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Braving the Chill: A Winter Horse Riding Guide

Part 2 Horse Edition

Quick disclaimer: Every horse is different, and I am not a vet. Please always exercise caution when riding in the winter/cold. Be smart, and don't do anything you or your horse is not comfortable with.

horse standing in the snow

Now that we’ve covered breaking through your own mindset and finding solutions in Part 1 “Cold Weather Riding: Rider Edition” let’s talk about your horse. 

Something I’ve been very concerned about, living in the climate that I do, has been: when is it too cold for my horse to be ridden?

I went to Google and got about a billion different thoughts and opinions around the subject. I turned to different horse people and mentors and found the same differing opinions ranging from “They’re horses, they’re fine…” to “If it’s colder than 40 degrees that’s too cold!” Neither of which was very helpful. 

So, I decided to do some more in depth research and found sources such as university studies and professional veterinary publications. There were still some differing thoughts and findings but I was able to narrow down to a manageable size. Here is what I found:

Below 32F You'll Need to Slow Your Horse's Work

You’ll want to increase your warm-up time. I shoot for 15 minutes minimum warm-up on a good day, so, in the cold I’m doubling that to 30 mins before I ask my horse to maintain a faster pace or steep climb. 

At 20F Your Horse Can Have Trouble Breathing

The general rule of thumb is once the temperature goes below 20F the chances of your horse having respiratory issues when worked hard goes up. When temperatures get that low, keeping your ride to a walk or avoiding riding altogether seems to be best after that temperature. 

Just like we talked about in Part 1 warming up your horse is ESSENTIAL anytime you’re riding but especially when the temperatures drop. 

Here’s a basic routine I like to do with my horse:

  • 5 minutes of hand walking while I’m doing my warm-up exercises

  • Lateral bending through the neck: I want to see that she is responding quickly and softly to me asking for her head, and getting her neck mobile and ready for the ride ahead. 

  • Two Tracking (shoulder in/hip out and shoulder out/hip in) exercises. Again making sure she’s responsive to my aids while also getting her core, back, shoulders, and hind end warmed up. 

  • Leg yields: These help warm the body up as well as get her shoulders and hips working and ready. 

  • Stretching the head down to the ground: contracts the core muscles and relaxes the back.

  • Reaching the head up: contracts the back muscles and relaxes the core. 

After doing all these at the walk I’ll ask her for a slow jog and have her do the same movements with some walking in between. Then she’s ready to go!

Now that we’ve covered when it’s too cold to ride and my basic warm-up -

Let’s talk about cooling your horse down in the winter.

I generally follow the same guidelines for my horse’s cool-down as I do their warm-up with the exception that I’ll reverse the speed. I’ll slow her to a jog and work myself to a walk.

After you’ve done that and dismounted, this is extremely important, you CANNOT put your horse away wet when temperatures are down. Doing so can cause a slew of problems including your horse getting chilled, sick, tying up, frostbite, and more.  You need to make sure your horse is fully dry before putting them away. Then the winter blanket can be added if the temperatures are cold enough and you’re worried about them getting chilled even after they’re dry or if they are clipped.

Make sure you have towels and blankets on hand to help dry your horse off. You can also use a fleece cooler, to help dry your horse before using a winter quarter sheet , or a winter blanket. (especially important if your horse doesn’t have a solid shelter). 

Fleece coolers are some of my favorite equipment because they act by pulling the sweat away from the horse and into the blanket, helping your horse dry off faster.

So, just because it’s winter doesn’t mean you have to stop riding. Just make sure you do your due-diligence in prepping yourself and your horse before heading out. Thanks for reading and don't forget to Subscribe and share this with your favorite horse person.

Want to hear more?

More ideas on warming up and what to add to your cold riding gear list is all in episode #67 of The Horsewoman Project Podcast!

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