As you well know, horse riding is first and foremost an outdoor sport. The weather sets the pace for us riders every day. It is therefore essential to change some of our habits with every season. And let's be honest, winter doesn't make our lives any easier! Even if we want to be able to ride outdoors as often as possible, a bunch of things come up that make it more difficult for us to practice our beloved sport. They do not, however, make it impossible. It's just a matter of keeping yourself and your horse safe, and then learning some new habits that will make your day to day work with the horse easier.
Covered riding rings, all-weather tracks, automatic walkers ... these clever inventions are practically God given seeing how much they make our lives easier. Except that ... not everyone has these available to them, and on top of that the ground can still freeze over if the temperatures start to flirt with arctic conditions. So the question on everyone's mind is: what do I do so my horse doesn't stay cooped up in its box for weeks? In most regions, such severe cold only lasts a matter of days, but in others, winters are rough and one must learn to live with them.
If the ground is completely frozen but not slippery, you can take your horse out for a session in order to loosen up her limbs a bit, or lead her at a walk. If the paddock hasn't turned into an ice rink, it's okay to let the horse go. If you have to take your horse out in the snow, be sure to put a good dose of grease on the hoofs to prevent the snow from sticking to them. This is especially important if your horse has been shod. You can also daub the hoof or shoe with vaseline or lard, which usually prevents snow from accumulating under the hoofs. If you live somewhere with a lot of snow, there is special equipment you can buy for the hoofs which you may find useful. In any case, don't forget to take a hoof pick with you—it might come in handy!
Another point: a little rain, a chilly night, a little winter frost ... seems like not much and easy to forget about until that moment when your head smacks a sheet of black ice in the middle of the stable. The same is true for your horse, who could end up doing a perfect rendition of Bambi on ice, but without the laughs. This is why it's important to remember to put straw, or salt and sand in the walkways to prevent accidents of that kind. You really don't want to break a limb! Of course in the worst case scenario, just tell them you got back from a ski trip.
As for your horse, she also needs to adopt a few new habits once temperatures drop. The first thing that comes to mind is to clip your horse's coat. The horse will be more comfortable while working, and it'll be better for you too as you won't have to wait for hours for her to dry after each session. Grooming will also be much faster if the coat is clipped. Otherwise, remember that it's important to clean the limbs and the parts in contact with the harness; the rest is not absolutely necessary if you're pressed for time.
Also, if your horse goes outdoors there's a very good chance she'll come into contact with mud. This in itself isn't a big problem, but to avoid having to use too much elbow grease, you should know that a shiny conditioner can work wonders on the coat and horsehair. This product helps prevent mud from sticking to the horse's coat. Obviously it won't be very effective if your horse decides to take a full mud bath, but it can save you some time when grooming. You can also braid your horse's mane so that it doesn't get too dirty if your horse doesn't stay outdoors all the time. A neck cover is a faithful friend if you don't want to have to use a curry comb for hours on end. In addition to keeping your horse warm, it will also protect her neck from dirt.
Lastly, if you still have some energy to ride the horse after all that vigorous brushing, don't forget to put an exercise sheet on her. This will help keep her from suffering from a thermal shock when you remove the rug. I would also recommend that you extend your warm-ups as the muscles take longer to warm up in the cold. So take plenty of time at a walk before switching to a faster pace. A good 15 minutes of walking is ideal, especially if your horse has stayed in the box all day.
Another little touch that your horse will not forget: warm up the bit before putting it in your horse's mouth. She will thank you. Simply place the bit in your pocket or your sleeve, between your sweater and jacket, as you groom the horse. Or, if you have hot water at hand it's even easier—just let it soak in hot water as you do the grooming. But be sure that it's not scalding hot!
And there you go! You're now ready to face the harshest of winters. With all this preparation, you just might enjoy the winter after all!