How to Exercise Horses Safely in Cold Weather

Cold, inclement weather and poor footing can cause challenges for exercising horses during the winter. Here are some things to keep in mind.
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How to Safely Exercise Horses in Cold Weather
Remember that while snow might cushion hard ground, it can also hide dangerous icy patches. | Photo: iStock

Horses and humans alike enjoy cooler riding weather in the fall, but it does remind us that winter is fast approaching. Here in the Northeast, short days, significant snowfall, and icy footing can make it a challenge to keep horses in consistent work. For those who are not planning to head south when the snow flies, here are some tips to keep your horses safe and healthy when riding them this winter.

Cold, inclement weather and poor footing in paddocks can make horses less likely to move around in turnout, leading to stiff muscles. It can also mean more time spent in stalls. A thorough warmup is important to minimize the risk of sustaining musculoskeletal injuries during exercise. This is especially important for older horses, those with prior soft tissue injuries or arthritis, and horses that are not being worked consistently during the winter.

Thicker hair coats mean horses are more likely to be sweaty after a heavy workout. It is very important to ensure that horses are cool and dry before blanketing and/or turning them out. If you plan to ride consistently, it might be worth clipping your horse to prevent excessive sweating. Make sure to blanket appropriately based on the type of clip performed. If you do body-clip your horse, you might want to use a quarter sheet during cold weather warmup and cool-down.

Footing can provide a real challenge for both turnout and riding during the winter. If you will be riding outside, footing can become quite hard in cold weather and can bruise feet, especially if your horse is barefoot and you are cantering or jumping. Snow might cushion the footing, but it can also hide dangerous icy patches. Indoor arenas are convenient for winter riding; however, some synthetic footings freeze in low temperatures and can become very hard and slick. Make sure to inspect your riding surface carefully prior to working your horse. If in doubt, stick to slower speeds.

Free Download: What You Need to Know About Blanketing
Free Download: What You Need to Know About Blanketing

Horses with shoes in snowy climates typically benefit from snow pads to prevent ice chunks from building up in their feet. In some situations farriers apply small corks (also called caulks or studs) to shoes for traction. It can be tempting to pull shoes on horses that aren’t in regular work over the winter. However, keep in mind that even the frozen, choppy footing in the paddock can cause foot bruises, particularly in horses with poor-quality or sensitive feet. Discuss winter shoeing strategies with your farrier in the fall.

If your horse wears a blanket, remove it regularly to give him a brief once-over. This will allow you to detect changes in body condition and check for blanket rubs. Older horses expend more calories to stay warm and might need extra feed. Adding blanket layers to thin horses can help them put on weight in some ­situations. Regardless of what your horse wears, provide him access to clean, frost-free water at all times­—especially right after exercise.

There have been few scientific studies looking at the effects of exercise in extreme cold weather on horses. Therefore, it is difficult to give specific recommendations about how cold is “too cold” to ride. Consider each horse’s fitness level, available riding facilities, and any pre-existing health conditions when setting winter training schedules. Cold air has been shown to damage the respiratory tracts of horses exercising heavily under experimental conditions. It is more likely that a horse with underlying inflammatory airway disease will be affected by cold weather.

In summary, make sure to provide an appropriate warmup and cool-down when riding. Pay close attention to turnout and arena footing, as well as your horse’s shoeing needs. Managing these details carefully will help your horse get through the winter injury-free.

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Written by:

Jenna Donaldson, DVM, is an ambulatory veterinarian with Rotenberg Veterinary P.C., in Schomberg, Ontario. Her professional interests include equine sports medicine and reproduction.

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