At the time of writing this article, our autumnal season has been a relatively warm and dry one. However, I have probably now tempted fate and the wetter and colder days may well have arrived, as you read this. For many of us, winter time means bringing the horses into stables, or increasing the hours spent stabled, and working our horses in the cold whenever time and light allows. Even for those blessed with indoor schools, lights and the best of facilities, the effects of wintertime can make a difference to our horses performance and comfort, so this article aims to address a few of those issues with practical solutions.
Rugging Up – Most horses are rugged up in the winter time, to help maintain warmth. However, rugs can also cause rubs and tightness at the points of the shoulder and across the top of the crest of neck, rubbing out hair and causing tension in the trapezius muscles of the neck. Unfortunately, horses do not come in standard shapes and sizes, so it is a matter of trial and error sometimes to find the right rug(s) for each horse. Similarly neck covers can cause damage to the mane and apply pressure to the neck muscles if incorrectly fitted. The solution? Take the rugs off every day and check for any hair loss, look for obvious changes in the shape of the crest of neck and feel around the neck and shoulder region for soreness or muscle tension. If a rug is only mildly tight, it can take time for pressure to build up on these areas so you might not observe any changes immediately after rugging up, but the effects will start to build up by the middle or end of winter when you are starting to plan for next season’s competitions.
Warming up with rugs – Warming up increases the core temperature within the muscles, tendons and ligaments so they can function easily and comfortably and minimises the risk of injury. We all know this, so we warm our horses up whatever the time of year. However, in winter time the ambient temperature around us can be up to 20-30 degrees Celsius lower than in the summer, thereby affecting how effective our warm up really is. Added to this is the fact that many of us clip our horses, and in removing their rugs in order to tack up, we have actually reduced their ability to maintain basic core temperature before we even get on their backs. If you want to experience the effect of cold ambient temperature on warming up as your horse does, pop some running gear on and get out in the cold…. The first mile or so is much harder work both mentally and physically, as you take much longer to warm up than in summer. It is surprisingly easy to strain soft tissues when they are cold, so think logically about how you might warm your horse up more effectively. If your horse is clipped out, use an exercise sheet or wool rug over the quarters while you are walking and trotting round to maintain a layer of warm air around the back and hindquarters. Only consider removing this layer once your horse has started to sweat slightly. Boots and bandages have been discussed widely in various research papers in recent years, due to their heating effects on the limbs soft tissues and the potential for injury if the limbs become too warm. However, cold winters are a good time to pop them on while you warm up, especially for older more arthritic limbs. Once again, you can remove them once your horse has warmed up, if you are riding in a school. For those riding out in the countryside you can decide whether you will be working your horse hard enough to warrant removal of the rugs and boots, and if you are, then perhaps a ten minute warm up prior to setting out properly would provide the right solution, or a ‘drop stop’ ten minutes from home where rugs and boots could be put and picked up on the way back might work.
Clipping – we clip our horses to enable them to work without sweating excessively and losing weight over the winter months. For this reason, the correct clip is the one which enables each individual horse to work comfortably but not one which removes so much hair that the horse cannot keep warm enough when working. Some horses seem to be naturally ‘hotter’ than others, (not just behaviourally but in terms of their physical response to exercise too,) so selection of the right clip can be a process of trial and error based on current workload and temperatures. It is preferable to clip regularly, starting with a minimal low trace clip and gradually taking off more hair if necessary each fortnight if possible.
Boredom and reduction of social interaction – finally, the effect of increased hours of stabling psychologically results in higher levels of boredom and increased risk of stereotypic behaviours. Research has shown that even simple alterations such as a view of fields can alter the amount of stereotypical weaving behaviour exhibited by horses, but this is not always possible. Large dark barns full of stables, but with minimal contact with other horses is not conducive to the best mental health in our horses, and their mental state will affect their physical health as well. Stereotypic behaviours can have physical implications such as ulcers in windsuckers, and recurrent arthritic lameness in older horses who weave or box walk excessively. Even where there are no clinical physical issues, a depressed mental state will affect performance. So how to negate the effect of stabling? Hacking out regularly will boost your horse’s mental state and health, and working in an outdoor school rather than indoor school whenever possible will also help. Use ‘toys’ in the stable, to help your horse while away the long hours he or she is inside. Rotate the toys you put in the stable every day or two, as novelty is key. Finally try to give your horse some social time with his or her friends whenever possible. Turning out in the summer gives our horses valuable social interaction time, even if they appear to be solidly grazing from the time they go out to the time they come in. Giving them time in a school or turnout arena together helps our horses maintain their friendships and play together, even if for just twenty mins a couple of times a week.