Well, I looked out the window this morning, and sure enough, it’s still winter. It seems like it has been winter forever, and if I, a human being well-adapted to spending time indoors, am feeling stir-crazy, think about what long indoor winters can mean to horses meant for the outdoors?
In spite of how unappealing the thought of getting out there and giving your horse some fresh air can be on sub-freezing, gray, wet days, if your equine buddy is stall-bound most of the time, you need to stop looking for ex-er-scuses and make the sacrifice.
If you’ve seen your horse start exhibiting signs of stall-souring, like cribbing, kicking, or constantly pawing its bedding, you are looking at a bored animal. And if you don’t have the option of turning your horse out for pasture exercise, then please schedule a ride (that sounds strange, doesn’t it, to those of us who in fine weather can’t wait to climb aboard?) or training session–anything to get your horse out and moving.
Horses who do not exercise regularly are prone not only to boredom but to all types of unsoundness. Exercise keeps their muscular, skeletal, and circulatory systems toned and flexible, improves their appetite and digestion, and, by stretching their ligaments and tendons, vastly decreases their vulnerability to lameness.
Just as importantly, daily exercise will keep horses mentally sharp, and when it’s time to get back to regular business with the return of warm weather, they will be in much better condition and less in need of schooling to get with the program.
But because it’s winter, you may have to adjust your horse’s exercise to accommodate the weather and shorter daylight hours. You’ll need to extend both your horse’s warm-up before beginning vigorous activity, and cool-down after you are through.
You’ll be able to tell from your horse’s motion if it has warmed up enough to begin a more vigorous workout. If it’s taking short strides and appears to be “hunched”, keep leading it around until its stride and posture open up, and then mount and gradually step up the pace of the exercise.
One of the perils of winter exercise is that a deep-snow workout will exhaust your horse much more quickly than you may realize, so watch for signs of leg-weariness; you don’t want over-exertion to lead to lameness.
When you are finished with the exercise session, you’ll help your horse to cool out faster by running a towel over his thick winter coat to get the hair separated so that the moisture will evaporate more quickly, and then using a wool blanket to “wick” the moisture away from your horse’s skin. Don’t think that you can make up for putting a damp horse away by blanketing it; the blanket will only trap the moisture and leave your horse colder than he would have been without it.
So, because of the longer warm-up and cool-down periods, make sure you begin the exercise well in advance of sundown.
A horse which has been sufficiently exercised over the winter will be a much better-conditioned, and manageable, when warm weather does arrive, so just remember that the sacrifices you make to keep your horse active now will pay you back handsomely in a very short time!