Exercising your horse during the cold winter months can be beneficial and important to help keep them in shape. The goal should be to keep your horse’s fitness level maintained and refine their skills, not to necessarily improve on their fitness level when the air is cold outside as you don’t want to damage your horse’s respiratory tract or cause pain and inflammation.
RESPIRATORY TRACT INJURY
Just like you, your horse has trouble breathing in the cold, wintery air. If it hurts for you to breathe, then you shouldn’t exercise your horse as it probably is painful for them too, and can cause stress to the airways. When your horse is out in cold air, normally their upper respiratory tract takes in that cold air and warms and humidifies it to their body temperature before the air goes down into the lower respiratory tract. As they exercise and their heart rate goes up, their breaths get deeper and the intake of air that is going down increases, and the body doesn’t have enough time to warm up the air before it goes down into the lower respiratory tract. This causes the lungs, bronchi, and trachea to dry out and get cold. This cold air can cause an influx of white blood cells and inflammation, and since it dries out the lower respiratory tract, bronchoconstriction may occur shortly after exercise, which can lead to the horse underperforming. This can ultimately cause cell injury, possibly pulmonary bleeding, or even Exercise Induced Pulmonary Hemorrhaging if the horse is exercised too strenuously in cold air.
SAFELY EXERCISING IN THE WINTER
You can safely exercise your horse in the winter though by following several precautions and ensuring a proper warm up, cool down, and not overworking your horse. Always be aware of your horse’s current fitness level before planning an exercise and be aware of the footing to make sure it’s safe so that your horse won’t slip and get injured.
It’s important to always groom your horse before riding, as this gives you time to check over your horse for any injuries. In the winter, when you groom you have the chance to check your horse’s feet for packed snow and ice balls, which can be dangerous if you ride without cleaning that out. You also stimulate circulation, which warms up the horse and can help unclog any pores.
In cold weather horses are tighter than they normally are, so you must make sure to slowly warm up to give their muscles more time to adjust, usually at least 10-20 minutes depending on the temperature and your horse. Horses that have been in a stall will probably require a longer warm-up than horses that have been turned out. Always make sure you go both directions so the muscles are evenly worked. When your horse feels more limber his muscles are probably warmed up and circulation going and you can start trotting or jogging. Ensuring you give your horse an adequate warm-up in cold weather helps prevent injuries from muscles working while they are too stiff to do what you ask.
Once your horse is adequately warmed up you can get down to the main part of the ride. What you do for this depends on what your goals are and whether you are riding for fun or to stay in training for competitions. You should not plan on anything harder than what your horse is currently used to while the air is cold outside. The harder the workout and more the horse sweats, the more time that is needed to cool down. Depending on your goals, you can include bending and flexion exercises, side passes, hacking, gymnastics, and at least one serious lesson a week. Vets say that a horse needs active exercise of 15-25 minutes at least a day in order to maintain their fitness level. If you have a jumper, it has been recommended to jump at least once or twice a month over the cold months to help keep your horse focused. If you jump though, make sure the footing is safe or have an indoor arena that you can go ride in. Hill work is some of the best work you can do with your horse, because you can even just walk and trot hills for your horse to use and work their muscles. For competition horses, it may also be a good idea to enter a few small schooling shows during the winter season if they are used to traveling and competing regularly.
Cool down is very important in the winter, as you want to ensure your horse isn’t turned out while still sweaty, wet, and breathing hard. Make sure you have at least 15 minutes to spend walking out your horse, longer if they had a harder workout. Horses that have been clipped won’t take as long to cool down, but just make sure they are covered with a sheet. If possible, ride during the day when the sun can help speed up the horse cooling down and drying. If your horse is sweaty, put a cooler on them in cooler weather so they won’t get a chill while they are cooling down. Coolers are great as they will keep your horse warm while helping wick away the sweat and helping the horse dry faster. It’s a good idea to even have multiple coolers, so when one gets wet from absorbing the sweat, you can switch it out with a dry one while you continue walking out. Check to make sure your horse is dry behind the elbows, between the front legs, in the chest area, the belly, and the flank area. Also, make sure your horse isn’t still breathing hard or has veins popping out. Once dry, you can brush to fluff up his coat which warms them up even more and helps protect them from the cold. Always make sure you leave your horse in a dry blanket after you have ensured that he is completely cooled off and dry.
You can safely ride your horse in cold weather as long as it’s not painful to breathe, just make sure to follow the basic guidelines for your horse’s health and safety. Don’t overwork him and plan rides to just maintain his fitness level and keep his mind focused when the weather is too cold to push hard. Ensure that you give your horse a proper warm-up and cool-down and keep an eye on your surroundings, and you will have a great winter season of keeping your horse in shape.