During the cold winter months many equestrians in the region become fair weather riders, choosing to give their horses a break from regular riding; however, many devoted riders keep riding no matter what the weather throws at them…Which leads to the age-old question: How cold is too cold to ride?
Typically, we have mild winters with moderate temperatures that allow for riding throughout the entire season if one chooses to do so. Although, at the end of December we experienced single-digit temperatures, frigid wind chills, and icy precipitation that warranted exercising caution when it came to winter riding and horse care. Paying attention to key factors in both your horse and the elements will help you decide if it’s a good day for a ride.
Unfortunately, there isn’t one simple temperature cut-off for riding throughout the winter; several factors come into play. First, consider the terrain your horse will be ridden on. Slick, frozen ground or deep snow are deal breakers for a winter ride. Hard, icy terrain not only puts your horse at risk for losing its footing and, consequently, potential injuries, but places the rider at risk as well. Sprains, strains, and concussions are more common when riding on slick trails, as the risk for falls increases due to treacherous terrain. Snow may hide potential hazards on trails, such as holes or ruts. Also keep in mind that if temperatures are hovering around or below freezing, keeping outdoor riding at a walk is a good rule to follow. Your horse’s coat length is another factor to consider when riding in the cold, as it affects both evaporation and heat conductivity.
David Gitchell, local farrier and long-time horseman, goes by this general rule when it comes to riding in cold weather: “Listen to your horse.” If the horse is reluctant on frozen ground, David says the icy terrain is more than likely hurting its hooves. “Frozen ground can cause sole bruising which can lead to an abscess,” David states. He suggests shod horses’ shoes be picked; otherwise, ice balls will form in the shoes making it uncomfortable for the horse and potentially causing an abscess as well.
Another piece of advice for cold weather riding David offers is to warm up your bit. If you don’t have a heated tack room, try keeping your headstall indoors until you’re ready to tack up on a cold day. You can also place the bit in a warm bucket of water (make sure it’s not too hot), use commercial hand warmers over the bit, or simply warm the bit in your hands for a few minutes before you put the bridle on.
Quarter sheets can be purchased to drape over the hindquarters of your equine companion to ensure warmth while riding on a cold day, especially if your horse is clipped. Equally important is dressing in layers to keep yourself warm and comfortable as well. If trail riding alone when the temperatures dip, be sure to inform someone where you are going and when you should return. Consider ordering EquineTrac’s tracker and download their app. The tracker and app will record and track your ride. Should an emergency occur it will call your emergency contacts.
If you choose to keep your horse on a riding schedule this winter, enjoy those cooler temperatures. Most equestrians would gladly trade the horse flies and sweat that come with summer for a jacket and gloves in the winter. Just keep in mind to always evaluate your horse before you ride in the cold- is he or she reluctant or hesitant? Check the ground: is it too slick to ride? Is snow covering ruts, holes, or other potential hazards? If you have safely assessed the environment as well as your equine companion, enjoy that winter ride.