Winter may not be primetime for riding, but even when cold temperatures feel never ending, show and trail season will come back around before you know it. It benefits both you and your horse to keep a little fitness going this season. What winter riding considerations should you keep in mind? When is it too cold to ride horses?
Cold is Relative
“Horses are amazing athletes, and actually do quite well in cold weather,” says Carolyn Hammer, DVM, Ph.D., professor of equine science at North Dakota State University. “When you think about horses around the world, they are exposed to a variety of temperatures. For instance, 20°F might be considered unbearably cold to riders in the South, while riders in the far North may not see temperatures above 0°F for the majority of the winter.””
What exactly is “too cold to ride?” You may be surprised.
“It’s usually too cold for the rider to be comfortable before it is too cold for the horse,” says Hammer. “Frostbite is mainly a concern for riders, especially fingers, toes, and exposed areas on the face: cheeks, ears, and nose.”
Danielle Smarsh, Ph.D., assistant professor of equine science and equine extension specialist at Penn State University, recommends following the CDC’s guidelines on how to prevent frostbite, saying that whether to ride depends on a few factors.“You need to take into account the wind chill, fitness of the horse, and human comfort levels. Horses are able to handle colder weather better than humans. The level of ‘too cold to ride’ will be different for someone riding in Minnesota versus Georgia.
The Importance of Footing
There isn’t a hard and fast temperature cut-off for riding; rather, you’ll need to take into account several things. First, consider footing when determining if you can ride. Frozen ground, as well as icy spots and deep snow, are obvious no-gos.
“Footing can definitely be an issue in the winter,” says Hammer. “Be cautious of ice, which can result in falls, as well as slips that may strain tendons and muscles. Hard, frozen ground can increase concussion and strain on the lower limbs and joints, so riders should avoid heavy exercise on this type of footing.”
For temperatures below freezing, keeping outdoor riding to a walk is a good rule of thumb, unless poor footing precludes riding at all. Remember deep snow may cover hazards and place additional strain on muscles, tendons and ligaments.
Visit your local tack shop or an online retailer for technical riding wear to keep you safe and warm. Look for layers that trap warmth, with wicking items closest to the skin. Be sure your stirrups are wide enough to accommodate insulated riding boots.
Winter attire isn’t just for people; horses need special gear for the elements, too. Shod horses may require pads or snow rims from the farrier to prevent snowballs from building up in the hooves. Some riders also like to use caulks or borium to prevent slipping.
“Watch for a buildup of ice in the hoof, which can occur in both shod and unshod horses,” says Hammer. “This makes it difficult for the hoof to land flat and places additional stress and strain on tendons.”
Smarsh cautions that bare frozen ground also puts the horse at risk of sole bruising. In addition to pads on shod horses, she suggests considering hoof boots for barefoot horses. Talk with you farrier and vet about best winter hoof options for your horse.
In colder temps, a quarter sheet can be used behind the saddle and is particularly critical for clipped horses. It keeps the hindquarters warm, especially while warming up. A fleece cooler used during cool-down time after untacking will wick moisture away from the coat while maintaining warmth. Also remember to warm up the bit—either with your hands, in a heated room, or with a bit-warming device—before tacking up.
The Science Is In
“The majority of weather-related research in horses has focused on heat adaptation, not cold,” says Hammer. She does, however, describe one study of horses exercising in -13°F (-25°C) that found no change in heart rate response, muscle and rectal temperatures, lung structure, or apparent signs of discomfort. It did, however, find lower respiratory rates at rest and during early exercise, as well as lower blood temperatures.
“Bottom line from these researchers: cold stress does not significantly influence the aerobic capacity of the horse,” says Hammer. She notes that these studies were carried out in a climate chamber on a treadmill, not outdoors.
“The horses in that study had short hair coats,” she adds. “A long winter coat may have changed heat conductivity and evaporation, which could alter results.”
Additional precautions should be made for horses with equine asthma or similar lung conditions, since they have heightened sensitivity to allergens concentrated in indoor riding rings and barns.
“There is little research out there on the effects of intense exercise in cold weather, but three research studies found that intense exercise for about 15 minutes can cause respiratory issues when the temperature was around 20°F,” says Smarsh. “In terms of respiratory health, it may be better to keep your riding to walking and light trotting when the temperature is below 20°F.”
Easy Does It
Even if you’re riding indoors, consider a less intense workout so your horse doesn’t get too hot. A gradual warmup will help prevent injuries. Afterward, walk under saddle or in-hand with a cooler until the horse is has cooled down and dried. Smarsh recommends at least 10 to 20 minutes for warmup and again for cool-down. In addition, Smarsh advises that you make sure your horse drinks enough water, especially if he works up a sweat during exercise. Just like people, horses often don’t drink enough in cold weather.
With sound judgement in mind, winter doesn’t have to mean giving up your equine pursuits. Basically, just because it’s winter doesn’t mean it’s too cold to ride horses.
“Use basic common sense for winter riding: assess conditions for safe footing, perform a gentle and gradual warmup, and be mindful during the cooling out period that your horse doesn’t become chilled,” says Hammer. “Heavy winter coats may take a long time to dry; clipping areas prone to heavy sweating helps speed cool-down.”
Remember that clipped horses require blanketing (see “Blanketing at a Glance”). So, get to work and earn that post-ride hot cocoa.
This article about when it is too cold to ride horses appeared in the November 2019 issue of Horse Illustrated magazine. Click here to subscribe!