Yes, the weather is bad, the big shows are over, and spring looks a long way off. But is an extended break from riding good for you and your horse? Not if you're serious about the sport! Successful trainers and riders maintain winter riding programs to preserve physical condition and prepare for the coming season, which, in reality, is only weeks away and approaching fast.
Even if you aren't a professional, maintaining a regular riding schedule, even a modified one, is important for the physical and mental health of you and your horse. Winter riding is more difficult, especially in the northern states, but four to six hours in the saddle per week during the winter months will help you stave off the winter blues and give you a leg up on the competition once the shows start again. This is also important for establishing a work ethic in young horses and children's ponies, who are especially vulnerable to training roadblocks following long lay-offs. Following are a few things to keep in mind to help you stay in the saddle during the long stretch of winter.
• Plan your riding time wisely. Cold weather means longer driving time to and from the stable. Once there, your horse will need longer warm-up cooling-out periods. You may also have to compete with others for indoor arena time. Knowing when the peak times are and strategically working around them can enhance your convenience and success.
• Warm-ups: Cold muscles are especially susceptible to injury. This is true for horse and rider. Stretching exercises and longer warm-ups are important for maintaining physical condition in cold temperatures, even longer if the horses aren't getting turned out due to weather conditions. Older horses may require more special treatment recommended by your veterinarian. Sometimes the solution can be simple, such as quarter sheets, which are useful for letting a horse's major muscle groups warm before strenuous exercise and preserve heat during chilly breaks.
• Longeing should be done carefully and kept under control. Letting a horse get his bucks out on a small longing circle in cold weather can result in a serious injury and a long recovery.
• Groom your horse thoroughly. This helps cold muscles "wake up," and prepare for the work ahead. Be sure to check hooves for packed snow and ice.
• Clipping speeds cooling-out time but robs the horse of natural thermal protection. A trace clip (throat, shoulders, belly, and flanks) helps keep a horse cool during workouts while preserving most of its coat. Clipping, no matter what the style, makes winter blanketing a necessity.
• Warm the bit and saddle before tacking up. Heating pads and hot water bottles are inexpensive and effective tools for warming frigid tack. Your horse may not tell you, but he will appreciate this simple consideration of his comfort.
• Tangling hazards. As always, keep riding areas clear of ropes, halters, tractors, wheel barrows, open doors and gates can cause injuries in indoor riding areas.
• Avoid riding in dusty arenas! Keep dust down with regular watering or safe chemical treatments to prevent breathing difficulties associated with arena dust. Ride out of doors when weather permits.
• Avoid strenuous work below 20 degrees F. Consult your veterinarian about special considerations for your particular horse.
• Water. Make sure your horse is receiving adequate drinking water, that buckets are clean, and not frozen over. Regardless of the season, a dehydrated horse can't perform, will eventually become ill, and may die.
• Trailering. If you trailer to your rides, make sure your equipment is in safe working order. Check all fluid levels and the condition of tires before setting out on any winter adventure. Make sure trailered horses aren't exposed to drafts. Wind chill affects animals just as much as people.
• Respect others. Indoor riding means working around others, which can mean some delays. Patience is a valuable asset in the winter months.
• Don't overload electrical circuits! Shorter winter days means lights, coffee pots, and heaters will stay on more than other times of the year, raising the risk of stable fires. Turn unnecessary lights and appliances off when you leave the stable.
• Set goals! Regular lessons, clinics, and schooling shows can keep you focused on riding and staying in the game. When you stay busy and involved, winter vanishes quickly and you and the new competition season will be better prepared.