Starting Cold: Winter Horse Training Tips
As those of us in colder climates know, harsh winter weather can sometimes make riding unpleasant. While exercising and training your horse in cold weather, it is important to take extra care to ensure your horse is comfortable and adequately warmed to reduce the risk of injury.
Stretching is a simple and effective way to loosen up your horse prior to exercise and training. Although this is good practice year round, it is especially beneficial in cold temperatures. There are four primary stretches to consider implementing before putting your horse to work.
The first is called the “carrot stretch”. Use a carrot to stretch your horse’s neck both left and right. Then bring the carrot to his chest and down between his legs. Let your horse nibble a little of the carrot each time he does a full stretch.
There are two different simple back stretches. I recommend trying both, initially, to learn which stretch your horse responds to best. One type of back stretch is the “belly lift”. Use a firm object, such as the blunt handle of a hoof pick, and run it along the midline of the belly with slight upward pressure. The horse should respond by lifting his back. Repeat this two to three times. See below left picture.
The second type of back stretch is called the “butt tuck”. Again with a blunt object- this time one in each hand- apply slight pressure at the rump with your hands on either side of the back bone, and run down the back of the hindquarters. Be careful when performing either back stretch as sometimes the horse may kick out, especially one with a sore back. Talk to your horse, stand close, and apply increasing pressure slowly. See below right picture.
Next, stretch each of the front legs. Holding the front leg, stretch forward and down for about five seconds. Now, holding the leg level just behind the carpus (“knee”), rotate the leg in a small circle toward the other leg two to three times. Repeat both these stretches with the other front leg.
To stretch the back leg, pick up the leg and gently stretch back, then forward, then across the belly towards the other leg. Hold each stretch position for about five seconds before moving to the next position. Again, repeat with the opposite leg. It is imperative not to over-stretch the legs as this can cause strain on the muscles, ligaments, or tendons. A gentle pull until the leg naturally stops is all that is needed.
Another great way to beginning warming up your horse before you get on to ride is to use a Back On Track Mesh Sheet or Fleece Sheet. The Back On Track sheets are designed to reflect the horse’s body heat back onto him, heating up the muscles in the shoulders, back, and butt. They are great for horse’s with sore muscles, those in heavy training, and those with cold backs. A good alternative to a Back On Track sheet is to use a heating pad on the back for about 10 minutes prior to exercising.
Even after stretching and heating the back, it is critical to slowly and thoroughly warm up your horse. Allow time for the rest of your horse’s body to warm up in unison for superior performance and to prevent injury, especially to tendons and ligaments. It is best to start with a cooler on your horse at a forward, working walk for at least five minutes or more, depending on how cold it is and how stiff your horse might be. When starting at the trot, start at a long and low steady pace before asking for a collected or extended trot.
Giving your horse adequate time to warm up at his own pace will keep him happier and healthier. It may help an especially back sore horse to warm up with you off his back in a two-point position or standing straight up in the stirrups. On especially cold days or for horses that tend to be chilly, a fleece quarter sheet can help keep your horse warm, loose, and comfortable.
It is just as important to properly cool your horse off as it is to warm him up. You can never put a horse away that is hot or sweaty as this can lead to serious health problems. After exercising, it is good practice to again let your horse trot long and low to stretch out his back and neck. Once at the walk put the cooler back on and walk at a relaxed pace for 10-15 minutes. This will allow the heat the leave the muscles slowly. Using a horse walker or hot walker is the best way to cool off your horse safely and efficiently in all seasons.
After this cool down period, if your horse is still sweaty you can either hand walk him or put him in his stall to dry off with a fleece or wool cooler or dress sheet. Rubbing the sweaty areas with a towel will speed up the drying process. Also, placing an Irish Knit beneath a cooler puts a pocket of air between the horse and the cooler, which will help a sweaty coat dry more quickly. Once dry, you can proceed with your regular grooming routine and put blankets back on if your horse has them.
Regardless of weather or season, it is important to care for your horse’s legs by wrapping after especially hard training sessions. In the winter, I tend to stay away from poultice as it is already so cold. Instead, I spray liniment or a 50/50 mix of wintergreen rubbing alcohol and witch hazel (which works just as well as store bought liniment) on the legs prior to applying standing bandages. Spraying liniment or 50/50 on sore muscles will also make your horse more comfortable and ready for work the next day. For horses with sore feet, packing the feet at night will greatly help to eliminate the soreness.
Horses require an extreme amount of commitment and care in all seasons. Each season requires a little extra specialty care. Follow these tips and both you and your horse will be sure to have a warm, happy and healthy winter season