|For Your Horse
Your horse will appreciate winter grooming sessions. Good currying and brisk brushing stimulate circulation, loosen dead hair and skin cells that make horses itchy, and spread the naturally occurring oils in your horse's coat.
In the most frigid temperatures, you may want to change your grooming techniques a bit if your horse normally wears a blanket. Keep portions of your horse covered by the blanket or a cooler, neatly folded to expose only one portion of the horse at a time, then work efficiently and quickly. Doing so will help to keep the horse's muscles warm as you groom and tack up, rather than abruptly stripping the horse of a blanket and exposing him fully to the cold air. Warm muscles are less likely to be injured from strain. For the same reason, consider using an exercise rug (also called a quarter sheet because it covers the horse's hindquarters). See How and Why to Use an Exercise Rug.
If your horse is not in steady hard work and if he has a full winter coat, then you may not want to ride him in such a way as to get him overheated and sweaty. If you ride only occasionally, then it is best to keep your horse at a walk with perhaps just a little trotting. This gentle work prevents injury to out-of-shape soft tissues, and prevents the horse from becoming too sweaty. A wet winter hair coat mats down, is slow to dry and cannot keep a horse warm. This makes a horse susceptible to becoming chilled and at risk of illness.
If your horse is in regular work and you have access to good footing in winter, then plan on longer warm-ups and cool-downs. Again, cold muscles are stiffer muscles, and are more susceptible to injury. Walk your horse for a while under saddle to warm his muscles and get the joints moving. Begin your workout slowly, and follow it with a long cool-down during which your horse can stretch. If you've removed an exercise rug for the main workout, the cool-down phase is the time to put it back on to keep your horse's hindquarters from getting chilled.
There's nothing wrong with a fit horse getting a little bit sweaty from a thorough winter workout, provided that you have time to cool him out properly and that you have a cover ready to put over the horse as soon as the ride is over.
To prevent heavy sweating, many people choose to clip all or part of their horse's hair as a tool to aid in winter conditioning program. Clipping reduces cooling time, and if a horse needs to be in steady work, it can keep him healthier as long as he's blanketed appropriately for the type of clip used. For details, see How to Body Clip a Horse and About Blanketing and Horse Clothing.
Have a discussion with your farrier (or veterinarian) about potential benefits to your horse of keeping him shod or allowing him to go barefoot in winter. Your riding goals and footing should factor into the decision. Many horses in serious training need to wear shoes, and some rely on corrective shoeing for soundness. Yet just as many benefit from going barefoot for a period of time, and winter may be the appropriate time to do it.
Barefoot horses are thought to be more sure-footed in slippery winter conditions, and the break from wearing shoes allows the heels to spread a bit. If you plan to pull your horse's shoes, do so before the ground freezes so that the hooves can toughen up before the ground freezes solid. Pulling shoes also provides you with some cost-savings!
If your horse wears shoes in snowy or icy conditions, consider borium studs for traction. Your farrier melds the super hard, permanent studs to the shoes in an effort to provide grip for your horse walking in packed snow and ice. The negative aspect of using borium studs is that the gripping effect can be hard on the leg joints and tendons, as the "stick" of each step transfers into the horse's legs.
Shoes can also allow snow or ice balls to form within the frame of the shoe. Snow balls are a hazard as they can cause horses to walk unevenly or slip, and the uneven angles they put on the leg can cause injury. The hard-packed balls are often hard to remove with a hoof pick. Your farrier can use a number of different types of pads to prevent the formation of ice balls.
For your horse's comfort, warm the bit before you put on the bridle. You can run the bit under warm water or hold it against your skin while you tack up to take the biting cold edge off the mouthpiece.
In really cold weather, monitor your horse closely for signs that he might be getting tired-especially if he's not fit and you're riding in snow. Look for uneven steps and heavy breathing, and cut your ride short if you feel your horse is fatigued.
Also remember that frozen ground results in increased concussion on your horse's hooves and legs. Riding on frozen ground is just as hard as riding on pavement, and in serious instances the concussion can cause laminitis. Frozen bumps and ridges in the footing can also bruise to the soles of his feet or lead to soft tissue injury from twisting.
If you want to ride in snow, then it should be light, soft and fluffy, and not so deep that your horse struggles to negotiate it. Avoid hard-packed or crusty snow with a layer of ice on top that is slippery and can cut a horse's skin.
Choose familiar trails that you've ridden in summer months, where you know about the footing that is hidden under the snow. No matter how well you know your regular trail, winter may bring unexpected challenges-rough footing, falling branches and the like. Be prepared to turn around and cut your ride short, or at least dismount and carefully lead your horse in such a way that if he falls he doesn't fall on you. Be careful crossing pavement, which can be treacherous with nearly invisible black ice.
Carry a hoof pick in case snow or ice becomes packed into your horse's hooves. Occasionally, snow will stick to the soles of even barefoot horses and become hard-packed. You may be able to prevent this by smearing the soles of your horse's feet with petroleum jelly or spaying them with non-stick cooking spray.
Tip: Cold Weather Leather Advisory
Remember that leather is made from animal hide. Cold, dry temperatures leech moisture from leather just as it causes your own skin to feel chapped. So take extra care to condition your tack regularly to keep it from becoming brittle and dry. Brittle leather has a shorter useful lifespan and it can crack or snap at an inopportune time. If possible, store your tack in a temperature-controlled environment.
For more assistance or to request a catalog call 1-800-989-1500. Or, stop by any of our retail stores to speak with a Dover Saddlery product adviser. Visit www.DoverSaddlery.com for a complete store listing and the full product offering.
How and Why to Use Exercise Rugs
Hot Weather Riding Tips
How to Body Clip a Horse
About Blanketing and Horse Clothing