With winter in full swing, many of us are experiencing plummeting temperatures, and of course, the ever-present threat of snow. For riders who don’t have access to indoor arenas, it’s an annual issue to keep our horses fit despite the snow and ice. We promise – winter doesn’t have to be (and shouldn’t be) a time of hibernation for your horse. That’s why we’ve compiled a brief list of recommendations for maintaining his/her fitness this season, no matter your location.
If you don't have an indoor space to train, do some research and see if there is a local facility that you can rent. Many private and park/state owned facilities offer ring rental by the hour to "outside" renters. Another option is to contact facilities in your area that run winter indoor shows; find out if they offer schooling opportunities either before or after the show. You don't have to compete in the show, but you may be able to school over jumps or simply ride in their arena. Ask around!
When you don’t have access to an indoor arena, be prepared to be cold. Remember to evaluate the footing prior to turning out or hopping on to ensure that it isn't too icy. Horses can be ridden in the snow; just keep in mind, riding or turnout in snow can be more fatiguing than footing without snow to move through.
Including a warm up and stretching routine into your horse’s exercise program is even more crucial when the temperatures drop. Doing so allows the blood to start flowing and helps stiff muscles and joints to loosen up (which can prevent injury).
Create a warm up plan that lasts at least 10 minutes, focusing on slow and controlled movements. Start by having your horse walk on a loose rein, which allows him/her to get everything moving and relaxed before exercise. After about five minutes of walking, you can work on stretching: flexing the neck in both directions, shoulders in/out, two-tracking, stopping, and (slowly) backing, etc. Then, you can move up to the jog and repeat the process.
After a strong warm up, your horse should be ready for whatever type of workout you’re looking to perform (i.e. maintenance or conditioning).
Winter provides a good opportunity to put the focus back on basics when dealing with your horse on the ground. If the ground is too frozen to ride, walk your horse around the property, the riding arena, or on nearby trails. However, you shouldn’t just go for a stroll. Power walk and encourage your horse to move quickly (trot or canter) so that their gait will be able to naturally stretch their legs, neck, and back. Maintaining their muscle flexibility and movement will reduce stiffness in the spring when you’re able to get back into more of an ideal routine.
Be sure to keep the horse as controlled as you would when you are on them. This is not the time to let them run wild and out of control; rather, it should mimic the same pace and control you would expect of them while riding. Focusing on groundwork will enable you to refine your horse's skills and keep your training on track when the weather doesn't cooperate.
It’s important to note that cool downs are just as crucial as warm ups for your horse. In the cool down phase (which should be about 10-15 minutes), focus on slowing his/her heart rate and breathing with easy, light stretches. If your horse is sweaty after your winter exercise, you’ll want to consider hand walking while using a fleece blanket to help fend off the chill.
Sometimes, Mother Nature just isn’t on our side. So, if the weather outside is not ideal for riding on any of the grounds near you, still make the effort to go out to the barn and visit your horse. Even if you can't ride because of a frozen ring or wind chills in the teens, you can still bundle up and go spend some time grooming or walking your horse around the barn. This will keep him/her in good spirits and prevent development of vices such as pawing, weaving, or wood chewing that can start as a result of boredom in the winter months.