Your Horse and Winter Workouts
Your Horse & Winter Workouts
In light of the recent snow storm, we figure this topic is pretty suitable...how the cold weather impacts your horses fitness and what's the best way to keep your horses fitness from falling apart in the cold winter months. We know and understand that not all riders have the luxury of a heated indoor arena in the winter or a warm trip south with our equine buddies every winter season and with the more arctic like weather like we've had here, in Alberta anyway, I got wondering how does the cold really affect our horses for those of us who chose to embrace the elements of the winter months and what can we do to keep our horses as fit as possible. So I did a little looking into the topic and I discovered some interesting information I thought I should share with all of you brave outdoor winter riders...
No. 1 - The Right Warm Up
It is essential in the cold weather to incorporate a good stretch and warm up. Warming up and stretching cold muscles before a workout isn’t just a tip for the two legged. This is essential for your horse(s) too! Ideas: Before you hop on, start with a light walk and trot lunge, 5 min each way to get the blood moving and muscles warm and adding in a simple stretch on each leg before you get in the saddle and continue your ride OR really take your time with a long and low 15-20min lose contact working walk and trot to be sure your horse is warm before you get into any heavy work. Cold muscles and hard work don't mesh well and can definitely inspire injury and soreness. Fun Tip: A deep snow warm up/ride is always fun, you're sure to get the legs moving and muscles warm in no time!
No. 2 - Quarter Sheet or No Quarter Sheet?
A horse who braves the natural elements and is well coated is likely not required to have any extra warmth before or during a workout. An unclipped horse is bound to be warm under all the wool insulation they have made for themselves, so a blanket for after might be generous of you to keep the elements from inviting the cold breeze through after they've put on a sweat. But hey, overall, I think your horse will only thank you if you chose to use a fancy quarter sheet anyway, they do look incredibly fad!
No. 3 - How Cold is Too Cold?
Among a ton of research, it seems that there is some debate on cold weather temperatures and exercising horses. It appears that the general consensus is slow, productive warm ups and cool downs are the answer, and naturally, if your fingers, toes and face can handle the elements it’s reasonable to assume your horse is going to be just fine. But there is some information that I found very interesting involving rapid breathing of cold air and its effects on the upper respiratory tract of your horse. Instead of trying to re-explain, I am going to credit this source and paste the information below for your reading enjoyment because I think it’s is brilliantly explained here:
"Turns out that breathing cold air more rapidly and deeply may represent a significant environmental stress to the airways! (keep in mind though, that the experimental protocols often included cantering on a treadmill for 15 minutes or more, something cold-weather riders may not be doing). The mechanism is that at rest, when the body takes in cold, dry air, the upper respiratory tract warms it to body temperature as well as humidifies it before sending it down to the lower respiratory tract. When excessive exercise speeds up and deepens the breaths, the body doesn’t have time to perform this function and the surfaces of the trachea, bronchi, and lungs become cooled and dried.
In addition, exposure of lower airways to cold air alters immunologic responses of horses for at least 48 hours, causing an "upregulation” of inflammatory cytokines and an influx of neutrophils, a type of white blood cells. Researchers also believe that excess heat and water loss from lower airways may stimulate bronchoconstriction immediately after exercise and airway obstruction a few hours after exercise.
With all this knowledge, now riding in cold weather doesn’t seem as attractive. However, keeping your horse moving during winter in the North still has many benefits as long as it’s not "excessive.” Here then is my common-sense advice for winter riding, which I think has value for the cardiopulmonary system, the musculoskeletal system, the digestive system and certainly the central nervous system (your horse’s brain!): gently and gradually warm up, take your time cooling down (including drying off if necessary), be aware of the footing if you’re riding outside so that your horse doesn’t slip and respect your horse’s current fitness level."
CONCLUSION: Winter riding is safe for you and your horse, riding in the snow and doing snow hill work can be fun and the suggestions to keeping this effective are pretty simple: Slow easy warm ups, slow and easy cool downs and most importantly respecting your horses fitness level.
I commend all of you who brave the elements! Here’s to spring time and green grass right around the corner!