Tips For Winter Riding
Riding in the winter can be less than fun, despite the thousand pound space heater you're sitting on. Some people even give up and turn their horses away for the winter, returning them to work in the spring. If you are one of those who soldiers on, or who are in a less extreme climate where winter is merely unpleasant, then staying warm can be a challenge. Here are a few tips for doing so.
Tip #1: Pantyhose
Sounds strange, right? It's actually an old English show trick. Those breeches get cold when showing in the winter, or in the hunting field. An ordinary pair of sheer pantyhose can make a surprising amount of difference...use a pair that has a few runs in them rather than a new pair. They have two advantages over long johns - no inside seam and they also cover your feet and help prevent the ice block effect that metal stirrups can have on your toes. Even if you're wearing tight breeches, nobody will be able to tell (true, they are a little awkward for those of the male persuasion, but they still work).
Tip #2: Layers
Layers are good. It's possible to warm up quite quickly once on the horse, so be sure to aim for being a little cold when you mount up. Wear outer layers that are buttoned or zippered so that you can strip down a little if you get too hot. In very cold weather, go for a cotton or similar T-shirt, then a wool sweater, then a weatherproof jacket. Wool is the absolute best middle layer for extreme cold.
Tip #3: Gloves
Proper riding gloves are essential during the winter. Do not wear heavy wool gloves as these will mess with your feel of the reins and make you heavier in the hands. Leather riding gloves are the best, but expensive. Occasional riders might find cycling gloves work. The cheapest warm glove option is pimple palm gloves, but I've found them a little too heavy. So, another tip is to use gel hand warmers before you get on. This will allow you to get away with thinner, more comfortable gloves.
Tip #4: Check your tack
Winter is hard on leather. It's better to be safe than sorry and take extra care checking equipment. Especially reins and stirrup leathers. A broken rein can be embarrassing at best, dangerous at worst. Make sure to clean tack, especially after exposure to snow or cold rain.
Tip #5: Consider the Footing
Riding on snow and ice is even more dangerous than walking on it. Hooves slip more than human shoes. Also, snow can ball in a horse's hoof, resulting in it slipping and falling.
If your horse is shod and you plan on riding through the winter, talk to your farrier about winter studs. These are studs added to the horse's shoes that are specifically designed to add grip in ice and snow. If you prefer to ride barefoot, invest in a set of snow boots. There are several designs available. Some horses will routinely 'go lame' when there is snow on the ground - they just hate the cold on their soles that much. Boots are the best solution for this.
Any time there is snow on the ground and your horse is not wearing boots, smear ordinary vaseline copiously on his soles. This will make them slippery and help prevent the snow ball effect.
Tip #6: Keep Your Horse Warm
Horses need more food in cold weather. Many times when a horse loses condition and the owner uses "winter" as an excuse, they simply haven't increased the horse's food intake from the summer. Your horse will need more hay, especially if clipped. It will also need a blanket below 30 degrees if clipped and below 10 if not. Some horses may need a blanket in temperatures as high as 40 degrees...some individual animals don't grow any winter coat. Do, however, avoid blanketing if the winter coat is not fully in, as this can cause the horse not to grow a full winter coat. Some show barns do this intentionally and then rug the horses through the winter, so that the horses have a sleeker coat and look better.
If your horse is turned out and has ice on its back, it is actually fine. It is if it does not have ice or frost on its fur, then it is cold, as that means its fur is not insulating its body heat correctly.
In freezing rain or extremely wet conditions, consider putting a quarter sheet on your horse when riding outside. This is a waterproof sheet that is secured under the saddle instead of a saddle pad...essentially a rain coat for a horse. Horses can handle dry cold to remarkable degrees, but tend to become chilled if they get too wet.
Tip #7: Use Thick Stirrup Treads
If you ride English, you will know that your toes turn into blocks of ice and then hurt when you get off. This is because of heat being pulled out of your feet by the metal stirrups. Thick rubber stirrup treads can help reduce this effect a lot. Thermal socks are also a good idea, as is stopping every so often, taking your feet out of the stirrups and wriggling your toes.
NEVER ride alone in winter (or at any other time).
ALWAYS carry a cell phone.
REMEMBER that you can get dehydrated in winter as well as summer and carry plenty of water.
ALWAYS appreciate the beauty of winter.