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Keeping your horse physically active in the winter

Pawing for forage through snow is one way to provide physical activity and mental relief

Horses running in the snow

Daily physical activity is essential for the overall health of your horse year round and this includes the winter season. Given the limitations that snow and cold and somewhat unsure footing can impose on activities with horses during the winter months, it can be challenging to ensure horses have sufficient physical activity.

As long as footing is safe and temperatures and winds are reasonable, riding or driving over a snow-covered landscape provides an invigorating experience for both horse and owner. Recognizing your horse’s level of fitness will be necessary to avoid the “weekend warrior” affliction. As pastures and paddocks become snowbound, horses simply move less and their fitness levels may decline. Horses asked to exert themselves beyond their conditioning, fatigue easily, leaving them vulnerable to injuries such as bone bruises, inflammation, and tendon and ligament injuries. Therefore lighter workouts may be necessary to accommodate the horse’s level of fitness. For horses devoted to one sporting discipline, winter riding/driving can rejuvenate overall well-being bringing mental and physical relief from practice and competition.

Arenas and enclosed structures tend to have their own internal weather which struggle with ventilation, humidity, air quality, lighting, and fluctuating temperatures.

Damp, cold, or dusty environments do not present a hospitable environment for working a horse. Competitions or horse gatherings in such an environment distress a horse’s respiratory and musculoskeletal systems. Commingling of horses from various locations and the stress of trailering in cold weather substantially increase the risk of respiratory diseases such as influenza and strangles. Vigilant biosecurity is particularly relevant under these circumstances.

The internal weather of these structures tax a horse’s musculoskeletal system as well. Therefore thorough warm-up before demanding exercise or competition and a thorough cool-down are essential to maintaining a healthy athlete.

A warm-up gradually prepares the cardiovascular and musculoskeletal system for work, lessening body soreness and the horse’s risk for injury. Cooling down after the horse’s workout allows the body to return to a state of rest, with a gradual recovery of heart rate and blood pressure. Keeping your horse walking for 10 to 15 minutes is most often a sufficient cool-down.

When activity with your horse becomes impractical due to winter weather conditions, consider engaging your horse in a natural activity such as foraging or pawing on a well-stocked snow-covered pasture.

It is one of the most natural ways of providing physical activity and mental relief for a horse. Pawing is a very natural action for horses as well as a practical one. Although winter grounds can become very confining to horses, a little planning can encourage horses to seek pawing as a means of foraging. The movement of pawing has its own therapeutic benefits as the horse rocks back onto its haunches in order to free up the pawing forelimb, initiating neuromuscular relief to the muscles of the back and hindquarters. This shift of weight momentarily frees and lightens the horse’s forehand offering physical and mental benefits to the horse.

Pawing on snow-covered pastures must always be supervised. Monitoring body score conditioning is an excellent way to track the horse’s ability to paw. Although horses instinctively know how to paw, they may require a few winter seasons to become highly practised at the skill.

Horses naive to pawing will require greater supervision and may need supplementation with hay to ease their transition. Hay supplementation can also be an option if snow conditions deteriorate or temperatures plummet below -20 C.

About the author


Carol Shwetz is a veterinarian focusing on equine practice in Millarville, Alberta.

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