February 1, 2022
While there is no official horse condition called the "cold weather friskies," many horses seem to have extra energy when the weather turns cold. It's straightforward that we encourage them to get their bucks out and continue training during winter. But - cold weather impacts their respiratory health, and sometimes getting those bucks out and exercise isn't the best plan. Take into consideration your horse's fitness, his overall health, the footing and ground, and the actual weather conditions when deciding how to exercise your horse in cold weather.
Respiratory Health in the Winter
The lungs are most affected by cold weather. A horse's respiratory system, just like ours, warms and humidifies the air before it hits the lungs. Add exercise to that mix, and air exchanges much faster, lessening the warming and humidifying effects. When training and cold weather mix, it's even more challenging to deliver warm and moist air to the lungs.
But when is it too cold? A few studies look at horses' respiratory systems in cold weather. One suggests anything below 23º F damages the lower portions of the horse's respiratory system. This trauma was found two days after the exercise, as evidenced by increased white blood cell counts and specific proteins signaling inflammation. The airway tracts also narrowed in the horses.
It's easy to use 23º F as a rigid baseline, but this may not apply to all horses. Properly acclimated and fit horses may do fine, and younger horses may fare better than senior horses.
Also, consider any respiratory problems your horse may have, and adjust accordingly. Fresh air will always be best when a horse has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Stalls, dusty arenas, allergens, and hay dust all exacerbate signs of COPD; minimizing exposure to these triggers is best.
Generally speaking, fresh air will still be best for COPD horses, no matter the temperature. However, consult your vet for the best fresh air and exercise plan, and use extra caution when riding your horse in the cold.
It's just as important to keep an eye on the temperature as the wind and clouds make everything feel colder. You must also understand how your horse acclimates to the current weather. An unusual cold blast in an otherwise mild winter is not the time to head full tilt into your training plan, nor is a strange warm spell in an otherwise cold season.
Expand Your Horse's Exercise Routine
Plan on an extended warm-up and cool-down during your ride or lunge in cold weather. Cold weather can be tough on stiff joints from arthritis, and muscles need more time to loosen and warm up. During your cool-down session, walk more than you usually would to allow your horse's body to return to a resting state without getting chilled from the cold air.
Adding coolers and quarter sheets to your horse's wardrobe will help warm-ups and cooling off time. For clipped horses, use coolers in your grooming area after removing any blankets to keep his body comfortable. When you start your horse's warm-up routine, let a quarter sheet or cooler cover his body to help those muscles warm up.
After exercise, coolers serve to bring your horse's body back to a resting state. Any sweating that your horse has done will dry faster and more comfortably with coolers. The fabric wicks away moisture and will also prevent chills. For horses with fuzzy winter coats, they may not need a cooler before the ride begins, but any sweat needs the help of coolers to dry after a ride.
You may also find that as your horse's fitness increases, his body doesn't sweat as much, and the need for longer walking sessions decreases. Giving your horse ample time off in winter is excellent, and if you do occasionally ride, be mindful that his fitness will not be the same as warmer seasons.
You can officially track a horse's fitness level with his heart rate and how easily his heart rate returns to his resting rate after exertion. A horse's willingness to work, breathing patterns, and amount of sweat while exercising also give you feedback about your horse's fitness level. More extreme weather, be it hot or cold, can challenge a horse's fitness throughout the entire ride. It's never a bad idea to take many walk breaks and let your horse bring his respiratory rate back down.
Footing and Hoof Care
Another concern with cold-weather riding is the footing. Covered arenas with hi-tech footing should remain safe during winter. Open arenas, fields, trails, and tracks pose a few dangers.
Hard ground under a horse's hooves is far from ideal. There is already concussion in the hoof and legs as horses work; hard ground amplifies this. Take care to limit work on compacted surfaces to a nice walk. Stones and rocks will not give under the weight of your horse when the earth is packed, and bruising may happen to the soles.
When winter hits and the ground freezes, pay attention to a few things. You might find that the ground is frozen solid or there's a layer of mud on top of frozen ground. We may not be able to punch through the mud, but horses certainly can. There's the slippery factor to contend with and icy ground below the surface.
The frozen ground also retains the bumps and unevenness of previous hoof prints, tires, and anything else that has ruffled the surface. What remains are dips, spikes, and various frozen hazards that twist ankles, poke bruises into hooves, and cause a horse to trip. Avoid this type of footing at all costs.
Ice and icy patches are another danger to avoid, as horses are notoriously bad ice skaters. And while it's romantic to ride in the snow, there may be ice below the snow.
Your farrier can help your horse with pads, pour-in support, and snow pads. You can help with hoof packing, hoof boots, and minding the footing.
Winter will always be a puzzle for horse owners - your horse is spicy, but it's too cold to train to channel that energy. There's a lot to be said about just walking your horse, and it doesn't have to be boring. Engaging the mind is just as important as physical fitness, and winter is the perfect time to play around.
Bust out the lunge lines for long lining. Long lining is a great way to stimulate your horse's brain or lunge your horse, with a focus on turning, walking, and transitions like walk to halt to walk.
Kincade Two Tone Padded Lunging Rein with Chain
Kincade's durable Lunging Rein is designed to allow maximum strength, control, and comfort during training. This two-tone padded rein has a loop end handle for an easy hold and features a secure bolt snap with a stylish chain for just the right amount of length.Shop This Product
Kincade Lunge Rein
The Kincade Lunge Rein is a simple cotton lunge rein that is perfect for use with horses and ponies. Easy to handle cotton webbing reduces friction and burns. Elegant black lunge rein has a loop on one end and a rust-resistant nickel-plated bolt snap on the other.Shop This Product
You may choose to walk your horse in the arena, choosing some dressage or western patterns to mix things up. Using poles and cones doesn't have to happen at speed. Getting started with clicker training is a great way to engage their brains, too.
There's always the option of keeping your horse's mental health happy with toys, slow feeders, and extra-long grooming sessions.