As the nights draw in and the weather becomes more unpredictable, keeping your horse fit and healthy can be a challenge. But the colder months are also the time to up your training, try new things and make the most of exploring the British countryside in winter. Here’s how:
There is nothing worse than freezing fingers and toes when you’re only half a mile into your hack, so it is worth investing in some thermal finger and footwear for the coldest months. Layer up on the rest of your body, so you can remove clothing once you warm up. The same goes for your horse — if he feels the cold or has been clipped, consider using a wrap-around exercise rug.
Whether it’s a special Sunday hack, a dressage lesson or a show jumping competition, having something to aim for will give you an incentive to get out of bed and onto the yard in the mornings. Sit down with friends and a diary and thrash out a plan — having an aim or something to look forward to is the best winter tonic.
This can be difficult if you’re confined to the arena and have limited daylight hours, but it is important to keep your horse fit and entertained. Try to include as much hacking as possible when you have time on your side. When you do find yourself confined to the school, pole work and grid work will help make arena sessions more interesting.
You and your horse should always wear hi-vis clothing while riding on the road, but this is especially important in the winter when visibility can quickly deteriorate.
If you have no choice but to ride in the dark, a headlamp that attaches to your riding hat or a lighted harness can be indispensable. Another trick is to drive your car up to the side of the arena and use the beam of the headlights to create a 20-metre ‘spotlight’.
If you are riding in the school, always have in your mind what you want to achieve by the end. Whether it’s a square halt, keeping straight over a cross-pole or practising counter-canter, making one thing the focus of a session will almost always make it more productive — which is important when the weather or time are against you.
A well-exercised, content horse that has a little mud in his mane will generally be happier and healthier than a sparkling clean animal that has not left his stable for 24 hours. If you must choose between grooming your horse or spending time exercising him, always go for the latter — just make sure he’s dirt-free where his tack will sit (and on his lower limbs, to prevent mud fever).
If a lack of daylight hours and bad weather are keeping you out of the saddle, try incorporating some groundwork into your horse’s programme. Learning to long-rein effectively will benefit not only your horse’s fitness, but yours too, and time spent working him from the ground will improve your relationship.
Riding over frozen, rutty fields or in an uneven arena will leave your horse at risk of spraining a tendon. If you do decide to venture out in freezing conditions, make sure the surface you ride on is flat but not slippery. If you choose to ride in the snow, it is a good idea to thoroughly grease you horse’s hooves with something like petroleum jelly, WD-40 or goose fat to stop the snow from balling up. It is a good idea to stop and examine your horse’s feet at regular intervals to make sure he is not standing on ‘stilts’.
Try to exercise your horse most days to get his circulation going, but if you don’t manage to get out due to bad weather, make sure you reduce his feed rations accordingly.