There has been an ongoing debate for many years as to whether it is okay to ride horses below a certain temperature. There are many factors to consider when deciding to ride or not, and it is important to understand that it is a case by case basis.
First, you must look at your horse’s breed. The modern horse evolved on the steppes of Central Asia, where the temperatures can drop to forty below zero. This being said, in breeding horses, we have bred much of the hardiness out. The Thoroughbred for example, would simply not survive in the wild if it was forty below.
The horse must also be adapted to the climate it is living in. If you bring a horse from Arizona to Minnesota in the winter, you cannot expect to ride much, at least in the first winter season. Any animal needs time to adjust and adapt to its surroundings, and horses are no different.
When riding during the winter, the general rule is that you should not do a strenuous ride (includes cantering, galloping, and jumping) if it is less than fifteen degrees (without wind-chill). The reason for this is that the cold air is too hard on a horse’s lungs. As the horse breathes, he takes the cold, dry air into the upper respiratory tract, where it is warmed and humidified. The air then flows down into the lower respiratory tract. Any strenuous exercise will cause the horse to breathe more deeply, and the body cannot warm and humidify the incoming air quickly enough. The trachea and lungs become dry, and the horse can experience lung burns. Although very rare, chronic lung disease can result from lung burns. If your horse has a history of lung disease, it is even more important to avoid riding in cold weather.
Should you choose to ride below fifteen degrees, make sure the ride is light, and that it won’t cause the horse to sweat excessively. It is extremely important that you do a ten to fifteen-minute walk warm-up to allow the joints to stretch and the muscles to warm up properly, or you may end up with an injury. Walking and trotting should be fine at this temperature, but you still need to give the horse plenty of breaks to avoid lung burns and prevent sweating.
Horses tend to become dehydrated in the winter. The air is so dry that it pulls the moisture from the horse’s lungs and respiratory tract. The most important electrolyte in the horse’s body for maintaining hydration is sodium. When the level of sodium in the blood decreases, the body will pull fluid from surrounding tissues to compensate and dehydration begins when the salt and water are pulled from tissues into the blood. Since the sodium level in the blood stays the same, the body doesn’t realize it is becoming dehydrated. Signs of dehydration in winter are not blatantly
obvious, so you must be careful when riding knowing that the horse is losing water to the surrounding air, and if the horse sweats, he will lose even more water. Knowing that hydration is important, the kidneys of the horse must be kept warm enough to function well even when riding. A quarter sheet can be very useful to mitigate the harmful effects of the cold on the kidneys.
At the end of your ride, the horse should be cooled out for at least fifteen minutes, preferably by hand-walking the horse in a cooler. Even if your horse is not visibly sweating, a cooler will wick away any excess moisture. Once the horse’s coat is dry, make sure to fluff up the hair with a soft brush, as this will help the horse retain more heat on the outside of his body, which will in turn help keep the inside warm.
All horses are different, and it is up to the rider to decide how much work the horse can handle in cold weather. If you choose to ride, keep in mind the effects it can have and watch out for any warning signs of illness or injury that could result. If you choose not to ride, don’t feel bad! In most cases, it is best (for the horse and rider) not to work in extreme cold. Your horse works hard for you most days of the year, and it is good for him to have some time off.
To the readers: how do you feel about winter riding? Are there other things you like to do to exercise your horse?
Stay tuned for next week’s post about blanketing!