I recently have been asked by several students two winter related questions. One – When is it too cold to ride? And two – Is it safe to ride in the snow? So I thought, might be a good blog post!
Please note my huge disclaimer here… this post is just advice based on what I’ve learned over the years from the various farm managers, barn owners and veterinarians I’ve worked with as well as personal experiences from running my own barn. These notes are also based on the weather here in central Maryland and I’m sure many of our northern and western friends think our winters are mild!
Question one – When is it too cold to ride?
Of course… there is no set in stone answer to this question and a lot has to do with the “feels like” temperature, wind conditions, amount of sunlight and if you have an indoor to ride in or not.
The advice I recently got from our vet is to use 20 degrees F as the cut off point. The reasoning he explained is that at that temperature and below, the horse is less likely to process oxygen efficiently. Say what? This is where all those pre-med classes I took in college come in handy and I find these things fascinating but many of you might just skip through all this.
Mammals need oxygen to function. The short version is that the horse breaths in oxygen and then this oxygen is absorbed by the blood stream, pumped through the body by the heart and then used by everything in the body to function. So, when its super cold, the horse physically can’t breath as well and thus they are not taking in as much oxygen to then pump around the body. Yes, I know there is a lot more to it than that but lets go with this simple version for now.
So how do we see this happening in the horse? The horse will be “out of breath” much more quickly than normal. In extreme cases, they could show signs of stiffness and even tie up as the muscles don’t get enough oxygen to function properly. They may also start to sweat much more quickly, even in the cold weather.
Now clearly, horses live outside in weather even colder than here in Maryland. But… if you watch them in the fields or study wild horses, in these low temps, you will see them huddled together more and finding shelter from the elements. They don’t tend to run around and if they do, it tends to be for short, quick periods.
Thus… when it comes to riding, if you do want to ride when the temps are below 20, ride indoors and keep things to a walk. In addition, you really just need to know your horse. Know what their at rest TPRs are and their typical work load TPRs and know when to recognize that they are working hard and need a rest.
But really, the best advice I can give is when the temps reach the teens is to just let them be! They are much happier and much warmer standing together eating hay.
Question two – Is it safe to ride in the snow?
Now this one is way more complicated as a lot plays into the answer. You really need to consider the following before heading out to play in the snow with your horse: How deep the snow is. What type of snow. What the footing under the snow is like. What your horse’s current workload, soundness and fitness is. What your horse’s skill level/experience is. What type of hardware they have on their hooves. And I’m sure I’m forgetting something more.
How deep the snow is plays a huge part in how easy it is for the horse to move around. Remember the blizzard a few years ago? Horses in the fields were struggling just to get to water and shelter and farm owners were plowing paths for them to get around in. Now the snow that is outside my window as I type is only about 5’’ and the horses are out in their pastures walking around just fine.
What type of snow really comes down to the difference between fluffy “powder” and wet “sticky” snow. The fluffy stuff is easy to move around in, the sticky stuff… not so much. The first big snow of the year we had here in central Maryland was nice fluffy power. It was deep here at the farm but soft. For the first two days after it stopped snowing, we were able to do flat work in our ring with no problems. Once however the snow started to melt and then compress and then melt and compress… that’s when we moved back to walking the paved driveway. The sticky compressed snow, well, it simply can break legs. I know lots of farm owners that if they have the option, won’t even turn horses out in that type of snow let alone try and ride them.
The footing under the snow is crazy important. As I said, we all rode in my ring after the first snow. My ring is a turf ring that drains very well. I knew that the footing under the snow had good traction and was ice-free. The more experienced horses we even cantered in the snow… on flat ground… in a ring… with good footing under it. We did not head out onto the trails because here at my farm, to get to any of the trails you have to go down hill or cross a small bridge over a stream that had been overflowing and iced over. Even without the snow, we’ve stayed clear of that trail entrance due to the ice. Imagine if you didn’t know what the footing was like under the snow and tried to canter across a patch of ice!
The horse’s current workload, soundness, fitness and experience are the most important things to me to take into consideration. Any horse of mine with a recent injury is not going out in it. Just not worth risking further damage. The more experienced horses (aka the seasoned foxhunter and upper level event horse) were super balanced and happy to walk/trot/canter in our snow-covered ring. The baby OTTB…. she only walked with a little trot to help her learn to build her balance. The oldie but goodie (we all know I’m talking about Jack here!)… he only walked the cleared driveway. Why? Because at 21 years old, he doesn’t need to be working hard in the snow no matter how much fun we humans might think it is. It didn’t matter which horse though, these snow workouts were short and no longer than 15 minutes. Even the super fit event horse was blowing after a few minutes of trotting.
Now we’ve all see the photos of foxhunters cantering through snow-covered fields and even snow polo matches, and those crazy skiers using the horses to pull them, where clearly the horses are galloping around. So why don’t those horses fall over or slip? Because those horses have special shoes designed to help them keep traction in snowy conditions. The foxhunter at my barn has stud holes drilled and I have a set of borium tipped studs that get put on for hunting days. But those studs will only help with traction, they aren’t going to prevent the balls of snow that build up under the shoe. Most of my die-hard foxhunting friends have snow pads added to their horses’ shoes for the winter. These pads are designed so that snow cannot build up under the shoe. You’ll have to ask your farrier to explain. The barefoot horses do seem to have better traction in the snow but even they can slip in slushy conditions.
So there you have it. Sorry if it sounds like I’m preaching! Just figured this was a good place to answer those questions. Have fun everyone and stay safe while doing it!