Winter has arrived with a vengeance in the Southern States of Australia! And even up North, the night temperatures can hit zero.
When winter arrives our paddocks get muddy. It’s cold, windy, wet and we feel the change of season. While our horses grow a thick coat, even if they are stabled at night, we still need to take extra care when warming them up and cooling them down.
The exercises you use to warm your horse up, can have a direct impact on his suppleness and soundness.
If you are consistent with your winter exercise routine, your horse will be much better prepared for the spring shows and events.
Here are some points for exercising and working with your horses during the chilly winter months.
Tip: Always clean out the hooves before doing exercise. Compacted mud can cause a hoof bruise, lameness and will make it uncomfortable for the horse to walk. Cleaning out mud and manure will also help prevent thrush from developing inside the hoof.
Warm-ups during Winter
Give your horse longer warm-up and cooling-out time in cold weather to prevent tendon and muscle injury.
If your horse is clipped, warm up and cool down with a fleece quarter sheet. Every time you work with your horse, you should begin with a regular warm-up period to loosen the muscles and tendons. This is especially important during the the winter. Horses must be more thoroughly warmed up before strenuous exertion and allowed adequate time to cool down before being put away. 10 to 20 minutes of warm-up exercises are usually sufficient for most horses. If they are stabled at night, they will require a longer warm up period to get them comfortable and moving again, especially if you ride them before turning them out for the day. Horses that are already turned out will require less warm-up time.
Above – Allison O’Neill and Roseglen Toytown illustrating that the stretch still means an active hindleg
- Begin with 3-5 minutes of stretching at the walk, on a free rein. Walking allows the joints and tendons to become lubricated in readiness for the coming work. It also gives time for the “walk and gawk” period. If your horse is particularly fresh, allow small trot strides but always coming back to periods of walk. You’ll also find that as you do more changes of direction and transitions, they’ll pay more attention to your aids. You can start out with fewer changes of direction, and increase frequency as the horse becomes loose.
- Next go to larger circles at a comfortable and easy rising trot for the next 5 minutes. Again, change direction every couple of laps across the diagonal. The aim is to lengthen the muscles as much as possible, gradually increase blood circulation and heart rate. You’ll be looking for your horse to gradually stretch into your elastic contact with a loose and swinging back and rhythmic steps. Hurried steps on cold legs increases the risk of injury and wear and tear you can avoid.
Above – QLD Eventer Alice Cooper and Percy demonstrates a great example of a correct, reaching stretch that is neck down and nose forward, not nose down and in.
- During this warm up phase, you can test his response to your aids. Is he listing to your request for slight changes in flexion on straight lines without loosing the shoulders? Is he listening to your seat by regulating his pace in time with your rising tempo? Is he listening to your lateral leg aids by moving away from one leg or the other?
- For the final 10 minutes of warm-ups, do smaller circles, more changes of direction, basic lateral movements relevant to the horse’s level of training and transitions within the gait. So leg yielding on straight lines and circles, serpentines, shoulder fore/in, travers steps are all useful to introduce in small amounts in the warm up. Don’t aim for a full long side of lateral movements at this point. Just steps to gradually activate the hind leg, align the shoulders and stretch the topline.
- The final few minutes of warm-up is really just transitioning to your normal workout routine. As you warm up, your exercises should begin slowly and gradually intensify as the horse loosens up.
Be sure to give your horse ample cool-down time prior to returning him to his stable or paddock. A common mistake horse owners make, especially with stabled horses, is not providing a proper cool-down. Often we ride before or after work and time is limited. This results in the possibility that the horse will tie-up or get the chills. During the colder winter days, a longer cool-down will help avoid this. Cool-down increases circulation, which is important for the muscles and other soft tissue in order to clear the byproducts of exercise. It also helps prevent muscle stiffness and soreness
Above: Young Rider Emily O’Connell riding Moonlight Park Foxtrot showing a good example of a cool-down stretch…that is not on the forehand.
- Allow the horse to stretch downward and forward to a longer frame in rising trot. Similar to your warmup, your aim is the elongate the muscles again, as they have been contracting during the work phase. Change direction regularly through large circles and across the diagonal line. You’ll know that your horse has been using his back effectively if he wants to stretch downwards into your hand
- Walk the horse for at least a further 10 mins until his breathing has returned to its normal resting rate. Give the horse plenty of time to stop breathing hard from exercise, if the nostrils are flared and the horse is breathing heavily, his heart is still working hard.
- Clipped horses will dry faster than those with a winter coat, however clipped horses will become cold more quickly, so consider covering the hindquarters with a sweat-sheet or quarter-sheet to protect against excessive heat loss. This will allow moisture to wick away during cool-down.
- Continue walking the horse until the skin is no longer hot to the touch and the skin has dried.
- Sponge areas of the coat that are wet from sweat rather than hosing the horse down completely. If your horse sweats excessively and you ride at night, consider clipping him. Turning the horse out with a wet coat will leave him cold and uncomfortable all night.
- If lengthy cool-downs are inconvenient, shorten the intensity or length of sweat-inducing exercises.
- Ensure the horse has plenty of hay to eat, this will help keep him warm and prevent him from getting the chills.