Temperatures are dropping here in Wisconsin. It seems winter comes earlier every year. People often ask me if I continue to ride my horses during the winter. I am a firm believer that regular exercise is important to horses, even in winter and here’s why:
Horses in the wild travel around 20 miles a day. This constant movement helps to increase the horse’s circulation, pumping blood back up his legs to the rest of his body. Domestic horses tend not to move around that much because they do not need to search for their food. They often have limited turnout space and their food and water is all in close proximity so there is no need for them to walk around all day. This means that we need to find other ways of getting them to move. Riding is one excellent way of getting your horse the exercise he needs, but ground work is an excellent alternative when the weather is cold and the ground is frozen. Lunging, long reining, and liberty work are all highly beneficial to horses of all training levels and disciplines. Ground work is an excellent way to build a better partnership with your horse, improve communication, and increase trust and respect.
It can be tempting to give your horse the winter off, but this may not be the best thing for his health. Exercise is important to the physical and mental health of a horse, even in winter. Regular exercise helps keep muscles and tendons loose and joints from becoming stiff which can help prevent injuries and increase a horse’s longevity, meaning he will be able to continue to work later into his life. When a horse is not exercised regularly he will quickly lose muscle condition. This can quickly lead to other health concerns, such as lameness and fatigue. Lack of regular exercise can also lead to digestive issues and reduced resistance to disease. On the other hand, keeping a horse in good condition will help increase his longevity and prevent injuries and illnesses.
Regular exercise is also important for a horse’s mental health. Horses that are not worked regularly will often develop behavioral problems such as spooking, bucking, bolting, etc. Horses need consistency and without this problems arise. Maintaining a consistent work program through the winter can help prevent problems from developing. Horses that aren’t working may also develop vices due to boredom such as cribbing, weaving, pacing, and wood chewing. Most of the time these problems could be avoided by giving the horse a job to do. Horses are happier when they have a job.
If you are planning on showing or even just pleasure riding in the spring, it is even more important that you continue riding through the winter. Horses lose muscle condition quickly and if you give him the entire winter off, you will spend much of the spring slowly building him back up into condition. This means that he likely won’t be ready by the start of show season. In addition, he will fall behind in his training from having such a long time off. When you do start riding him again, you will have to spend time refreshing his memory rather than working towards new goals. Giving your horse the entire winter off and then putting him back into an intensive work program in the spring can cause muscle, tendon, and ligament damage, fatigue, and stress to the horse.
As you can see, there are many benefits to continuing to work your horse throughout the winter, whether it is by riding or just doing groundwork. A horse that is worked consistently will be physically healthier and mentally healthier.