"I wonder if it's going to snow today?"
"I wonder it is warm enough to ride?"
"I wonder if I can fit all of these socks and layers under my boots?"
Weather in Nebraska is a special thing, we get extremes and wild variations. For horse owners this can be a perplexing problem. In our current season, Winter, cold weather is an important consideration for the health and well being of the horses as well as the riders.
In terms of daily life, a horse acclimates to cold weather quite well. It's important to remember our horses have a warmer normal body temperature than we humans have (Normal horse ranging from 99 to 101 degrees F). Their hair grows out long and fluffy in winter, and their body is covered with heat generating muscles. Most all horses living in a stalled situation like LEC can easily endure very cold temperatures, especially if they are blanketed during the coldest times.
Riding and working horses in the winter is when things become both confusing and frustrating. There is no actual veterinary medical recommendation for when it is TOO COLD to ride. The trick with winter riding is to ride at an appropriate level for the temperature you are riding in. As the temperature drops, the riding should decrease in intensity. If for example you normally ride 45 minutes of walk-trot-canter if the temperature is below 20 degrees reduce the amount of time you spend cantering, and give your horse more walk breaks. A long warm up walk and a long cool down walk are recommended. For horses who are clipped, or tend on the chilly side a quarter sheet is a good idea for warm up and cool down.
The reason for the decreased intensity is two fold. One: to protect lungs from any possible long-term damage. Just as we find it difficult/uncomfortable to breathe outside in harsh cold weather so do our horses. Overworking of your horse in extreme colds may produce problems year round. Two: Maintaining body temperature. When horses work hard they warm up and can sweat. If a horse is not properly cooled down in winter it is possible for them to begin to shiver, get muscle cramps and to feel distressed. To prevent this, NOT riding your horse to a lathered state in extremely cold weather is a good start. Horses who are sweating, or producing steam after a ride should be covered in a wool or polar fleece cooler until such time as the condensation on the horse has burned off.
NEVER put a winter blanket on a wet horse, the sweat or water will leach into the winter blanket and take a very long time to dry out. Horses wearing wet blankets will certainly become very cold quickly.
Riding instructors and horse trainers have varying standards for when they believe it is to cold for lessons and rides. Most instructors usually fall between 20 and 15 degrees F as their limit for when it is too cold to ride. Please heed your instructor's limit. These limits are for the riders, the horses as well as the instructor's health.
All this said, one of the big concerns about cold weather is Colic. Generally speaking horses like people are not as active in Winter. A horse's digestive system is designed to function best when horses are able to move about. Even if it is cold, it's a good idea to at least come out to the barn and hand walk or walk under saddle for 20 or so minutes a few times a week. This helps keep your horse energized mentally and physically. Light working also helps prevent stiffness in their joints.
For the riders: cold weather is dangerous for you as well. Make sure you've got layers on when you come out to ride or groom. Be mindful of your extremities. Try to find thin layers that will work underneath boots. Insulted jeans, and breeches are a nice option. Don't be worried about your fashion when trying to stay warm. If while riding your hands (in particular) begin to have a burning or tingling sensation IMMEDIATELY get off your horse and run warm water over your hands to help return circulation to areas effected by the cold.
Nebraska's weather presents all horsemen with a myriad of challenges. These very cold days certainly make us all look forward to Sunshine and spring flowers. Although it might seem a chore to pile on the clothing to head out to the barn its a task well worth doing. In these polar months it's good for you to keep moving and your horse certainly enjoys the attention.