Embrace the cold

Winter doesn’t have to be–and shouldn’t be–a time of hibernation for your horse. Celebrate the colder temperatures: no biting flies, no debilitating heat, no scorching sun. Pull on your wool socks, don a pair of warm gloves, then go ride for pleasure, for conditioning, or for training. The important thing is to warm-up and cool-down your equine athlete correctly in order to avoid injury (and resulting vets bills!)

Winter Warm-ups

Warming up and stretching cold muscles prior to exercise is important for getting the circulation going and loosening up stiff muscles and joints. These actions are critical for the prevention of injury and the enhancement of performance throughout the year, but especially so with the onset of frosty temperatures.

Somewhere between 10 and 20 minutes of warm-up exercise generally is sufficient for most horses. “Horses that mostly stand in a stall all day or night usually require a longer warm-up to get them moving comfortably again,” notes Williams, who holds a PhD in equine nutrition and exercise physiology and serves as equine extension specialist at Rutgers University and associate director of outreach for the Equine Science Center. “Horses that are turned out and already moving around a little might not need as long of a warm-up before getting down to serious work.”

Although slow, easy stretching movements are the foundation of the warm-up, you can also incorporate a few training elements. For example, Williams, who works her horse outside year-round, begins her 10-15 minutes of warm-up with three to five minutes of stretching at the walk, followed by stretches and large circles at the trot for the next five minutes. Then Williams slowly collects her mare and asks for smaller circles, lateral movements, counter flexions, halts, walks, and trot transitions. Then she canters larger circles working to smaller 10-meter circles as she nears the end of warm-up, again performing counter flexion, changing speed within the canter, and doing lots of transitions between gaits–work that blurs the line between “warm-up” and “maintenance” exercise.

Canadian national endurance champion Dowling, a professor of veterinary clinical pharmacology at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine, likewise combines a little training into the warm-up: four to six miles of easy trotting or, when working in an arena, a half-dozen laps or so each direction at a loose extended trot.

Cooldowns

After a hard workout, your horse needs a proper cooldown prior to returning to the stall or turnout. Why? “Good circulation through the muscles and other soft tissues is important to clear the byproducts of exercise. If these waste products are not cleared, they can lead to muscle stiffness and soreness.” Secondly, wet skin needs to dry to avoid the horse tying-up or having chills.

“The best way to cool and dry a horse is with quiet walking under saddle or in hand,” In most cases, plan on spending at least 10-15 minutes post-exercise on the cooldown. A horse with a clipped coat dries faster than one with his natural winter coat, but he becomes chilled more quickly, so you might need to cover his hindquarters with a sweat-sheet or quarter-sheet to protect against chills, while still permitting moisture to wick away.

“The key is to give the horse time to stop blowing (breathing hard from exercise). If he’s flaring at the nostrils, is blowing hard, or his veins are popped out, his heart is still working pretty hard.”

Podcast: How Do I Keep a Sweaty Horse Warm in Winter After Riding?

The skin should be dry before you end the cooldown, although the coat can left be damp–unless you’re going to put your horse back in his regular blanket. “Wet horses should not be put back into their overnight or daytime blankets because the trapped moisture will give them quite a chill in cold weather. Blankets, even the breathable ones, don’t breathe as well as no blankets at all.”

For those still-damp horses you’ll need to continue walking them, place them in a heated area, or maintain the horse in a fleece cooldown blanket until he is quite dry, then switch over to the regular blanket. Kaneps notes that a breathable coolout blanket such as a Polarfleece-type sheet allows moisture to wick through without restriction and is “very appropriate in the winter. Such a cool-out blanket is very useful to slow the cooling of a clipped horse following a sweat-producing workout.

If lengthy cooldowns are inconvenient, shorten the intensity or length of sweat-inducing exercises.

Dowling’s horses live and work outside, unblanketed, 24/7. Having natural coats, they always work up a sweat during their runs. To cool them down, Dowling walks them under saddle the 10 minutes or so it takes to return to the farm. “This gets the heat out of the muscle and the sweat wicked away,” she says. “Although the coat remains wet at the hair tips, the skin is dry.”

At that point Dowling gives the horse a quick grooming with a curry comb to fluff up wet hairs, then she turns him out. “The first thing they’ll do is go roll in the snow, then shake off the snow,” she says. “This fluffs up the coats, creating an insulating layer of air. As long as they have a windbreak and plenty of heat-generating hay to eat, they do just fine.”

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