This is the time of year when many horse owners send their horses south for the winter. Why? Because keeping horses in training in cold weather is a tough job. Everything is harder for him in the cold, and you consider yourself lucky if he comes out of the winter going as well as he did the previous fall. For those who run a lesson program a big concern is keeping your students safe, since cold horses tend to be more ‘disobedient’. However, there are things you can do to give safe, interesting lessons in the winter without spending all the time in the stable or lecture room.
That being said, on days when it was below 20 degrees at my southern New England farm, we did not have riding lessons. Depending on the group, we might have ground work in the stable with the horses, or a video or talk, or simply cancel altogether. The reasons for this were safety, and good practice, because even if the horses behaved, if the riders were cold they were more likely to be tense, affecting their riding, and if they fell, to get hurt.
We’ll talk about keeping people warm later on, but first let’s talk about the horses. Most of our horses were at least partially clipped in the winter. The horses were all warmly blanketed, and most of them wore neck hoods as well. I found from experience that a horse being ridden in cold weather with his neck protected was much more relaxed than without it.
Now, we have the blanketed horses in the barn where the temperature is about 50 degrees. If we take off those cozy blankets, and replace them with just a saddle and bridle, then take the horse out into a 30 degree arena, why should we be surprised if he wants to run around and buck? He just wants to get warm! Think how you feel if you go out to the mailbox on a cold day without putting on a coat. You want to run, and you’re tense, and you want to get back where it’s warm. And you didn’t take any of your clothes off when you went out! A lot of people think a quarter sheet is enough to keep the horse warm, but it is the neck and shoulders where horses feel the cold. Quarter sheets are intended only to keep those big rump muscles from stiffening up on the way home after a strenuous workout.
How do you keep your horses comfortable? There are two things you do. The first is to let the horse wear as many clothes as he needs for the work he will be doing. If he is going in a beginner lesson, where he will be doing a lot of walking and some trotting, he wears the same clothes he wore in the stall. He keeps on his blankets and his neck hood, and wears his tack on top.
This brings up keeping the rider warm. If, instead of a saddle, and breeches and boots, you put the rider on a bareback pad, she can then wear anything that is comfortable and warm, and the horse’s body will help to keep her warm as well. Unless we had a show coming up, all my students, even the advanced ones, rode bareback all winter, and everyone benefited!*
Putting tack on over blankets is not very classy looking, unless you have special equipment for it, but the benefits become obvious to the participants and any knowledgeable horse person. You have to be careful that girths or surcingles don’t cause chafing, or that rear surcingles on the blanket don’t turn into bucking straps. Riders doing more advanced, that is to say, faster work, can put fewer clothes on the horse, or remove them once the horse is warmed up. Some of my owners had special riding blankets that covered the horse from part way up his neck to his tail, and were held on by fittings similar to those on a pad.
The second thing the horse needs is the opportunity to warm himself up in the way that is best for him. And only he knows what that is. Therefore, he must be allowed to warm up on his own, by free longeing him. Free longeing* is just what it sounds like. It is controlled exercise, but the control is all done with voice and body language, and without a longe line. The horse simply cannot stretch and loosen up properly on a 60’ circle, and can hurt himself if he tries. Free longeing is safe for any sound, reasonably sensible horse. It should be done in the winter every day that he is going to be used in lessons, and at least every other day if he is not being otherwise exercised.
Free longeing should be done in a full sized arena, where the horse has room to run and buck to release the tensions created in cold muscles. The horse should be allowed to work slowly at first if he wants to, then gently encouraged to move on to the trot, and eventually canter and gallop. Don’t be too vigorous with the longe whip, and if you think he is going dangerously fast use your voice and your center to block him just enough to slow him down. Allow him to choose his own direction at first, then ask him to change, but if he seems unwilling to move in the other direction, let him walk or jog in the hard direction, and move on more in the easy one.
The tenser, stiffer muscles in the horse are on the underside of his body and neck. As those loosen up the horse will drop his head and round his back. The cadence of his gait will slow and become more rhythmic, and you’ll know that he’s “done.” Doing more wastes time and energy.
Some safety rules. Only allow another (experienced, please) person in the ring if you need her to help you. Always use caution when turning the horse loose the first few times. If the horse anticipates the free longeing he may wheel and bolt away, kicking out as he does so. Stand in the gate and as you turn him loose, step back. Once it’s safe go in and start him working.
I had a teaching program in southern New England for many years, and once I adopted these methods, so that the horses were never cold, they behaved just as well in midwinter as they did in midsummer. Riders who formerly might have quit for the winter, or even quit altogether if they came and were cold and had a miserable time, now felt both warm and safe. The result was that everyone made steady progress, and even looked forward to ‘bareback time.’
*You can read more about the many advantages of free longeing and bareback riding, especially for beginners, in my books.