There’s much debate about how cold is really “too cold” when it comes to winter riding.
When focusing on the horses’ health and well-being, common sense and knowing your horse are key factors.
Make your decision based on consideration of the horse’s current physical condition, coat length and, of course, your personal tolerance for winter’s often below-freezing temperatures.
If your horse is body clipped and blanketed, you’ll want to be careful not to put his blanket on if he’s still sweaty after a workout. Make sure you put a cooler on him and dry his coat before replacing his blanket and putting him back into his stall or paddock. If you don’t have time to make sure he’s dry, don’t work him to the point of sweating out.
All horses need some exercise and the opportunity to stretch and roll even when the thermometer drops below zero. This does not have to mean workouts that will produce heavy breathing and a damp coat.
If the air is so cold that it burns your lungs, it will do the same thing to your horse. When the air quality makes it difficult for you to breathe, your horse will suffer as well. Plan your rides with consideration of these factors.
When should you blanket your horse? Again, that depends entirely on the individual horse. If he’s body clipped you’ll probably want to add a blanket when the temperatures drop into the 30’s. If he has a full winter coat, you may not need to blanket at all. Older horses who don’t develop a thick and protective coat may be more comfortable with a blanket. If wearing a blanket stresses your horse and causes her to sweat nervously, this extra layer may prove counter-productive.
What can you do to keep your horse comfortable in the coldest parts of winter? Making sure they have shelter and, if possible, a wind break will offer a barrier from the weather. Mixing in some hot water with your usual water source can prevent water from being too icy to drink. If the water trough is close to an outlet, adding a safe de-icer can keep the water at a more palatable temperature.
Feed more! During very cold temperatures, the best possible solution is allowing free-choice grazing. If this is not a practical option in your boarding situation, do what you can to provide additional forage. The grazing process allows the horse to better regulate her body temperature and the consistent nutritional supply can also help fend off HYPP attacks for horses that may be impacted by altering barometric pressure.
Your personal tolerance for extreme cold is a very real element in the ‘when to ride’ equation. If you are tense and uncomfortable your horse will be tense as well. If you deem it’s too cold for you to relax and enjoy the ride, it’s best to skip the experience and wait until a warmer day. You won’t forget how to ride and your horse won’t forget his lessons should you decide to spend a few days or even a week out of the saddle.
You can still spend time with the horses and allow them to exercise within reason by employing a short session of ground work, turn out, or even a leisurely stroll on the lead line.
Ultimately, deciding when it’s too cold to ride is entirely up to you. You know yourself and your horses better than anyone.