For many horse owners, the winter season is not an enjoyable time. It means less daylight, less time to ride, and freezing temperatures. I’ve been there, and I can say that I dislike the colder months for riding just as much as the next horse person. However, I have come across some tips that have made riding my horse in the winter an easier and more enjoyable experience.
Here are my 12 winter horseback riding tips to keep you and your horse safe, happy, and warm:
Wear Warm Clothes
The first tip I have for horseback riding in the winter is to dress warmly. You’d think this would be obvious, but every winter, it takes a few rides of me being freezing cold to realize that I need to dress warmer; I can’t be the only one this happens to either.
It’s easier to get cold if you wear more form-fitting clothes, which horseback riding is all about. Riding boots and riding gloves offer little insulation between you and the elements; because of this, try layering your clothes before you go out for a winter ride.
A great piece of clothing to invest in for winter horseback riding would be a thermal base layer. This thermal base-layer shirt from Amazon is the same exact one that I use every winter, and it does great at insulating your body heat. Using this piece of clothing can help you eliminate a heavy and uncomfortable winter coat from your outfit, making it easier to ride.
Another good piece of clothing to find would be insulated waterproof riding boots. These will not only allow you room to wear wool socks but also add an extra layer of protection between you and the cold. If you’d like to check out a pair of these boots, go look at our Recommended Products Page by clicking here.
Check Your Horse’s Feet Before You Go Out
If you plan on riding out in the snow, you may want to check your horse’s feet before you even consider the ride. Snow tends to pack into a horse’s hooves and form snowballs that the horse actually walks on. I’ve seen horses with six inches of snowball between their hooves and the ground.
Not only is this uncomfortable on the horse, but it can be dangerous as well. The snowballs don’t allow for the horse to distribute its weight correctly, so the horse could easily strain a joint. The snowballs also don’t offer any traction, so a horse could slip and hurt itself.
Chances are if your horse wears shoes, then they’ll have more of a problem with snow packing into their feet. Shoes tend to hold mud and snow in the hoof, making it hard to get it out. If there’s snow on the ground and your horse has shoes, it’s better to just stay in instead of going out to ride.
That being said, there is a pad that can put in a horse’s shoes that keep snow from packing into the hoof. If winter is coming and you want to enjoy a winter wonderland ride, ask your farrier to add pads to your horse’s shoes. Usually, the pad is a one-time cost, as the farrier can re-use the same pads all winter.
Warm the Bit Before Putting It In the Horse’s Mouth
Have you ever seen the movie, “The Christmas Story?” If so, do you remember the iconic scene where the kid gets his tongue stuck to the frigid metal pole and the fire department had to come to free him?
Now, imagine having a frigid metal bit put your mouth; that must be super uncomfortable! If your bridle has been left out in an uninsulated cold area, the chances are that your metal bit will be freezing cold. If put in your horse’s mouth, the bit can cause real discomfort.
No, I doubt anyone has ever had to unstick a horse’s tongue from a cold bit, but in reality, the situation in the movie and putting a cold metal bit in your horse’s mouth is one and the same; a bad idea.
Check the Weather Before You Ride
I’ve lived in different parts of the United States and I’ve noticed one thing in particular; winter weather tends to be spontaneous and sporadic. I experienced a lot of this growing up in the mountains of Virginia; when I would go foxhunting, we would occasionally experience sunshine, rain, sleet, snow, and sunshine again over the course of two hours.
Check the weather before you ride out, especially if you’re trailering to a place to ride or if you’re going on a long trail ride. Being caught out in severe winter weather can be a serious situation; these conditions can easily increase the risk of hypothermia.
Even if the weather forecast looks good, have a plan prepared if you were to get stuck in inclement weather while riding. Will there be any place to take shelter close by? Do you have any way of contacting anyone if you get stuck? Does someone know where you’re going and when you plan on getting back? Asking yourself these questions ahead of time will keep you and your horse out of a potentially bad situation.
Wear Reflective Gear if You’ll Be Riding In the Dark
With winter comes long early nights. Some horse owners get peeved that their barn time is cut short while others take advantage of it. If you’re one of the brave (which I am not), then you don’t let a little darkness deter you from riding. Riding in the dark can be fun; it teaches you to trust your horse more and see the world in a different light. (literally.)
While it can be exciting to ride your horse in the dark, it’s important to wear reflective gear to make your presence known, especially if you’re riding by the road or in residential areas. This could also help if you were to fall off and someone had to go out to find you; the reflective gear would be easy for someone to spot.
