Winter doesn’t have to be—and shouldn’t be—a time of hibernation for your horse.
Come May, Trisha Dowling, DVM, Dipl. ACVIM, ACVCP, of Saskatchewan, Canada, is ready to take on the challenges of competitive endurance—and, equally important, so are her horses. The same can be said of Carey Williams, PhD, of New Jersey. Her sport is eventing, in which she competes spring through fall. Andy Kaneps of Massachusetts used to raise and compete hunters and jumpers; today he prefers riding noncompetitive dressage year-round.
All three riders and horse experts have a few things in common: they recognize the importance of working their horses throughout the winter. Winter workouts are valuable for maintaining fitness, preserving training, and promoting mental well-being. Winter exercise also provides an opportunity to fix problems in a horse’s training and prepare both horse and rider for the upcoming competition or riding season.
In addition to their exceptional credentials as experienced riders and trainers, all three have equine scientific backgrounds, lending their knowledge of the horse’s physiology to their fitness plans.
Here’s how to get with the program.
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.
As with summer work, you should gear post-warm-up maintenance exercises toward keeping your horse in some sort of condition and, optionally, refining his skills. “In the winter I try to ride at least three days a week, with at least one serious lesson (flat or jumping) or more serious discipline schooling,” says Williams. “The other days I mix with hacking, lighter flat work, gymnastics (grids of jumps that improve technique), etc.”
“For cardiovascular fitness, regardless of the discipline, the horse needs 15 to 25 minutes of active exercise, five days a week, to maintain baseline fitness,” says Kaneps, DVM, Dipl. ACVS, co-editor of Equine Sports Medicine and Surgery (a book of exercise physiology and problems of equine athletes) and a practitioner at the New England Equine Medical and Surgical Center in Dover, N.H. “Although the basics of cardiovascular fitness are no different from one discipline to another, discipline-specific exercises are very important. A dressage horse, for example, will need to do a lot more lateral work, leg yields, etc., than a trail horse.”
Similarly, a jumper or eventer should jump at least a few times a month, says Williams. “Taking an indoor jump lesson or working on gymnastic jumping at home really helps keep a horse’s mind in the game,” she says.
Although Dowling primarily works her horse outside, she, too, occasionally works a horse inside in order to address specific problems. “My FEI mare had a real fast canter, and I couldn’t sit it,” she says, “so I worked her over winter in an indoor arena to teach her a slow, collected canter that we can do for miles and miles. She is an Arabian/Standardbred, so straight is her natural way of going; therefore, we do a lot of bends, circles, and serpentines.”
Otherwise, Dowling does trot and canter work through fields and hill work for about five to eight miles, three to four times a week.
The veterinarians recommend hill work. “Walking hills really gets horses to use their hind legs, which are the muscles that seem to lose condition first,” says Williams. “Walking hills also allows horses to work both sides evenly without causing the amount of sweating as when cantering hills.” Consider, too, competing in a couple of small, low-key indoor schooling shows. “These are good for keeping your horse used to traveling and showing and for working out the kinks.”
Conditioning for Show
For some, cold weather workouts include prepping for the winter show circuit. “Winter showing is not really any different than showing the rest of the year,” says Kaneps. “You base your exercises on how much fitness is needed for your showing.”
Kaneps does caution, however, that snow rim pads, caulks, or other winter hoof wear for turned-out horses could get in the way of show training, depending on the discipline. Either exercise with caution or pull the winter hoof wear and work inside. “Pulling winter shoes will then prohibit safe outdoor turnout in places like New England or Minnesota,” he says. “A safer alternative is to use bell boots and/or protective lower limb wraps if self-injury with winter shoes is a concern.”
As for horses that winter-train barefoot, but are shod at the onset of the show season, it’s usually a seamless transition, says Dowling. “Ideally, it’s best to shoe your horses three to seven days prior to competition to make sure they have time to adjust to the shoes.”
Other veterinarians suggest applying shoes two to three weeks prior to the show, because some horses that have been barefoot for months will be sore when shoes are reapplied. Giving a horse enough time to train wearing shoes before the show will allow the owner and veterinarian time to address any soreness concerns before having to scratch an entry.
Don’t forget to ease up now and then and indulge in some hacking. The change of scenery and breaks from overt training are healthy for both you and your horse. “Hacks break up the monotony of ring work, keep your horse’s mind fresh, and help with conditioning,” says Williams. “Intervals of trot work while hacking help cardiovascular function. Start with 10-minute intervals two or three times and work up to 20 minutes or so.”
Caution: Don’t gallop on frozen surfaces, which are hard on your horse’s feet and legs, nor ride on unfamiliar, snow-covered ground that could hide holes or other hazards.
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,” says Kaneps. “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,” says Kaneps. 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),” says Kaneps. “If he’s flaring at the nostrils, is blowing hard, or his veins are popped out, his heart is still working pretty hard.”
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,” Kaneps warns. “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 cool down 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.
“I don’t recommend using a hair dryer on horses,” Kaneps adds, “because the hair dryer may burn the skin or damage the skin by drying the natural oils out of the skin.”
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.”
Consider how current weather conditions will affect your horse, adapting your workouts accordingly: If it’s sunny and the air is still, your horse will warm up faster, but he could work up a sweat faster and, thus, require a longer cooldown. Conversely, a cold, cloudy day might mean a longer warm-up, but allows for a longer or more intense workout with less sweat.
Remember: 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.