horses are just as susceptible to sun damage as humans are. For most locations, summer is both the ideal and most dangerous time for grass turnout. You can bet that your horse isn’t going to wisely hide in the shade during the hottest times of the day. They’ll be out in full sunlight, gobbling down as much grass as they can.
In the late spring and early summer, skin usually covered by winter hair is shed and is particularly prone to sunburn. And it’s not just their coat that needs protection – spending long periods of time out squinting in the sun can damage horse’s eyes, especially if they have light coloured skin. A fly sheet and full-coverage fly mask will definitely help with both.
The goal for horses is the same as for humans: get the most airflow through a fabric that provides the most sun protection – but not every fly sheet and mask is created equal. If you’re wanting all-out protection (and versatility), Kensington’s new Uviator fly mask is made with a special fabric called Textilene Solar Screen, which blocks 90% of the sun’s rays while still allowing the horse to see out. In a nutshell, it allows airflow while blocking out bugs, and acting as a pair of sunglasses. Snazzy plaid sunglasses, in fact. They’re like Burberry shades for horses.
When shopping for summer protective gear for your horse, keep in mind that they deserve the same sun protection as you do. Look for UPF and UV ratings on sheets and masks.
The takeaway: UV fabrics are awesome, for people and for horses. They do block harmful rays. They are much easier to use than sunscreen. Look for high UPF ratings – and have a wonderful, non-sunburned summer.