How Cold is “TOO COLD” For Riding?
I’m one of those crazy people that you see out at the barn every day during the winter. I actually prefer winter riding over summer riding for a variety of reasons; mostly the lack of mud, bugs, and heat. So, being the snow-bunny that I am, I am frequently asked “Isn’t it too cold to ride that poor horse?”.
I think you’ll be fairly surprised at the answers the world wide web provides:
“There is no temperature where it is too cold for a horse to be ridden or to go outside if they are adapted to it” – Dr. Joyce Harman, Equisearch
Horses have one of THE most amazing cooling and heating systems in the animal kingdom. Their dense coats “fluffs” up in the cold and trap in the heat their body produces through eating and exercise. Horses actually produce heat when they digest food. You may notice horses eating through round bales faster in the winter. This isn’t just out of boredom, it’s to keep warm. They may also have quick bouts of friskiness, which is also to keep warm. The only thing temperature-wise you really have to worry about in the winter time is wind. Wind can penetrate the dense coat of a horse and give them a chill, but shelters or wind breaks take care of that problem.
What about blankets as wind breaks?
The problem with using a blanket as a wind break is it actually flattens the horse’s coat. When the horses coat is flattened, they can’t trap in the warm air they’re producing by digesting food. Mud sheets are great for keeping the horse clean, but using one during the winter is actually doing more harm then good. If you want to give you horse a little more warmth and wind protection, try a medium or heavy weight turnout blanket which are designed to trap warmth and reflect heat back into the horse just like the fur does. I won’t go TOO much into blanketing, as that’s an entirely separate blog article in itself.
What’s “cold” to you is actually quite comfortable to your horse!
Remember that most horses are already wearing a coat (their fur) and are most comfortable at 5-8 degrees Celsius. That means while humans are most comfortable at 21C (room temperature), horses are way more comfortable 15C lower than that. Imagine this: When you’re putting a heavy winter blanket on your horse on a -5C day, that’s the equivalent of the feeling you would have wearing a snowsuit in +10C. You’re going to be uncomfortable and not want to move around much! So just remember, add 15 degrees to the current temperature and ask yourself if you’d still be comfortable wearing the same amount your horse is. Horses are quite adaptable to temperatures, so don’t worry about the exact temperature outside, just be aware of “over-dressing” them.
BUT REMEMBER: Not all horses are equal, just like people, due to natural and unnatural factors. For example, if your horse is fully clipped or doesn’t grow a winter coat then they may be more comfortable with a heavy blanket in mildly cold weather. They may also huddle in the shelter at -10C while the rest of the horses are out and about in the snow, because they were born to be a tropical pony. If your barn is heated (lucky ducks!!!) your horse may need the extra help of a blanket to adapt to the change in the outdoor temperature as well.
Allow extra time for your horse to warm up their cold muscles in the winter! This will help prevent injuries and soreness, especially if they’ve been standing in a stall. I allow 20 minutes of walking in the winter to warm up. I caution against lunging first in the winter unless your horse can contain his friskiness. If your horse goes crazy on the lunge line before they’re warmed up, they can injure themselves and cause more harm than good! I warm with a quarter sheet if my horse is blanketed in the winter. This helps him adjust to the temperature and keeps his sensitive back muscles warm while we get started.
My “routine” changes a bit in the winter. Because I warm up and cool down for 20 minutes, my trot/canter work is reduced to 20 minutes. This is still adequate if you are using your warm up to work on your homework (transitions, lateral work, etc). Try and do the hard stuff in the middle of your ride so your horse isn’t tired when you’re asking the most out of them. Plan ahead! In the winter I set something up in the area EVERY time I ride. Even if it’s a pole on the ground at X, I can incorporate it into my ride to keep my horse occupied.
GET OUTSIDE! Horses get arena sour quickly in the winter. Plan a winter hack with friends on the weekend if you can. My horses are lucky and get 30 minutes of hacking every time I ride over to the arena I also cut down to 1 day of cardio work in the snow a week. The snow adds an extra element to your horses work, as they’ll have to pick up their feet higher and work through the snow. Make sure you warm up properly and build up slowly to winter cardio work, as the cold air is also harder on the horses lungs. I start with 20 minutes walk, 2/ 5 minute trot sets with a 5 minute break in between, and 20 minutes cool down. Build the work up in a gradual step pattern, doing each change in difficulty 2-3 times before increasing the workload.
Horses dense fur does not let water easily penetrate the skin, so as long as you dry them off properly your horse is well equipped to sweat and stay warm while cooling off with a little help from you. Allowing your horse to dry off slowly while retaining heat is the key to keeping them happy and healthy. Most people use a cooler to do this. I’m a huge fan of the double-wicking system of using two coolers. The cooler that is on top (fleece) will collect all the perspiration coming off the horse, while the bottom one (mesh or Irish knit) retains the heat and keeps the horse dry. One of my favourite ways to cool down in the winter is to ride bareback with a cooler on. This keeps you toasty warm and lets your horse continue walking, letting the muscles stay active during cool down. Plan on 20 minutes or more of cool down.
Make sure your horse is completely dry before putting his medium/heavy winter blanket back on. If you’re horse feels a bit sticky still, but not damp, you can use a knit or mesh cooler under their blanket to keep the sweat away from his skin and the blanket. I also recommend an anti-fungal treated blanket to reduce the chances of skin irritation if your horse does end up sweating under their blanket.
ONE OTHER THING:
Don’t forget about SALT. Dehydration increases the chances of impaction colic, so encourage your horse to increase their water intake any way you can and replace electrolytes lost in working and keeping warm. Your horse needs salt to facilitate normal nerve and muscle function. A salt block is not enough, as horses tongues are not designed to feed by licking up their nutrients. If your horse is in low-moderate exercise they need 1-2 ounces of salt a day (1/4 cup) and if your horse is in training-high exercise or you’re in a hotter climate, 4-6 ounces (1/2 – 3/4) cup of salt a day! Don’t underestimate the impact salt can have on your horse. Check out THIS LIST of signs of excess potassium/lack of sodium imbalance.
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