If you live in a climate that gets cold in the winter–particularly one where ice and snow are a regular occurrence–it can be tempting to curl up and hibernate, skipping your usual rides until the first daffodils pop out of the ground.
Skimping on fitness means a much higher likelihood of injury and lameness due to muscle soreness or even tendon injuries if you throw your horse back into intense work in the spring. Tendons and ligaments take much longer to condition than the cardiovascular system and muscles, and tendon injuries can keep your horse out of action for up to a year.
Keeping your horse in work over the winter doesn’t mean he has to jump or gallop frequently to stay fit. One of the best ways to strengthen tendons and ligaments is simple: walking. Not just ambling along, but purposeful power-walking! Think of it as the difference between the “riding away from home” walk and the “going home” walk. Even without an indoor arena, you can walk your horse almost anywhere: up and down the driveway, or out in the snow. Bare feet work well on snow, but if your horse has shoes, ask your farrier about special snow pads and/or borium for traction so your horse doesn’t slip or get balls of ice built up in his shoes.
If your horse is starting out completely unfit, begin by walking 30 minutes at a time; after the first few weeks you can increase this to an hour. You can add trotting after the first couple of weeks of walk work, but hold off on cantering for the first month if your horse is coming back from complete “pasture puff” status. Walking is one of the best investments you can make in your horse’s soundness, so it’s a great addition to any fitness program, even after your horse is in peak condition.
Keep Things Interesting
Ideally you should ride your horse at least three times per week to maintain his fitness over the winter. Depending on your schedule, this may mean some night sessions in the indoor arena, but you can keep them interesting by utilizing the numerous books and online resources available to find arena exercises designed to bust boredom (these vary depending on whether your discipline is dressage, reining, et cetera). Hunters, jumpers and eventers can improve their eye for distances by setting up poles on the ground to canter over, even making “pole courses” that are easy on your horse’s legs while still giving you a challenging exercise to ride.
While all horses benefit from a vacation from work at some point during the year, this also means taking your time when getting your horse back into shape, and winter is the perfect opportunity to do it right. Take steps to make sure you enjoy that first trail ride in April instead of worrying that your horse isn’t fit enough; keeping him moderately fit during the winter months will ensure many more happy and sound years still to come.