It's a Winter Wonderland

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As winter raises its frosty head just beyond the horizon, most horse folks bid adieu to the busy show season. But don’t stow your tack and slip into hibernation mode. Despite the chilly temps, winter can be a wonderful time for riding, and you don’t need to confine yourself to the boredom of never-ending laps around the indoor arena, either. With the right precautions, riding outdoors in the snow can be just as beneficial and just as much fun as riding on a sunny summer day—without the heat, the dust and the bugs.

Why Brave the Cold?

Jacquie Elliott is manager and trainer for Glenshee Equestrian Center, a training, riding, boarding and rehab facility in Montgomery, N.Y. Despite local winter temperatures that can easily hover in the 20s, Elliott believes in hacking out on the farm’s roads and fields year-round, even when there’s snow on the ground.

“It can be a welcome break for horses and riders soured by the monotony of the ring,” she explains. “In addition to being great fun, riding in snow can benefit horses, if handled properly.” She compares moving through snow to working over cavalletti, since both activate the horse’s back muscles, lift the shoulders, flex the hind-limb joints and provide aerobic benefits.

Elliott does discourage riders from jumping their horses in the snow, since obscured, hard or slippery ground makes for treacherous landings and takeoffs. Otherwise, she feels most types of riding are okay in the snow, as long you’re careful. For example, riding bareback ranks among her favorite winter riding activities. Still, proper precautions can make the difference between a bad winter day and wonderful ride in the snow.

Temperature, Footing, Terrain

Although Elliott admits there are varying opinions on the subject, she believes there is a point when it’s simply too cold to safely ride outdoors. “Very cold weather can be dangerous for horses and riders, particularly if not dressed appropriately,” she says. “I let my own comfort level be the guide when deciding to work a horse or not.”

In general, she adds, “We reduce the work that horses do in any temperature below freezing, and don’t work horses at all when temperatures fall below 15 degrees, although they might go for a walk if properly covered.” But temperature is only one winter riding concern—others range from footing to grooming.

Obviously, ice makes a dangerously slippery riding surface—and, when broken, it can cut like glass, says Elliott. Even without ice, hard-frozen ground can cause painful concussion on—and potentially damage to—the horse’s limbs. Slushy, dense or packed snow can also be more problematic than a few inches of soft, dry powder. In a nutshell, says Elliott, “The more difficult the footing is for you to walk in, the more difficult it will be for horses to work in.”

When it comes to terrain, it’s hazardous to ride over unfamiliar, snow-covered land. But even when you’re riding over the same fields and trails you hit all summer, reminds Elliott, a blanket of snow adds risk, obscuring drop-offs, holes, ponds and so on. “Riders should be aware of their surroundings and, when in doubt, go slow or dismount to check out the terrain before asking horses to go on,” she advises. “Let horses choose their own pace and find their own balance, rather than pushing them.”

The Horse’s Condition

Your horses may be in tip-top condition from a summer of competition, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be able to perform at their peak in the snow. It simply takes more effort to move through the white stuff than over a groomed sand arena or a clear grassy field.

While horses that are regularly turned out in snow may be somewhat used to the extra effort, says Elliott, “it’s important to keep in mind that horses will get tired faster and risk strains more easily when working in snow, so it’s a good idea to start slowly and build fitness gradually over time.”

Warming Up, Cooling Out

To ward off potential soft-tissue injuries, plan for longer, slower warm-ups on chilly days, giving your horse’s muscles ample time to get loose and supple. Likewise, expect cooling out to take longer in cold weather, especially if your ride has raised a sweat. Limiting your workouts, in terms of duration and/or exertion, can help minimize cooling time, as can clipping. In addition, Elliott recommends using removable layers of quarter sheets and coolers to keep large muscle groups warm before, during and after work, especially with clipped or blanketed horses.

Grooming

Regular grooming is especially important in winter, since dirt can easily hide under a long coat. In particular, make sure your horse’s back is clean and dry before tacking up, to prevent sores and chafing.

However, Elliott discourages bathing or intensive grooming in cold, snowy climes, to prevent stripping the coat of what she calls its “natural, weatherproofing grease.” That’s especially true for the horse’s legs, where removing the protective grease or clipping the hair raises the risk of problems like scratches, she says.

Shoeing

In winter, snow may pack and ball up in your horse’s hooves, possibly causing slips, rotated joints or sprains, says Elliott. Clearing out the hooves is, of course, a must-do part of grooming. Riders should carry a hoof pick when riding in snow, so they can hop off and clear their mounts’ hooves mid-ride if necessary.

Leaving your horses barefoot in winter reduces the risk of snowballs while lending extra traction compared to steel shoes. But bare isn’t an option for every horse. When a horse must wear shoes, talk to your farrier about options, such as nails with heads extending beyond the shoe and perhaps topped with tungsten; studs or caulks; borium; and various types of pads.

Elliott’s choice for winter hoofwear is tube-type rim pads, which have a flexible tube extending from a partial pad around the inside edge of the shoe. She feels this style works best for keeping snow out while also allowing the soles to breathe, unlike full pads. She discourages the use of borium and caulks, saying they add a little too much traction, eliminate some of the horse’s natural shock absorption ability and place too much stress on the legs.

If you ride in icy conditions, Elliott recommends removable (screw-in) studs, plus protective boots. In addition, she cautions never to turn horses out with borium, caulks or studs, all of which can be dangerous to the wearer and other horses.

Share the Savvy

As a barn owner or manager, you’re in a position to not only apply these suggestions to your own horses and rides, but also to pass along useful tips to your clients. If you have a relatively novice group, consider posting tips at the barn or holding a fun, informational seminar before the snow starts to fly.

Elliott notes that her boarders are informed, sensible riders who understand the dangers of riding in winter weather. Still, she says, “I do advise them on suitable shoeing options, as well as implementing specific policies about when and where we turn out, use of studs/borium and what constitutes inappropriate riding conditions.”

Get Going

Once you’ve addressed the precautions above, there’s just one more thing left for you and your clients to do: Bundle yourselves into warm winter riding gear, grab your horses and hit the snow for some cool fun in a beautiful winter wonderland!