Winter can be a brutal time of year when it comes to riding horses, but it’s not impossible. With careful planning and knowledge, you can ride safely and enjoyably throughout the winter months. Here are a few tips to help you and your horse make the most of your riding, be it for pleasure or getting fit for spring competitions.
1. STAY WARM – YOU AND YOUR HORSE
The minus degree temperatures might not mean much until you factor the wind chill in. When riding in the winter that cold, raw wind can have negative effects on your horse’s lungs, so use good judgment when taking your horse outdoors, and try to stay out of the wind as much as possible.
You can layer your winter clothes, but keep in mind – you do have to get on the horse, and you don’t want to limit your movement so that you can’t ride effectively. Choose winter boots that have some kind of heel, and a smaller foot that will easily slide in and out of a stirrup.
2. WARM THE BIT AND OTHER EQUIPMENT
There are varying opinions on this subject but if putting our tongues on cold metal is similar to what a horse feels when a cold bit is put inside its mouth, it’s easy to imagine how it feels. A heated tack room is ideal, but if you don’t have one, at least keep your bridle and saddle pad in a warm area. If your saddle pad is warm and sweaty when you remove it from the horse’s back after riding, put it somewhere where it can dry. If not allowed to dry properly, this can create the opportunity for bacteria to grow on the underside.
It is imperative that you find somewhere to ride where your horse has good footing. It goes without saying – avoid ice at all costs and stay off frozen gravel roads, where the ground can be like cement. Also, avoid riding in hard crusted snow which can cut your horse’s legs and make the bulbs of the heels very tender. The best place to ride is a snow-packed trail, where there is no hazard of slipping and there is some snow to minimize concussion.
4. BAREFOOT OR SHOES?
There are pros and cons to both options. If you are unable to avoid icy areas, shoes with borium or caulks might be a good option. It depends where and how much you are riding; your farrier’s advice will be your most valuable tool in this case. A major problem with shoes is that they allow the snow to pack in the cup of the hoof and your horse ends up with big balls of snow stuck to his hooves.
This will also happen with a horse that is barefoot, but it may not be as much of a problem. Some riders swear by “snow pads” – rubber pads that can be put on by your farrier and help force the snow out of the horse’s foot.
5. FITTING UP FOR COMPETITION OR RIDING FOR PLEASURE
Whether you are riding for pleasure, or in preparation for spring competition, it is important to treat your horse like the special athlete he is. If you are only riding sporadically throughout the winter, go easy on your horse, as he won’t be in shape for miles of hard riding.
If you are conditioning your horse, start slow and progress accordingly. Factor in the activity level of your horse prior to the training program. How many months did he have off? Was he stabled or in a pasture? What kind of feeding program has he been on? How much hair does he have?
It only takes a bit of exertion to get a horse sweating when it’s really cold, and this is something you should try to avoid in the winter. A wet, long haired horse can take an awful long time to sufficiently dry, but you should not put him back outside in the winter elements until he is completely dry.
6. COOLING AND DRYING YOUR HORSE
It’s always necessary to get a horse cooled down properly before turning him out, but in the cold months, it is absolutely imperative. If you have a warm barn, you can leave your horse inside until he’s dry but if you have a cold barn you may need to find other ways to help your horse cool down and dry in a timely manner. Grooming with a curry comb in a circular motion lifts the hair and allows it to dry a little quicker than if it is all laying flat.
A cattle blower/vacuum is a good tool, as you can “blow dry” your horse’s hair. The noise of the machine could be a limiting factor, but most horses eventually relax.
After grooming, put a woolen blanket or cooler on your horse to wick away the moisture. If your horse wears a blanket, the outdoor blanket must fit well. The belly straps must be snug to keep the blanket in place and to avoid the possibility of the horse getting a foot or leg caught. A hood provides more protection, keeping the neck covered as well. Using a blanket and hood will encourage shedding in the spring and the horse’s hair will stay slick and shiny during the winter months.
Body clipping is an option but only if you are prepared to keep your horse in a warm indoor environment until the weather warms up, unless you have a heavy-duty blanket with a hood for your horse to wear outdoors. Certainly, the cooling off period for a clipped horse will be much shorter than long-haired one.
If your horse will still be kept outside, it is not recommended to clip the fetlock/pastern hairs. Horses need that hair to protect their legs from the crusty snow and to keep their legs warm.
With some preparedness and consideration, winter riding can be most enjoyable, for yourself as well as your mount.