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How can I keep my horse fit over winter?


Those winter nights are well and truly here and with the weather deteriorating, it can be particularly difficult to juggle work, home life and looking after your horse. We have collected some tips and advice to help you to get the most out of your time with your horse over the winter months with a view to maintaining and even increasing fitness levels in time for spring. 

A lot of the preparation for winter fitness starts in the summer and autumn. It is always advisable to go into the winter months with your horse as fit and healthy as possible. 

Heath checks

Getting a vet to carry out a health check before the winter season is a great way of making sure that there are no underlying conditions such as a low-grade lameness or any signs or respiratory disease that may be exacerbated during stabling. Older horses with mild arthritis benefit from treatment at any time of the year. But some of these may stiffen up more when stabled for longer periods; so it is always advisable to identify any issues to allow treatment if necessary. 

Make sure their vaccinations are up to date, especially if they will be stabled in close proximity to larger numbers of horses. A faecal worm egg count and tapeworm test should also be performed going into winter to ensure optimal gut health. If you have any concerns about preventative healthcare, your vet will be able to advise. 

Many owners will opt to clip their horse in winter to prevent them getting too sweaty when ridden. This is particularly important for horses who may have a very thick coat, for example those with Equine Cushing’s disease. However, bear in mind when exercising a clipped horse in the winter, you should allow some extra time to cool down and dry them off properly. 

Stables and equipment?

Carry out a full check and clean of your stables before your horse needs to spend more time in there. Cobwebs, dust and old bedding can contribute to poor air quality. This will have a detrimental effect on your horses’ health, particularly if they are already suffering from chronic respiratory disease. Cleaning and removing all the cobwebs can be a huge undertaking, but will make a big difference to your horse. 

In addition to cleaning the stables, you could consider ways to keep your horse occupied if they are going to be stabled for longer periods over winter. With increased hours spent stabled, boredom is more likely. In extreme circumstances, it can contribute to the development of stereotypical behaviours such as crib biting or health problems such as gastric ulceration. Enrichment toys, mirrors or slow hay feeders can all help to alleviate boredom.  

Prepare and check your winter kit in advance. It is a good idea to go through winter rugs and have them cleaned and repaired if necessary. Check stocks in your first aid kit. And ensure you have a good supply of batteries for torches for those dark evening checks. 

Exercise

Exercise has multiple benefits for both horse and rider particularly in terms of maintaining fitness, muscle tone and increasing insulin sensitivity. Some consistent exercise is better than intermittent bouts; particularly if your horse is likely to get fizzy or over excited if they have not been ridden, which increases the risk of injury to one or both of you!

The main question is how to fit in regular exercise when the weather and daylight is against you. 

In general, an exercise program should be consistent and start off slowly with gradual, incremental increases over time. It is not possible to recommend a one size fits all exercise program as each horse, rider and circumstances are different. It is always advisable to consult your trainer, a trusted experienced horseperson or your vet to try to come up with a realistic plan to meet your goals. 

Hacking is a great way of keeping horses fit at any time of the year

It may form a large part of any training programme.  Winter is a great time to get the OS maps out and see if you can find some new routes to try. Hacking is always better with friends and it is safer to have company, especially on new routes. We always recommend downloading the “What 3 words” app which will provide emergency services with your exact location if the need arises. 

If you are lucky enough to have access to an all weather or indoor arena…

These are a fantastic luxury at any time of the year, particularly in winter. They can also be used for turnout, if the surface allows. If you can, try to arrange sessions with others on the yard so that one of you can set up some jumps or grids that you can both use. Having a course set up in advance will allow you to increase the time you can spend riding or grooming. 

It may also be possible to travel to an arena for some exercise; but make sure roads are safe before travelling. Going to a different arena is also good practice for competitions and will help your horse to adapt to strange environments. Depending on your location, you could also travel to a nearby beach, hills or forest. You and your horse will love it and it’s a great way of mixing it up and including some fast work. 

Don’t be afraid to try new things! 

If you are confined to an arena, try some dressage, including some music for variety. Now is also a good time to work on transitions or movements or to introduce polework or gridwork. Take care not to overdo the practice on individual movements as this can lead to boredom or injury. Don’t underestimate the value of lungeing or long-reining. Even a 20 minute session can help to keep your horse fit if you are running short on time. 

People often ask about the use of walkers

Although not everyone has access to one, they can be a great way of maintaining fitness with reduced time, but, be careful, horses will need to be trained to use them and over may exacerbate injury. 

Always remember, if the weather is very icy, don’t be afraid to avoid exercise on that day 

Slips or falls on ice can be extremely serious, so best to err on the side of caution and wait until another time. If it is still possible to turn out, ensure your horse is well rugged and all water troughs are free from ice. Try to use this down time to spend some quality time with your horse, with an extra long grooming session, massage, carrot stretches or you could even teach them a new trick. Your horse will greatly appreciate any extra time with you. 

Grooming

When time is short, it is not always possible to groom your horse as much as you would like. In these situations, full neck covers can be an excellent way of reducing the amount of caked on mud you will be greeted with! However, you must not avoid thoroughly checking your horse over for any wounds, swellings or areas of discomfort. Legs should be cleaned daily and dried thoroughly to check for swellings or signs of mud fever. Any lameness or infections will stop you from being able to ride your horse, so it is best if they can be treated early to minimise disruption to your fitness plan and to prevent your horse from suffering. 

Diet

If you need to reduce your horse’s exercise, due to injury, time constraints or poor weather, don’t forget to reduce their feed intake too. Forage should always be available, but it is advisable to reduce the amount of concentrates in accordance with workload. Consult your vet or nutritionist for advice on reducing feed for workload for your individual horse. 

Rider care

Look after yourself too! There are few things more miserable than trying to care for or exercise your horse with freezing fingers and toes. Wrap up warm, invest in some thermal boots, gloves and layers. 

Try to meet up with friends or local horse people for a ride. Friends are a great motivation when the winter nights are drawing in or when your bed is far too appealing in the dark mornings. If you are concerned that you will struggle with time, consider getting a sharer or hiring a professional rider to help you to exercise or care for your horse. Having a consistent exercise program in place will help to improve fitness more quickly. 

In summary, preparation is key to maintaining fitness over the winter months. Be realistic in your goals. If you do not have access to all weather arenas, make as much use of hacking as possible. Above all try to enjoy these months as much as possible, spring will come eventually! If you have any concerns about how well your horse will cope over the winter, please don’t hesitate to contact your vet for tailored advice. 

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