The short daylight hours and inclement weather make looking after horses and riding hard work during the winter months. Who hasn’t looked out from a warm and cosy house and shuddered at the thought of ploughing through mud, ice or snow to sort the horses?
However, it isn’t just the day-to-day management that has to be adapted for the winter months: considering how to safely exercise your horse is as important. It’s recognised that your horse must receive an adequate amount of daily exercise to promote good health. If turnout is restricted, this lack of exercise can prove to be detrimental to your horse’s physical and mental well-being, which in turn increases the likelihood of stress and stereotypical behaviours occurring.
What to think about when winter arrives:
It’s important to take each day as it comes throughout the winter months as each day can bring different challenges. Make sure you assess outdoor spaces and turnout before using them, as they could become water-logged or iced over. Adjusting your horse’s workload throughout the season reflecting the weather conditions and surface conditions is important. Make sure you and your horse can ride or walk safely, and plan your ride accordingly.
Additionally – take your equipment and tack into account. A cold, frozen bit placed into your horse’s mouth can cause discomfort, or even pain and damage. Make sure to warm up any metal equipment, by pouring warm water on it, heating it in your hands, or buying bit warmers.
While riding in the winter can be treacherous, being on the ground can also be fairly hairy. A frozen, well-swept yard can be an ice rink, so if the forecast is frosty, leave behind some shavings and debris for grip. Try not to spill water but if you do, don’t try to sweep it away as it will form a layer of black ice if it freezes. A mixture of salt, sand and ash from a fire makes a good barrier to stop ice on concrete. It’s an idea to buy salt or grit in advance of the harsh winter months as it becomes gold dust during a cold snap.
Those lucky enough to have a surface to work on can use the winter months to continue their horse’s training with schooling and lessons. However, the cold means adapting your normal routine: start with a good extended warm-up of your horse. This will help reduce the chance of injuries caused by stressing tight, cold muscles but be careful to not over stretch the muscles too much at the beginning of your session. If your horse is comfortable wearing one, use an exercise blanket to keep him/her warm. It can often take longer for your horse.
joints to loosen up in cooler weather, so this is another reason to allow plenty of warmup time. At the end of the session, make sure to also spend extra time cooling down using light stretching exercises to slow the heart rate and breathing.
Horses can easily get chilled after a workout especially if they are sweaty. Walk your horse after exercise so they can cool down slowly and, if necessary, use a cooler blanket to stop their body temperature from losing heat too quickly. Be aware of using inappropriate rugs on a damp, sweaty horse unless using a high-tech moisture-removing rug or some good old-fashioned thatching with straw, so that the moisture is wicked away from the skin. In addition, offer your horse tepid rather than ice-cold water to drink after exercise.
Be aware of the dismal winter light when hacking out, especially on roads and wear plenty of Hi-Viz so that you and your horse are clearly visible. Also, consider the low winter sun which might blind car drivers and affect their view of the road. Try to ride with the sun on your back rather than into it, so that drivers coming up behind you aren’t blinded by the low sun. If you hack out a lot during the winter, road studs are worth discussing with your farrier to provide extra grip. Try to avoid being on the roads in icy conditions, not only in case you and your horse slip but also in case a car skids and loses control. Be aware that windy conditions will make your horse ‘fresher’ and on his toes and of course, look out for pesky pheasants. It is also recommended that you take a mobile phone with you for emergencies and, if you have one, wear a hat cam.
To clip or not to clip before winter exercise?
Another way to take care of your horse is to consider clipping their coat. This may seem counterintuitive as a horse’s winter coat is thicker and contains more essential grease to help protect against the elements. However, if you plan on exercising your horse over winter, a heavy, unclipped winter coat can take hours to dry – think of it like trying to dry clothes without the heating on indoors – and this can result in your horse developing chills and sores as the cold moisture surrounds their body. Clipping their coat can help body heat escape and prevent them from sweating too much
Some examples of the different clips recommended for different levels of work are shown below:
The horse’s physical condition should also be considered and winter coats can disguise weight loss (or gain). Whilst it is natural for horses to lose weight during the hard winter months in preparation for the spring grass, they may need extra forage if they lose too much or you want them to work.
Keeping your horse exercised especially through winter is important for your horse’s physical and mental well-being: 24-hour stabling removes their ability to express natural behaviours such as foraging, mutual grooming and free exercise, leading to increased stress and anxiety. In addition, riding and spending time with our horses helps with our own mental health, making the cold, dark months bearable. So, staying safe and following a few simple adaptions to your normal routine, will make winter riding possible and enjoyable.
Horse Insurance from Carriagehouse
The welfare of your horse is our number one priority. With horse insurance from Carriagehouse Insurance, you can rest assured that we understand how worrying it is when your horse is ‘off games’ and that we will endeavour to make the claims process as simple as possible for you.
So take sensible precautions and pre-empt possible accidents or injuries that could occur over winter and enjoy your winter riding. If you wish to talk about this article or how your insurance cover applies to winter incidents, get in touch with us to see how we can help.