Take a Friend Along
You should bring a friend along any time you ride out, but this is especially important in the winter if there’s snow on the ground. Snow can hide obstructions that can be potentially dangerous to you and your horse, like holes, ice, ditches, ect. Having a friend ride out with you will make a helping hand available if the situation arises.
The best way to ride out with your friend during the winter is for one of you to lead while the other follows. That way if the leader runs into trouble, the follower will hopefully have time to avoid the obstruction or hazard and go for help. While this may make you question whether riding in the snow would be worth it, it’s always important to plan for the worst situation you may end up in so not to be caught off guard.
Avoid Riding on Icy or Snow-Covered Roads
Asphalt and cement surfaces tend to become slippery when wet or even icy when snow-covered. If you are planning to ride your horse out in these conditions, it’s best to avoid roads. Not only does your horse have less traction in the snow, but the snow can also hide the icy asphalt on the road beneath, which could end badly for your horse.
Icy roads can also make it difficult for cars passing on the road to slow down and give you and your horse the space you need. In order to keep you and your horse safe, it’s better to just stay away from roads if you plan on riding in the snow.
Prepare For Your Horse to Be Fresh
You may have noticed before that a horse’s energy level can sometimes be dictated by the weather. On cold, brisk, and windy days, I’ve always noticed how my horses get a little more pep in their step or tend to be a little more spooked. While it makes for an entertaining ride, it’s something to be aware of before you take your horse out.
If you can tell that your horse will be full of themselves and you would like to burn some of their energy before your ride, you can always lunge them beforehand to let them get all of their crazies out. If your horse is feeling fresh, it’s best to always start your ride in an arena in order to make sure you can control them. Once you feel comfortable with them in the ring, then you can take them out on the trails or in the fields.
Be Aware That Cold Air Can Affect Your Horse’s Lungs
Have you ever gone for a run in the cold? If so, then you probably know the burning feeling that this can leave in your lungs; It causes you to cough uncontrollably. A horse’s lungs are similar to ours, so the cold air can have the same effect on them as well.
If you are planning to ride on a particularly cold day, it’s best to keep your horse’s exercise to a minimum. The more a horse exerts itself, the heavier it breathes, meaning that it has to suck more cold air into its lungs. This can damage tissue as well as cause the horse discomfort.
If breathing normally, it gives the lungs time to warm the cold air before it has any negative effects. Knowing this, its best to stick to light riding on cold days. This isn’t just for your horse, but for you as well. The cold could have the same effect on you if you start working harder and breathing heavier too.
Don’t Overheat Your Horse
In the winter, horses grow thick furry coats to keep them warm in the cold weather. While this benefits them when it comes to living in the elements, it can cause a horse to overheat if strenuously worked. The thick winter coat insulates the horse’s body, so as their body temperature is going up due to exercise, the coat is going to hold that heat in instead of letting it escape.
Since the horse won’t be able to put out heat due to its heavy winter coat, it can become extremely overheated. Be aware of this when working your horse, and make sure that you are allowing for many breaks in between each exercise. This will give the horse a chance to cool down.
Consider Body-Clipping Your Horse
Body-clipping your horse is one way to keep them from overheating due to a thick coat and hard exercise. Body-clipping is when you shave your horse’s body or part of the body that lets out the most heat. Horses that continue to train hard even though it’s winter will benefit most from a body-clipping.
If you avoid strenuous riding in the winter, then there’s no need to body-clip your horse. Let them have their thick winter coat to protect them from the cold. However, horses that continue hard work into the winter months will need the body-clip. A horse that is body-clipped should wear a winter blanket since they don’t have their full coat.
Allow For a Slow, Gradual Warm Up & Cool Down
Working your horse without warming up their muscles can be dangerous for your horse, especially when it’s cold outside. Muscles must get warmer in order for the muscles to be more elastic and supple; however, if you don’t properly warm up your horse, then your horse will be working with cold stiff muscles. This makes the risk of injury inevitable.
Likewise, muscles get sore when they change temperature too rapidly. This is a danger faced in the winter because your horse’s warm muscles can cool down really fast due to a colder outside temperature. Because of this, it’s important that you give your horse a slow and gradual cool down.
Allow between 15-20 minutes to properly warm up and cool down your horse. This will allow your horse’s muscles to get to the temperature they need to be at and allow the horse to get used to breathing in the brisker air.
Riding in the winter and in the snow can be a magical experience; follow these tips to have a safer and more enjoyable ride. If you’re worried that your horse may get too cold, check out our article, How Can I Tell if My Horse is Cold?