There are three main groups of equestrians in the winter. The first is the “Fair Weather Riders”, who, when the mercury drops below freezing, spend the winter giving their horse time off until the temperatures float back up to a more comfortable number. At the opposite end of the spectrum are the “Winter Warriors” – the riders who throw on another layer, grab their snood and insulated breeches and ride no matter what the weather looks like; they collect those bitter cold rides like badges of honor.
And then there are the riders in-between.
As a Midwesterner, I’m pretty acclimated to cold and snowy winters. I’ve never had the luxury of trading my lake-effect snow for a palm-tree lined arena, so I’m used to slapping on some toe warmers, wrapping a scarf around my face and making the best of the weather. It starts snowing as early as October and as late as March or April some years around here, so if I adopted the “Fair Weather Rider” mindset, I’d never get anything done.
My mare is body clipped (minus where her blankets do not cover), has a custom-sewn quarter sheet, plenty of blanket layers depending on the weather, and I’ve got a full winter wardrobe and a massive box of hand and foot warmers and wooly winter socks.
Like many, I like to use winter as a time to build up mine and my horse’s fitness. We’ve already completed a successful No-Stirrup November, and are looking forward to lots of pole and gridwork. We bundle up with the best of them and get work done.
There comes a point where cold is too cold.
There has been a post circulating on social media, discussing what temperature is too cold to work a horse in. There are relatively little scientific studies on this subject, and the conclusion of the post was pretty ambiguous even with the studies. If you talk to 10 different people, you’d probably get 10 different philosophies on the topic.
Is the horse clipped? Are they acclimated to that cold of weather? Do they live outside 24/7? Are they in shape? What type of work are you doing? Are you riding inside or out? What’s the footing like? Does the horse have underlying health concerns? How old is the horse? There are probably a million factors that in vivo might alter the results of a perfectly controlled scientific study (Note to self: do an in vivo study on the effects of cold weather on equine physiology in varying environments and conditions).
My personal philosophy is, if it’s under 10 degrees air temperature, no riding.
And that’s not because I’m cold (which I mean, yes I am, but not enough that I wouldn’t suck it up to ride); I work at the barn just about every day, so I’m not just skipping the frigid temps altogether and staying wrapped in a blanket all day. I’m still out at the barn in my Carhartt’s and 12 layers of fleece and thermal shirts, I’m just not getting on my horse.
Just like when you go running in extremely cold weather, there is scientific evidence that cold air causes a similar inflammatory phenomenon in our equines. Horses have long respiratory tracts in part, to warm the air they breathe. The more exertion (think trotting, cantering, jumping, etc.), the faster they breathe, the less time the air has to warm up.
Between 10 and 20 degrees air temperature, when I ride, it is still conscientiously. There’s lots of walking, lateral work, etc., some trotting and very little cantering. I still avoid very strenuous work because let’s be honest – that’s still pretty cold. There are tons of creative exercises that can be done exclusively at the walk or walk and trot, and walk work is a great low-intensity way to work on relaxation, fitness, increasing bone density and tendon strength.
Whenever it’s cold, I also make sure to do my due diligence with a lengthy warm-up and cool-down period.
Sure, my horse is happy to go outside in her snowy field when it’s single digits (and feels even colder), but she’s also not running around. She’s got her nose in her hay pile and then is standing with her buddies, meandering about until it’s time to come inside – she’s not romping and cavorting around.
When it’s too cold to ride, there’s still plenty to do. A deep grooming, stretches, ground work, showmanship or in-hand work, mental exercises like trick training…all are good ways to keep a busy horse entertained when saddle time isn’t an option. My mare loves to have a job, and I am anal retentive about her work schedule, so I hate to give her unplanned days off, but I’m also not willing to sacrifice her health just so we can get a training ride in.
Am I coddling her? Maybe. I’m sure there’s ranch horses out in Minnesota or the Dakotas who are out moving cows in -40 degree blizzards who do just fine. But when we hit a cold snap, neither myself or my horse are adjust to those lower-than-normal temps, and to ask her to work in that weather just doesn’t seem fair.
If her job required her to work in the elements, or she lived outside 24/7, or we were preparing for a show or clinic, or had a heated barn/arena…all of these factors would lead me to rethink my cutoff temperature.
We don’t often dip into the single digits for extended periods of time, so when we do – no matter how motivated I am to bear the brunt of the cold and ride – my mare gets that time off.
Like I said, there’s a million different philosophies out there for winter riding, and until we have more scientific evidence, who’s to say what the best method is? Whatever works for you and your horse and keeps you both safe and healthy is what you should do.
But no-go under 10 degrees is the schedule that works for us. If you’re a “Fair Weather Rider”, more power to ya. If you are a “Winter Warrior”, godspeed and try to stay warm out there. If you’re somewhere in between – like me – may your toe warmers stay toasty.