In cold weather, it is not wrong to go riding. In fact, it may be beneficial for your horse both physically and mentally to get out and move. However, it is important to remember to use common sense and restraint so that we don’t cause any harm to the horse.
Here is an outline of the systems at risk during cold weather exercise and precautions to take if you pursue winter riding.
Researchers at Oklahoma State University studied the effect of cold air (4 C or 40 F) on horses performing strenuous exercise on a treadmill for 30 minutes. Samples from the airway afterward demonstrated damage to the mucosal cells lining the airway compared with control horses. Mucosal cells are responsible for clearing the airway to protect against disease.
The underlying message here is to use common sense. If it hurts your airway to breathe outside, don’t force your horse to move huge amounts of icy air by forcing exercise. Very light exercise (walking or trotting) is likely ok. There is not one specific low temperature at which it is not ok to ride, just be sensible in what we are requiring of our horses.
In the cold, muscles will take longer to warm up and joints may be more painful. Make sure to add extra time for a slow warm-up before work.
Probably more importantly, however, is to make sure horses are cooled down appropriately and dry before being put away. This may mean using coolers or having your horse clipped in different patterns to help sweat dissipate more quickly. The details of clipping go beyond the scope of this blog. A clipped horse should be blanketed and will require more energy in their diet.
In the cold weather, horses have a tendency to get dehydrated because they don’t want to drink as much or they may not have adequate water sources available (frozen water buckets, water too cold to drink, faulty heaters). The normal 1000-pound adult horse needs approximately 10 gallons daily AND more (up to 30 gallons!) if undertaking any form of exercise. Make sure water is warm enough for them to consume and make sure plenty of loose white salt is available to the horse to replenish electrolytes as needed.
Horses on average need between 1-3% of their body weight in good quality roughage/hay a day. For a 1000-pound horse, that is equal to approximately 10-30 lbs of hay (depending on the calorie content of the hay).
In extreme weather, horses require more calories to maintain their body temperature. A rule of thumb to go by is that a horse’s energy needs increase by 1% for every degree below 18 F. So at 0 F, an adult horse needs an additional 2 lbs of forage just at rest. If the horse is in work, more will be needed.
Snow and ice can build up in the bottom of the hooves quickly. It is important to pick out feet once a day. Even though the hoof grows slightly more slowly during the winter time, it is still important to have your farrier trim the foot every 6-12 weeks.
Barefoot feet will often provide better traction than most shoes on ice and snow. However, ice pads and special shoes have been used to provide good traction on particularly icy terrain and can protect the sole against bruising.
The Take Home Message:
- Provide adequate available water, warmed is best (between 45-65 degrees F).
- Adding additional hay/forage is the best way to increase calories or energy.
- Avoid strenuous work, especially in horses with a history of having allergic airway conditions (RAO or heaves).
- If riding, provide adequate warm up and cool down. Never put away a wet horse in cold weather.
- Keep up with regular hoof care, pick out feet daily, and explore winter shoeing options if you will be riding on rough or slippery terrain.
Additional Resources Regarding Winter Care and Your Horse:
- Dr. Spaulding's blog post on winter blanketing.
- The University of Minnesota Extension's resource on equine winter care.
- Abstracts of studies associating airway injury and cold air inspiration in horses:
Of course, if you have a specific question or need veterinary guidance of any kind, please don’t hesitate to call us at Badger Equine Veterinary Services. Thanks for reading and stay warm!