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Winter riding can be a great way to keep both you and your horse in shape during the off season. It can also be quite fun to go for a ride on a beautiful snowy morning! However, winter riding comes with some challenges that our normal riding routine does not — freezing temperatures for one! Frozen fingers and toes, ice packed horseshoes, and a furry sweating horse can be major barriers to winter riding. Horses handle the cold temperatures fairly well (especially compared to us), but you can have problems when you start asking them to do strenuous activities. Knowing how your horse reacts to the cold temperatures can help to keep your horse fit regardless of the time of year!
Just like humans, there are limits to ways your horse can compensate for the cold, meaning you need to adjust your workouts. Muscles and joints are slower to warm up during cold weather which can lead to injury. Establishing a warm up routine will help to warm both you and your horse up and prevent any injuries to cold joints and muscles. Warm ups should be at least 10 minutes depending on the fitness of your horse. Ask your horse to walk on a loose rein, yield hindquarters, back and stop, all while encouraging stretching. This allows the muscles to warm up and gain flexibility. Many riders like to use a half-sheet or exercise sheet during warm up and cool down periods. Sheets can also keep your horse warm during your warm up, especially if they are clipped.
Footing is another major consideration for a winter riding routine. Deep snow and ice can make it easy for your horse to slip and makes movement more difficult and tiring. If you like to ride outside or on trails during the winter, consider adding snow pads or borium to your horse’s shoes to prevent slipping. Always take things slow until you and your horse are familiar with the footing. Luckily, you are not always restricted to outdoor riding in the winter! Sometimes, local facilities will do ring rentals for their indoor arena.
Winter weather gives you a great opportunity to work on your groundwork and build a relationship with your horse. Groundwork can be utilized to establish trust and build confidence in your horse. Take a walk around the property and ask for simple maneuvers like backing up, yielding the hindquarters, yielding forequarters, etc. This will keep your horse’s muscles (and brain!) engaged. If the ground is safe, you can also lunge and/or ground drive your horse to build muscle strength and flexibility. For horses trained to ground drive (also called longlining), you can ask for the same maneuvers as the other groundwork. Extra bonus — it’s a great workout for you, too!
Your cool down period should be about 10-15 minutes with the goal of reducing heart and respiratory rates. Using a half-sheet or exercise sheet helps wick away moisture during the cool down. You’ll want to make sure your horse is completely dry after your ride and before putting their winter blanket back on.