Winter can be a challenging time for equestrians. With limited daylight and frigid temperatures, it’s not easy to find the hours (or often the motivation) to get out and ride. Fortunately, there are things we can do though to make cold-weather outings more pleasurable, both for us as riders, as well as enhancing the comfort of our horses.
Even if you have a covered indoor arena, winter sessions can be chilly. Several apparel suggestions are available to help keep you cozy:
Wear long-johns under your jeans or breeches. Lightweight, breathable fabrics (silk is really nice!) add warmth without restrictive bulk.
Wool socks offer better insulation and breathable warmth. Don’t wear socks that will make your feet sweat; that will only make them colder!
Make sure your footwear allows ample space for circulation once you add thicker cold-weather socks. Winter boots that are a size up from what you normally wear are ideal. Socks and boots that are too tight will compromise your circulation and make it impossible for feet to stay warm.
Those little ‘heater packets’ (for hands or feet) are terrific. In addition to slipping a pair inside your gloves or putting them on the toes of your socks, you can slip a pair into the pockets of your jeans for added warmth. Buy them in bulk to save money and ensure that you won’t run out before springtime. Ride in breeches instead of jeans? If you don’t have back pockets, use one of those little stick-on heating pads (available in any grocery store or pharmacy). The generic brand works just fine, they’re affordable, and you’ll help keep your lower back muscles more supple and limber.
Cover your head. If you ride in a helmet, use a fleece ear cover or put on a helmet cover. This will help trap warmth and prevent body heat from being lost. If you ride in a traditional western hat, a fleece headband that covers your ears can be helpful, too. If wool or wool blend winter hats are preferred, a design with ear flaps aids in retaining as much warmth as possible.
Put on a scarf. As with long-johns, silk is a great choice. It’s lightweight, thin, breathable and has a terrific warmth to weight ratio. Neck gaiters (SmartWool makes really nice ones!) are a cozy option if you don’t want to bother with a traditional scarf, and their close-fitting design makes them safer to wear while riding (nothing long and loopy to snag on a saddle horn, tree branches, etc.).
When you’re heading out in windy weather, gloves that have a wind-proof membrane or water resistant outer shell will give you added protection from the cold. Some folks just don’t like to wear anything this bulky though (they can impede rein handling). If you like a thinner, lighter glove, look for those that have the tiny rubber ‘pebbles’ on the palms, and slip an extra pair in your pocket. That way, if your hands do get damp for any reason (handling snowy tack), you’ll have a backup.
Polo wraps do dual-duty for horses and riders. You can use them as leg warmers for yourself, as well as employing them for their original purpose (protection for the horse’s legs). If riding in deep snow, they’re not a great idea for the horses, as they’ll trap snow and moisture and eventually just make your horses’ legs colder. Riding in cold weather when it’s not too snowy, they’re great. Do make sure when using them on the horse that you wrap correctly, in the proper direction, and with the right degree of tension. It’s too easy to bow a tendon or do other damage to those precious equine legs if you don’t use polos the right way. Better not to use them at all if you don’t learn how to use them properly.
For the horse, a quarter sheet can help protect her back and loins and retain warmth, keeping her comfortable and preventing undue stiffness due to the cold weather. If your horse has a thick, fuzzy winter coat already, there’s no reason to add this partial riding blanket, but clipped horses, those kept indoors, and blanketed horses that do not grow a substantial winter coat may benefit. Quality and prices vary. Look for those that are machine washable (vs wool designs that need to be dry cleaned). Single layer quarter sheets are available in the price range of $30 – $50, while double layer lined options (see Newmarket quarter sheets, available at Dover Saddlery) generally range from $80 – $100. Measure to get the right size. Generally you’ll want it long enough to just come to the tail dock, but not so long that it will hang too close to the hind legs and annoy the horse. Too short and it just doesn’t do its job.
If riding in anything but soft, groomed terrain, you may wish to add hoof boots for the unshod horse. Make sure you use boots with a tread pattern that will aid in traction, should you encounter icy surfaces. Riding across icy ground is obviously treacherous and never a good idea.
Bell boots can help keep snow from balling up behind your horses feet, and can help add protection if she does slip or take a misstep. Select a design with a smooth, wipe-clean waterproof exterior that will not absorb moisture.
No doubt you have many of your own useful winter riding practices. Hopefully we’ve made a helpful new suggestion or two that could help to keep you and your horses happier during those cold-weather adventures. Enjoy the ride!