Ask the Vet: When Is It Too Cold to Ride?

How to consider the weather and your horse’s health, according to a veterinarian

By Dr. Heather Beach, DVM

For equestrians in the northern states who do not migrate south for the winter season, Daylight Savings in late fall signals the beginning of  the long, dark, COLD time. 

People leave their offices at 5 p.m. only to see darkness. The initial refreshing cool-off of fall and excitement over sweaters, vests, and Pumpkin Spice Lattes has waned. The new, harsh reality? Wind gusts that sting your skin, gusts, frozen water buckets, and weather-related disruptions to turnout and off-farm adventures, making for stir-crazy horse owners and tighter, fresher horses. 

Folks from cold climates are hardy though, and many want to continue to work horses during these harsh months. Some take advantage of winter show circuits for accumulating points and qualifying for finals early in the year, while others may want to continue their training programs without a long interruption. For those continuing to work their horses during the cold months there are some important health related factors to consider.

Respiratory Health

The cold weather months are hardest on the respiratory health of our horses. Barns are often closed up tighter than in other months, so ventilation may not be as good. Horse barns that are poorly ventilated will stress the horse’s airway with small particles of dust, mold and higher ammonia levels from waste material in the stalls. Studies have confirmed that horses exercising while breathing very cold air have increased lower airway inflammation and bronchoconstriction (asthma-like response) than horses exercising while breathing more moderate temperature air.

Musculoskeletal Health

Just like people, horses can shiver and tense their muscles when they are cold. Horses will overall have more muscle tension in the cold weather than on a warm and sunny summer day. It is not unusual for horses to be stiffer and less fluid in the cold. Additionally, horses tend to do less moving around on their own in turnout, and snow accumulation or icy conditions can limit the size and duration of turnout available. 

Younger horses may be more “fresh,” horses with a tendency towards back pain may display more behavior issues (bucking, bolting, refusing to go forward, rearing), older horses may be stiffer and more sore. For the youngsters or those who develop behavioral responses in the cold this can lead to increased lunging, which may predispose to injury.

Additionally, indoor arena footing can become harder as the base underneath freezes and becomes less forgiving, leading to more concussive stress on the joints.

Gastrointestinal Health…and the Take-Home Message

One of the biggest risk factors for developing gastric ulcerations is reduced water consumption.

Horses are at increased risk of developing ulcers in the cold weather if they are not consuming as much water as usual. Additionally, working the horse excessively in the winter on very cold days and causing even a light sweat can dehydrate them rapidly and predispose to an impaction type colic if they do not drink enough to replenish following the workout. 

So, what’s the ultimate take-home message about riding in the cold? There is no specific temperature at which it becomes “too cold” to ride. However, consider that once the temperature dips below freezing (32 degrees Fahrenheit), it is probably starting to become unpleasant for all involved.

Below 25 degrees, and it is likely that there will be lower airway effects—and these effects will be worse the colder the temperature gets. Horses tend to have the most gastrointestinal issues when there is a sudden change in temperature. So, a temperature of 20 degrees the day after a 40-degree day would potentially be more problematic than a week of 20 degrees straight. 

The coldest months of the year may be an ideal time to let horses rest and recharge their minds, allowing them to have turnout as conditions allow, light work on a walker or treadmill if available, or 20-30 mins of tack walking during long periods of very cold conditions.

The horses will appreciate the downtime and you may be able to prevent some repetitive stress injury by not continuing to train during the coldest weeks of the year. 

The Expert: Dr. Heather Beach, DVM

Dr. Heather Beach grew up in New England as a horse crazy kid. She showed in dressage, jumpers, and some eventing prior to pursuing a career in veterinary medicine. Since graduating from Tufts University in 2007, Dr. Beach continues to let her love for the horse and equestrian sports guide her career. She founded HBEquine Services in 2022 and provides high quality sports medicine diagnostics and treatments to her clients. Dr. Beach can often be seen helping her partner JJ Lavieri at horse shows, setting jumps, grooming the horses, as well as taking care of their health care needs. She competes in the jumpers and in dressage and also enjoys bringing along young horses and ponies for resale.

*This story was originally published in the March 2022 issue of The Plaid Horse. Click here to read it now and subscribe for issues delivered straight to your door!

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