Winter riding is nothing short of exhilarating, but it can pose some challenges. Your horse is probably not moving around during turn-out as much as he did when temperatures were balmy, and periods of bad weather may require you to take breaks from riding. The end result is that your horse is probably losing some of his physical fitness.
When you do get out to ride this winter, be considerate of your horse's needs. Warm up slowly and stay alert for any signs of fatigue, such as heavy breathing, sweating, "stumping," or bad steps.
Dust and dead skin cells also tend to accumulate against the skin under dense winter coats. This dander is difficult to remove, but don't get discouraged. It's important to spend time deep-grooming to remove any build-up so you don't risk having that dander irritate the skin under your horse's tack.
Clipping your horse's belly, or doing a trace clip of the belly and halfway up the chest wall, will make these areas easier to keep clean. But if you clip, you'll also need to blanket your horse so he's 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.
- Adjust your riding demands to match your horse's changing fitness level.
- Watch for signs of fatigue, such as sweating, heavy breathing or irregular strides.
- Use liniment, hand-stretching, leg wraps, and a slow, easy warm-up to loosen up a stiff or arthritic horse.
- Apply hoof boots, or use pads beneath shoes, to reduce concussion and bruising when riding on hard, frozen ground.
- Consider borium or shoes with studs if you're concerned about slipping, though weigh the benefits against added stress to the horse's legs.
- If "snowballing" in feet is a problem, ask your farrier about fitting your horse with rim snow pads.
Cold weather quickly stiffens areas of arthritis or old injuries. 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 drying effects of the chemicals and cold. Wrapping legs overnight also helps keep the horse more flexible.
Frozen ground creates more concussion for the feet and joints. It's like working the horse on concrete. Frozen, uneven ground can easily bruise the bottom of the foot, and may even cut the frog. Consider protection in the form of hoof boots for barefoot horses, or pads under shoes. Many hoof boots can also be worn over shoes.
Ice is a particularly treacherous situation. 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.
Snow has its own special considerations. Riding in snow is fun for both horse and rider, but it's also much more work for the horse. Be alert to the horse tiring.
"Snowballing," the accumulation of ice and snow in the bottom of the foot, is a major problem. 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 and concave foot may be able to pop the snow out 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.
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 do not 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. Movement of the pad when the horse steps down and raises his foot forces out the snow. Another solution is boots over shoes. All the major horse boot brands provide excellent traction for both ice and snow, as well as protection for the foot. When you're done riding, just take them off.