Cold Snap—Ride the Right Way this Winter

As people in the Northeast batten down the hatches for winter, equestrians have to consider their options for training during the snow and ice infested months. Some seek haven in the warmer parts of the country, while others have no choice but to brave the cold temperatures. In order to help trainers and riders during the toughest part of the year, we spoke to Dr. Aimee Eggleston, DVM of Eggleston Equine, LLC in Woodstock, CT, and trainer Monica Hunt of Cornerstone Farm in Haverhill, MA, about what you need to know for safe cold weather exercise.

Stay Healthy

Right off the bat, Dr. Eggleston tells us that horses can deal with the cold much better than humans. “Horses in good body condition can withstand temperatures up to negative 40 degrees Fahrenheit,” states Dr. Eggleston. Given, according to Dr. Eggleston, the horse has an unclipped coat, has access to a three-sided, southern-facing shed or tree line, must not be exposed to the elements (as anything wet on their coat will disturb the insulation underneath), and are not exposed to elements like driving cold rains and sleets that compromise their natural undercoats, and has access to forage sources such as long stem hay.

Luckily, most of us in the Northeast don’t have temperatures in the negative 40s, but it is still important that horses are fed the proper amount during the colder weather, especially if you choose to continue to exercise the horse. Diet obviously plays a big role when it comes to conditioning horses, as lack of movement and water can lead to impaction colic. “Horses must increase their caloric intake by approximately 15-20% for every 10 degree drop in temperature below 30 degrees Fahrenheit,” Dr. Eggleston states. This is especially important for horses still working in the winter months, as diet and exercise go hand in hand for proper health.

Remain Active

Though we feel the need to curl up in a ball on the cold days of the year, it is important that we keep our horses moving, even if it is not heavy work or conditioning. Both Dr. Eggleston and Monica urge horse owners to keep their horses active in the wintertime. “Horses should not ‘hibernate’ for the winter. They specifically need to move,” shares Dr. Eggleston.

Monica, who trains in Florida and Massachusetts, keeps some of her lesson horses in the Northeast during the winter and changes their schedules with the weather. “When it gets really cold, like 15 degrees or below, we only hand walk the horses or turn them out briefly.” Above 15 degrees, Monica has lesson horses working mostly on the flat, avoiding heavy work and jumps. “We tend to jump smaller, and work on more flat work and exercises in the winter, such as ground poles, and work on the rider’s position as well as the horse.” She adds that it is important to keep in mind what prime fitness may require of a horse and adjust accordingly. “We try not to keep [the horses] too fit in the winter because they would need so much work,” she says.

With most training stables having a smaller, indoor arena, Monica also expresses her concerns for her horses’ soundness, “I think it is too hard on their muscles, their joints, and their respiratory system. That is what we worry about the most.”

Take Your Time

When riding in the cold months, warm-up and cool down times are critical. Dr. Eggleston shares that “if your horse does well with 10 minutes of warm-up in the warm months, add another five to 10 minutes in the cold weather.” Taking the warm-up slow, riders should keep in mind the horse’s factors: have they been outside running around before riding or have they been standing in a cold stall all night? If a rider cuts a warm-up short, especially when the horse really needs it, injuries are more likely to occur.

Cooling down is just as important as the warm-up. “it is important to help limit muscle stiffness and soreness and/or limit the horse from developing the chills,” says Dr. Eggleston. After 10 to 15 minutes of calm walking at the end of a ride, the rider should look for signs that the horse’s respiratory rate has gone back to normal. “Watch for decreased nostril flaring, watch for ‘popped’ veins to return flat, and you want the skin to be dry,” shares Dr. Eggleston.

For horses that are not blanketed and not clipped, the horse can return to turnout once the skin is dry, even if the outer hairs are a bit damp, according to Dr. Eggleston. However, on the flip side, the blanketed horse will need to be completely dried before returning to pasture, as the wet sweat will be trapped and can give the horse a chill.

Monica’s approach is to avoid the sweat all together, when possible. “If we have a lesson horse that tends to get sweaty, we trace clip them,” shares Monica. “You try to avoid sweating the best you can; i would say that most lessons have more walk breaks than normal to try to avoid getting the horse sweaty at all.”

Dr. Eggleston also recommends using a quarter sheet on clipped horses during the warm-up and cooldown when temperatures are below 20 degrees Fahrenheit. She adds that horses “should not be blanketed should not be blanketed during ‘work’ at all.” Dr. Eggleston states, “If properly warmed up, they do not need it; they may overheat.”

Final Thoughts

Keeping your horse fit in the winter can be very challenging with the unpredictable weather we face in the northeast, especially in the winter months. Each horse is going to be a bit different when it comes to the winter, so it is the rider’s and trainer’s job to keep work consistent but light and intently pay attention to your horse’s soundness and hindrances caused by the cold weather. In the end, regular exercise through the winter will make for a quicker route back into prime shape before the next show season.

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