It doesn't get any better than this--riding on a quiet, sunny morning after a snowfall. You'll enjoy it more if your horse is prepared for the conditions. "If you're going to keep riding through the winter, make sure your horse is shod properly so you can ride without slide," Bonnie Kreitler advises. "That may mean using ice studs, caulked shoes, or borium (built up into caulks at the toe and heel of the shoe)."
"Talk to your farrier for recommendations," the Connecticut resident adds, "and remember that any time you change the 'grab factor' you're going to change the way your horse's muscles are working. So give the horse time to get used to its new footwear before you return to the regular work routine, and skip sudden stops or sharp turns on the haunches while your horse is wearing grabby shoes."
Kreitler uses hot, damp towels to clean a muddy, long-haired horse after riding. "If you don't have hot running water, use damp towels and stick them in a microwave on low for a very short time," she notes. Use caution when removing them because they get hot very quickly.
"I find that a sheet that wicks moisture helps cool down and dry out a coat," the writer adds. "Pure wool was the fabric of choice years ago, but now some brands of polyester microfleece work well, too. Old pieces of wool blankets to rub under the cooler speeds the process."
If your long-haired horse really works up a sweat but you don't want a full clip, consider clipping the horse's belly and a narrow path up between the front legs, up along either side of the jugular, finishing under the jaw.
"This allows more area for the body heat to dissipate without making it uncomfortable or even impossible to turn out without a blanket," she explains.
Pay special attention to watering your horse after a winter ride, Kreitler cautions.
If your horse's regular winter water source is relatively cold, offering lukewarm water will encourage a little more drinking, which helps to avoid dehydration with its potential for impaction colic.
If your horse gets a wound and it's cold, cold, cold, clot the blood using a sponge-type cleaner, then follow up with a disinfectant such as Betadine.
"We don't see as many lacerations in winter as we see things like pulled muscles and tendon injuries from horses slipping on ice," notes Jen Barber, a vet tech with Battenkill Equine Clinic near Middle Falls, N.Y.
Cold therapy is often recommended for swellings, but hosing a bump in the middle of a snowy field is not a good idea. Find a place inside, such as a wash rack, if possible Barber cautions.
"If you do need to hose it, dry the leg very well when you're done. Don't hose in cold weather, though, unless you absolutely have to. Use an anti-inflammatory like Banamine to help keep the swelling down."
Can horses get frostbite? Indeed they can, Barber says. "They are susceptible to frostbite on the ears, nose and even on the limbs in extreme conditions with no shelter. You might see some hair loss or whitening in the area where the horse has received frostbite."
A heated barn is not necessary, but a run-in shed is a must. "You at least need something to keep the horse out of the elements," Barber says.
Cases of impaction colic are on the upswing in the winter months; be sure your horse always has access to warm water.
To prevent your horse from slipping on stable roadways that become sheer ice after a snow, use large pellets of salt on brick or concrete entrances. Sawdust and kitty litter also work wonders to make icy areas less treacherous.
Dress for success
Nature has provided your horse with a warm coat, but what about your comfort? "Warm boots are a must," insists Caryn Malone. "If your feet get cold, you're cold all over. I've tried those chemical boot warmers, but they're too bulky and don't work. When it's cold, I found that the only thing to keep the feet warm is snow boots that are good to sub-zero temperatures. Some companies are even making riding boots constructed to keep the feet warm."
Boots that are designed for extremely cold weather, called snow packs, have felt liners that are good to 20, 30, even 40 below zero. The liners can be taken out and dried, if necessary.
"You might need to buy larger stirrups so the boot can fit," the Waterbury, Vt.-based Vita-Flex sales rep says. "You don't want your foot to get stuck in the stirrup, but you also don't want the stirrup to be so large that your foot can slip the whole way through."
Your jacket should be warm, yet comfortable enough to ride in. "You don't want to be so bundled up that you can't keep a good seat and maintain control of your horse," Malone points out.
Dusty Johnson agrees. "Unlike the old days, when we used to put on enough gear to make the Michelin Man look skinny and make our horses think they were carting a laundry bag around, today's cold weather gear is incredible," the author of Horsepacking Illustrated says.
"The best things for hands and feet are the silk liners used by skiers. Those folks have really gotten their act together. Their gloves and undergarments are made for comfort, warmth and mobility. They're hard to beat ."
Visit your local co-op; most Southern States and Agway stores carry a good variety of clothing geared for comfort when the weather turns frosty.