Safety Tips For Riding Horses in the Winter

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Whether you like it or not, the first snowfall is right around the corner. For many of us who live in colder climates, winter is a time when horseback riding can be put on the back burner. A combination of safety concerns for both horse and rider are primary reasons why many of us hang up the saddle until the spring thaw.

For those of you who brave the cold weather and are determined to enjoy the outdoors with your horse, there are a number things you should keep in mind. I'll cover the topics that pertain to keeping your horse safe.

  • Winter coats. I'm not talking about wearing a downed stuffed parka here! Chances are your horse has built up a substantial coat to make it through the winter. If you ride regularly, you should consider trimming (body-clip) the coat down. You should do this only if you keep your horse active in a training regiment or regular workouts. Working a "fury" horse hard can cause the horse to overheat.
  • Hoof care. Horses that get turned out regularly may get ice and snow accumulated in their hooves. This will cause them to lose any natural traction that their hooves provide. Consider snow pad or winter shoes.
  • Examine your riding gear. Cold weather is hard on just about everything it touches. Tack included. Saddles, bridles, girths, bits, and pretty much anything made out of metal and leather is susceptible to the elements. The variation in temperatures causes these materials to expand and contract - which can compromise their structural integrity.
  • Know your horse's condition. Chances are, you are not riding as much in the winter as you do in the warmer months. This means that the conditioning of your horse has likely suffered a bit. Be cognizant of that, and adjust your ride so you don't overwork your horse.
  • Temper your horse's excitement. For many horses, getting a chance to ride in the snow is exciting. It is noticeable! Riding an over anxious or excited horse in slippery terrain has the potential for trouble. It's a good idea to take your horse out in round pen or on a lead prior to getting in the saddle. Let him get acclimated.
  • Ride with a partner. Due to the increased risks that come with winter riding, it's a smart move to ride with a friend. You margin for error is reduced, so it just makes good sense!
  • Ride familiar terrain. The optimal choice would be a groomed riding trail. Of course, many of us do not have that luxury. At a minimum, you should stick to terrain that you are familiar with. This will help you avoid potential hazards that are covered by snowfall (downed trees, ditches, downed fencing, etc). Stay away from frozen ponds, lakes, and rivers - especially those areas where the snow texture and color is different from the surrounding area (possible indicator of weak ice or open water).
  • Be aware of how your horse is responding. You need to keep an eye on your horse and make sure he is not getting over-worked. As we stated earlier, the conditioning of your horse will likely be at a low point during the winter. When you combine that with the cold air, deep snow, and the increased effort it takes to maintain balance - it can add up. Keep your rides manageable.
  • Proper cool-downs. After your ride, if your horse is drawing air heavily, and you can see it's chest expand deeply with each breath - you should defiantly spend a little time cooling him down. Cover your horse in a fleece or wool cooler to prevent him from getting the chills while the sweat evaporates. Never turn your horse loose in a cool barn if there is noticeable sweat without cooling him down first.