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Riding and Winter Horse Care

By: Ann Compton

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If you think winter isn't a good time for riding, think again. Those inviting holiday commercials with riders cavorting through the snow on horseback aren't just television hype. There's nothing like a nice, long trail ride in crisp weather when there are no flies to swat and your horse is fresh. Well, not too fresh. But winter is a wonderful time to relax, ease up on serious training and hack. It's good for both you and your horse.

Snow Is Best For Winter Riding

The best of all possible worlds in the winter is footing with a few inches of snow cover, as long as it isn't icy underneath. Snow provides wonderful exercise for your horse's leg muscles and cardiovascular system, even if it's deep. You don't need a hard gallop to achieve a good fitness ride – the very act of pulling his feet out of the snow gives the horse adequate exercise, just at the trot. A relaxed walk on a long rein may be enough to give both you and your horse a refreshing change of scene and a revived outlook on everyday work.

When you ride in the winter, be sure you know what's underneath the snow cover. It's best to ride over terrain and trails you are familiar with in warmer temperatures, so you aren't risking stepping in or on something that may injure your horse.

The last few northern winters have not offered equestrians the kind of footing that lends itself to winter trail riding. Rain, slush and ice storms left the ground frozen and - even when it was dry - hard as concrete. And, although you can ride when the ground is hard and dry at a walk, you certainly won't want to take your horse out on the trail if it's icy. Even when it begins to melt, the resulting mud can be a dangerous combination.

Don't jump your horse outdoors during winter months when the ground is hard, unless you're in an arena with appropriate footing. Even with snow cover, the impact of landing could injure your horse's legs. If the snow is wet and slippery, he could slide or stumble on landing as well, even if he's wearing borium shoes.

Cool Out Your Horse

After a cold-weather ride, cool your horse out adequately even if you've only been walking. If your horse is not clipped or blanketed and is covered with winter fur, it will take longer for him to cool out, especially if he's sweaty. Let him spend 30 minutes or so in a cooler covering munching hay before you leave him in his stall whether he is blanketed regularly or not.

Good Grooming Is Essential

It's important to pay attention to your horse's grooming needs during the winter, whether he is wearing a blanket or his own coat of fur.

Grooming is essential to keep the horse's pores from becoming blocked, which can thwart his sweating and ability to stay warm, among other things. This can happen easily in the winter, as dirt is trapped in long winter coats and under heavy blankets that usually aren't all that clean after a few good horse rolls in the paddock. Here are a few grooming guidelines:

  • A thorough daily brushing will help his circulation and bring dirt that can cause irritation to the surface, especially in a long, winter coat. Curry the horse thoroughly, then use a soft brush to remove dust and dirt. Fluff his coat.

  • Though many people think that blanketing their horse eliminates the need for careful grooming, that is not true. Even under his blanket, a horse's skin can collect dirt particles that can become further embedded in his coat as the blanket moves on him. So before and after each ride, be sure to go over your horse's coat with a good body brush. This also is a good time to check for blanket rubs and other skin irritations.

  • If outdoor conditions keep you from riding, grooming gives you some time to bond with your horse. He'll certainly appreciate the attention, especially if he's cooped up and can't get outside.

  • Pay special attention to your horse's hooves during the winter. Unless the horse is barefoot or has pads on his feet, be sure to pick them out each day when he comes in from turnout.

    Winter Turnout and Stall Life

    Give your horse as much turnout as possible during the winter, especially if you can't ride as often and want to head off the inevitable cabin fever that comes with being cooped up in his stall. The more time he can spend outdoors, the happier he will be and the more cooperative when you ride him.

    There are times, though, when it's impossible to turn horses out; for instance, when the pasture is a sheet of ice and it's too dangerous even for horses with borium shoes to walk around. When this happens, try to keep your horse happy in his stall. Feed a little extra hay to keep him busy – preferably, not all at once but a little at a time spread throughout the day, and reduce the amount of grain you feed to keep him from getting too "hot" while he's confined.

    Keep a barn door open so plenty of ventilation and light is available. Experts say it's also a good idea to keep a radio playing - a combination of talk and music is preferred by most equines.

    With a bit of common sense preparation, you should find that your horse is an eager partner when the conditions are optimal for a brisk winter ride.

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