Winter is Coming: Helpful Horsemanship Tips for Colder Weather

In Meagan DeLisle’s corner of Horse Nation, winter has finally arrived — which presents a few new challenges to winter horsekeeping. Here are a few tips and tricks she’s developed!

Growing up in the Midwest, I have acclimated to somewhat temperamental weather patterns but this fall/winter definitely takes the cake. Up until this week we have had mild, 60 degree weather that allowed us to enjoy our outdoor arena as much as possible. Suddenly, Missouri decided to kick Old Man Winter out of his hibernation status and I woke up one morning to my car’s “icy conditions possible” light taunting me and a forecast of our first flurry of 2017. While these weather conditions don’t change much of my personal life, aside from grabbing a thicker coat on my way out the door, they do affect the way I work with and around my horses. Here are a few suggestions to keep you and your four-legged friend happy and healthy through the winter months.

Disclaimer: I board my horse at a facility with a fully-inclosed indoor arena and keep him in work all winter long, so these tips are written from that perspective. I realize that other barn settings in other parts of the country may have different conditions that affect winter horsekeeping.

Cold Bits = Grumpy Pony

I will be the first to admit it took me entirely too long to come to this realization. It wasn’t until one day that my bridle fell off of its hook in our unheated tack room and I grabbed it by the bit that I realized WOW — this metal gets cold! Joey has always been fussy with his head and I can only imagine how placing a bitterly-cold bit in his mouth adds to that discomfort. I love the cute bit warmers filled with rice that you microwave, but I don’t have easy access to a microwave at my barn. Simpler alternatives include fleece bit warmers that you leave on 24/7 until its time to ride or simply warming up the bit in your hands prior to tacking up.

I am a fan of running the bit under lukewarm water or rolling it around in my gloved hands. This heats the bit up naturally without getting it too hot and makes bridling a much more comfortable experience for your horse when it’s a bit nippy out.

You Still Need to Cool Down

Whether your horse is clipped or not, you need to add a proper cool down process to your rides. Working hard in the winter with a full coat can cause a buildup of foamy sweat, which when left on can lead to chills as your horses body temperature regulates itself. Joey is a woolly mammoth in the winter, making our winter workouts no fun for either of us. Last year we went for a full body clip, but this year our show schedule didn’t require that severe of a haircut so we opted for a trace clip. Clipping is a controversial topic for many equestrians, but for our winter workout in a enclosed indoor arena it made sense to make him more comfortable by removing the hair in his sweatiest areas.

Joey’s hairdo this winter. Photo by Meagan DeLisle

Even with part of his hair coat removed, Joey still gets nice and toasty from our workouts. Make it a point after every ride to spend 10-15 minutes walking casually until your horse’s breathing has regulated and they have had the opportunity to let down from their workout. I like to keep a quarter rug on the arena fence when riding outdoors on particularly chilly days so I can drape it over his back as we make our way back to the barn (it keeps him warm and works as a desensitization method!). Once untacked, drape a cooler over your horse and allow it to absorb any moisture left in your horses coat. I find this time perfect for tack cleaning and organizing my trunk! Then blanket your horse or turn them back out au natural.

StretchTthose Muscles

You and your horse will benefit from pre-workout stretches all year round, but especially in the cold weather when your body gets to shaking from winter’s chill! Take a few moments before hopping on to stretch your legs, arms, shoulders, back, and neck so that you are warmed up and ready to ride. You can do the same for your horse. I like to take my horse by the hoof and curl their leg back and up towards their belly, hold and count to 10, then stretch the leg forward as if I were placing the hoof on a farrier’s stand and repeat. Once mounted, make the most of your warmup time. I love to take long 20 to 30 minute warm up sessions and spend 10-15 minutes of it walking on a long loose rein before moving on to trotting and so forth. This gets Joey’s mind in the game and his body ready for work.

Layer Layer Layer

This goes for both you and your horse — it is easier to take more layers off than it is to add on once you’re chilled! On particularly cold days, I often show up at the barn resembling Randy from A Christmas Story.

The more comfortable you are, the calmer your horse will be. Layer up with vests and thermals and jackets and if you need to remove a layer or two during your ride, it is super easy. As you work your way into warmth, just slip that coat off and ride around comfortably in your vest and long sleeve tee. The same principle goes for your blanketed horse. If you opted to clip, be sure to keep an eye on the forecast in your area. Precipitation and temperature both affect your horses need for supplemental warmth when he/she is nakey. Layering blankets of different weights will help to customize the most comfortable winter weather outfit for your horse.

Last winter when Joey sported a full clip, we would warm up in a quarter sheet to help him get his juices going! Photo by Cassie Zimmerman

Beware of Cold Water/Beware of Warm Water/BEWARE

If there were a step by step instructional manual to prevent colic, I would have already retired early from my job writing it. Unfortunately, horses are always going to be prone to colic and other issues, but we can do our best to ensure the care we are providing them is not doing them more harm than good. Following strenuous workouts in chilly weather, I like to offer my horse lukewarm water in a bucket so that I can control the speed of his intake. Ice cold water in a trough outside can hit your horse hard in his gut. I find it best to fill up a water bucket prior to our workout and leave it in an enclosed and heated area so it is room temperature when I offer it to them without giving them scalding, uncomfortable to drink hot water.

Some of your rides may require you to hose off afterwards which can make many horse owners nervous in cold weather. Have a cooler on hand and find the right temperature of water before beginning your horses wash down. Again, aim for not too cold or not too hot. If you react sharply to it, so will your horse. In the extreme heat or cold, I start hosing my horse at his hoof and work my way up to the leg and neck. Then I move over to the spine and down to the belly so they have had time to acclimate to the new temperature.


Everyone is going to believe in different methods, these are a just a few of the things I do to keep my horses happy and healthy in the colder weather. What tips/tricks do you have for those of us who trudge on in the winter?

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