Some tips to keep in mind when riding in winter
Riding in winter brings up two issues – preparing the horse adequately for the ride, and cooling the hot horse down safely in the cold after the ride. Be aware that there is no temperature bar to riding a horse, provided your horse has adapted to the temperature (which requires regular outings) and it's not too cold for you.
Think safety for your winter horse ride
Fierce cold winds are not ideal for riding, nor are severe thunderstorms or blizzards, so use your common sense when judging the riding conditions.
It is extremely important to take good care of your horse's hooves in the winter, because the mud can cause serious thrush, and well-trimmed hooves have a better grip on icy surfaces than neglected hooves do! If you live in snow areas:
Add de-icing agents such as salt or sawdust to slippery zones around the stable and tacking areas, gateways and doorways, For competitive riders: Aim for four to six hours weekly of riding during winter.
Warm the bit before you tack up. Run hot water over it, or use a non-toxic hand warmer gel. If you don't have access to either, remove the bit from the bridle and put it in your pocket close to your skin as you prepare everything else. You can also breathe on the bit to warm it.
Another alternative is to use a sweet iron bit; this isn't as harsh and is generally more acceptable to the horse.
Clean out your horse's hooves well. Add a layer of non-stick cooking spray or petroleum jelly to your horse's hooves; this will prevent balls of ice and snow from forming in the hooves.
Groom your horse. This is not only good for warming the horse's muscles, but serves as an excellent warm-up workout for you too.
Consider using an exercise sheet to prevent the horse’s muscles from becoming cold while riding. This is especially important for a clipped or thin-skinned horse, or a horse that has been restricted to a stable. Use it while tacking up as well as riding.
Watch out for these common winter riding horse hazards
Terrain Caution: Deep snow, especially where it conceals holes, tree wells, and crevices where your horse could slip down. Ice. Any ice is potentially dangerous as your horse has no grip or traction.
While a little mud is fine, a lot of mud can cause the horse to become bogged, or to trip. Mud can also conceal objects that might harm your horse. Large areas of mud are best avoided.
Wet slopes. Take care riding a horse down a wet slope, as it is easy to lose grip, especially when going fast, and moving over wet stony or rocky areas. Never canter or gallop your horse in snowy, muddy, icy, or slick terrain.
Cool down is even more important for the horse after a winter ride
Upon completion of riding: Take care cooling him down-If his ears are hot, walk him around a bit. Feel his ears again. They should be cool, not cold nor hot. Cold ears mean a cold horse.
Brush off snow. Any snow that has attached to your horse (especially his legs) should be brushed off. Try to do this outside to prevent taking it indoors where it can melt and become slippery.
Dry your horse. A wet horse should be dried after riding in winter; there can be snow, rain, and sweat combining to make for a very wet horse. Take a towel in each hand and rub the towels over his coat in circular motions. Roughing the hair up will help dry it faster. If your horse is used to a blow dryer, you might consider using this as well.
Clean the hooves out and apply another layer of non-stick cooking spray or petroleum jelly to the hooves.
Brush or curry your horse once he is dry. This will separate the hairs and help to keep him warm, as body heat warms the air between the coat and skin.
If adding a blanket, make sure it is a breathable blanket that allows water vapor to pass through.
Plan well ahead. Winter means longer driving times, longer preparation times, and shorter days. Be aware of the time constraints affecting your ability to ride your horse and care for him.
Common sense is the best guide to keeping horses healthy and happy during the winter. If you cannot ride use the time to work on ground handling and just plain time spent with your horse keeps the bonds intact for spring.