Imagine a cold January day in the snow belt. It’s below freezing, there’s snow on the ground and a brisk wind is blowing. Even indoors, it’s a bit less than tropical, so you’re wearing long pants and a turtleneck and sweater. Then you decide to go for your daily jog. You change to a cotton tank top, gym shorts and running shoes, and run out the front door for an hour of light exercise.
Wait a minute! Of course this is not how you would dress to go from your warm house to the cold outdoors in winter. But this is almost exactly what many of us do to our horses each time we take off the warm blankets they wear in the warm barn, and lead them into winter temperatures wearing only saddle and bridle.
We all know that horses are much more likely to spook in cold weather, not because winter is scary, but simply because the horse’s body is cold. Cold muscles tense up and shiver, and the more tense your horse is, for any reason, the more insecure he feels and the more likely he is to spook.
So it’s essential to dress your horse for the temperature every day and for the amount of exercise and activity he’ll be doing. Coming from the barn, or even blanketed from the paddock, you’ll want to keep your horse covered as much as possible while he warms up. The minimum should be a quartersheet to keep his back warm (a cooler folded to quartersheet size is a good substitute) and a neck hood to keep the heat in his neck.
In fact, the hood may be the most important garment for keeping your horse comfortable in the winter. Why? For the same reason humans wear scarves: even a little cold air on our necks can make us feel cold. For this reason, the horse even has his own scarf: his mane. However, very few domestic horses’ manes are left in their natural state. And since horses have much bigger necks than we do, the horse’s neck loses a lot more heat.
I once had a school horse who was stiff and spooky in the winter no matter how many blankets he wore, so that I could only let the most experienced students ride him in cold weather. Then I noticed that his neck felt cold even in the barn. I got a neck hood for him, and let him wear it all the time, and that was the end of his winter spooking.
If you’re going to be doing fast work, you can take off the hood and fold the quartersheet off the rump as your horse warms up, so he won’t sweat. Just be ready to cover him again as soon as you start to cool down.
If you’re going to be doing only slow work and especially if it’s a very cold day, you can put your tack on right over your horse’s blankets (just make sure your tack is clear of all buckles and straps). The blankets will keep him snug throughout the ride.
Even more fun for winter is to ride bareback on a thick pad right on top of the blankets. You’ll get the added benefit of your horse’s warm toasty back keeping you warm as well!
And it is just as essential that you, the rider, stay warm at all times. Remember, being cold also makes you tense and stiff. If you’re tense, you will make your horse tense as well. If you fall when you’re cold, you’re more likely to land hard and hurt yourself.
So layer up yourself as well, and don’t forget your legs! Just as horses lose a lot of heat through their unprotected necks, people lose heat through their thighs. I see people all the time riding in big puffy warm coats and thick gloves, but with nothing on their legs in the coldest weather save ordinary leather riding boots and thin breeches or jeans. And they wonder why their feet are so cold! Their body heat can’t get down to their toes because it’s trying to keep their thighs warm.
If you go bareback riding, you won’t even need the riding boots. You can jump on wearing warm winter boots and heavy sweats or even ski pants to cut the wind for outdoor riding. Just be sure your winter boots fit well enough that they won’t be shaken off by trotting or cantering.
So keep yourself and your horse warm, and have fun with your winter riding!