Winter riding is exhilarating, but it can pose some problems. Here, we outline six potential winter-riding challenges, then give you the expert fix for each one.
Challenge #1: Physical fitness. Your horse probably isn't getting as much exercise as he did when temperatures were balmy. The end result is that he's probably losing some of his physical fitness.
The fix: When you do ride, be considerate of your horse's needs. Warm up slowly. Stay alert for any signs of fatigue, such as heavy breathing, sweating, "stumping," or bad steps.
Challenge #2: Dander. Dust and dead skin cells tend to accumulate against your horse's skin under his dense winter coat.
The fix: Spend time deep-grooming your horse to remove any buildup so you don't risk dander irritation under tack. Clipping his belly, or doing a trace clip of the belly and halfway up the chest wall, will make these areas easier to keep clean. (If you clip, blanket your horse so he'll be insulated from the cold.)
Otherwise, use a curry and lots of elbow grease to deeply clean and loosen material close to the skin surface. A vacuum works best for removing dirt, hair, and debris, but vigorous brushing with a fairly stiff bristle brush will get the job done, too.
Challenge #3: Joint stiffness. Cold weather quickly stiffens areas of arthritis or old injuries.
The fix: A brisk rub with a warming liniment, plus stretching and flexing by hand, will help your horse loosen up more quickly. Wear heavy rubber house-cleaning gloves to protect your hands from the chemicals and the cold. Wrapping legs overnight also helps keep the joints more flexible.
Challenge #4: Frozen ground. Frozen ground creates concussion on your horse's feet and joints. It's like working him on concrete. And frozen, uneven ground can easily bruise the bottom of his foot, and may even cut the frog.
The fix: Consider protection in the form of hoof boots for barefoot horses, or pads under shoes. Many hoof boots can also be worn over shoes.
Challenge #5: Icy ground. Ice is a particularly treacherous situation, as your horse can slip and fall, risking serious injury.
The fix: A barefoot horse will have better grip on ice than a horse in shoes. But even the barefoot horse will be safer on ice with boots. Borium, or studs in shoes, provide much better traction, but at the price of more strain on the joints, ligaments, and tendons. Boots over shoes is another option.
Challenge #6: Snowballing. Riding in snow is fun,
but can result in snowballing — the accumulation of ice and snow in the bottom of the foot. Snow melts a bit on contact with the hoof, then refreezes quickly, creating a mound of snow and ice that is difficult to remove.
A barefoot horse with a well-maintained, nicely rounded, concave foot may be able to pop out the snow naturally. But a longer-toed, flatter-footed (or shod) horse cannot. Regular full, flat pads don't solve the problem, because snow will still build up between the pad bottom and the shoe walls.
The fix: Full pads with a large bubble in the middle, called "snow popper pads" used to be popular. They work by compressing when the foot hits the ground and popping out again when the leg is lifted, forcing the snow out of the bottom of the foot.
That part works well, but some horses find the pressure uncomfortable. Such pads also don't allow the bottom of the foot to "breathe," predisposing the hoof to softening of the sole, along with bacterial growth.
A better solution is a rim snow pad. These pads fit under the shoe and extend out over the sole for a short distance without covering the whole sole. Pad movement when the horse walks and trots forces out the snow.
Another solution is boots over shoes. When you're done riding, just take them off.
Eleanor M. Kellon, DVM, currently works as a writer, teacher, and internal medicine/nutrition consultant. Prior to this, Dr. Kellon has had more than 10 years experience in private practice. She also has extensive experience with performance horses. She's based in Pennsylvania, where she and her husband raise, train, and race Standardbreds. Her most recent book is Horse Journal Guide to Equine Supplements and Nutraceuticals (Globe Pequot Press).