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How cold is too cold to ride a horse?

25 Jan
Jac is HOT

Steamy Jac taking a break before heading the other direction.

I went to an equine college and on really cold days we tried to make an argument that it was too cold to ride.

We were told by the learned scholars and the riding instructors: It will be too cold for you before it is too cold for your horse.

The two main issues people worry about in the cold are hurting the horses lungs and getting them sweaty.

The scholars informed us that horses have an incredibly long air passage; the air passes through the nostril to throat latch and then down the long neck, which allows the air to warm before reaching the lungs.

The riding instructors taught us to use coolers on the horses; a blanket type set up with moisture wicking properties i.e. wool or wicking synthetic, to both keep them warm and speed in drying them out to prevent chilling.

Coolers are amazing. In the photo the cooler isn’t dirty…the white dusty look is caused by the moisture rising up and sitting on top of the cooler instead of on him.

Jac wearing a cooler

Jac wearing a cooler; look at the steam rising through it and the moisture gathering on top instead of on Jac.

While googling for info I found a great article on Discoverhorses.com quoting Dr. Joyce Harman, “There is no temperature where it is too cold for a horse to be ridden or to go outside if they are adapted to it.”

Now as for me, I need to go thaw my toes…

 
66 Comments

Posted by on January 25, 2014 in Training

 

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66 responses to “How cold is too cold to ride a horse?

  1. http://theenglishprofessoratlarge.com

    January 25, 2014 at 5:41 pm

    When I lived in South Dakota, where the winter temperatures dove far, far below zero most of the days, I rode my horse unless the ice was too slick, but still she would run to pasture in the days before spending the night in the barn with a blanket. Horses can take the cold a lot better than we can,especially after they grow their winter coats.

     
  2. Kim

    January 25, 2014 at 5:48 pm

    Up here in Canada if we don’t ride when it’s “too cold” – we wouldn’t ride for half the year! 😉 At our barn we just make sure we ride the horses according to the temperature. On the really cold days we might just play with some trail obstacles or do ground work in order to not sweat the horses up. Oh, and I’ve discovered that “hot paws” are a girl’s best friend in the winter! They are little heated pads that go inside your gloves and boots. Life savers! (or should I say “digit savers”!)

     
    • Jessie

      January 25, 2014 at 10:34 pm

      Agreed! I’m from British Columbia and weather never stopped me or my girls from chasing cattle or playin with the horses.. A good scarf and insulated leather work gloves and a tough duck jacket n -40 rated boots are our lifesaving best friend hey! 🙂 I lose all sense of the cold when I’m around horses anyways lol

       
    • Raphaëlle

      January 26, 2014 at 8:38 am

      I am from Québec and it’s the same here! If I do not play with my horse because it’s to cold, well, I will never do something so when it’s -20 below, I just do “light” ground work or I brush them. When it’s up -20, I play others game with them.

      I also like “Hot paws” 😀

       
  3. patsy24

    January 25, 2014 at 5:52 pm

    I don’t have an indoor so cold-day riding doesn’t get too steamy for me. Do I still ride-yes unless it hurts my face or it’s glacial ice. I feel it’s better to keep the lines of communication open and walk for 30-45mins then nothing at all. Horses need to move. If I can do WT transitions, even better. If I get fresh snow-awesome. Do I do it every day-no.

     
  4. ingridl999

    January 25, 2014 at 5:55 pm

    Stacy, Thanks for the info on the cooler. I try to ride every day, even in this frigid weather. But I don’t let my horse get into a heavy sweat, just a light sweat so that she can cool down quickly. Jac looks pretty sweaty in the picture. My question is how long does it generally take him to cool down and dry out with the cooler and how hard do you ride him?

     
    • Stacy

      January 25, 2014 at 11:34 pm

      Ingrid-The horses we ride regularly we blanket so they can be ridden harder. For example, my minis don’t have blankets, and they get too hot after a few minutes of work…they can’t take their coats off.
      Jac wears blankets so when they are removed he doesn’t over heat as quickly. So the same work I do in the summer is actually easier on him (quicker recovery time) in the winter. I ride him about normal. Right now that is about one hour. He gets fairly sweaty, not as sweaty as summer because it evaporates much better, his neck/chest/saddle area will get wet.
      With a cooler on he is dry in 20 or 30 minutes. His breathing rate, which is what I use to judge his fitness, returns to normal in just a few minutes; unlike summer where I could spend double the time letting him try to recover from the heat.

       
  5. JennC

    January 25, 2014 at 5:59 pm

    Too cold is only when your eyeballs feel frozen ( so do their’s) usable terrain is usually more of an issue. Love to go in the snow if only for a short bare back loop around the fields. 🙂

     
  6. Ricky Cummings

    January 25, 2014 at 6:02 pm

    The cooler’s last use had a layer of thin ice on it after about 20 minutes. It was the perspiration that filtered up from the horse and froze.

     
  7. Nikki B

    January 25, 2014 at 6:05 pm

    I don’t mind riding when it’s cold (doesn’t get too cold here in South Australia) but I hate riding when it’s really windy and the horses hate it too. They are always trying to swing their rumps to the wind and I don’t blame them.

     
  8. Lindsey

    January 25, 2014 at 6:10 pm

    We’ve been having quite a stretch of near-zero or below zero temperatures both with and without a wind chill here in Iowa lately. For me, those temperatures are too cold to be outside for long, so during those days, I will either do a little light groundwork inside or take the opportunity God has given me to just let my horses be horses. They get a nice break before show season starts up again in the spring. When it’s a little warmer, that is, 30 or warmer (without wind chill), then I will definitely take the chance to get out and do a nice trail ride, or go sledding if there’s snow–Pony style! 🙂 For the most part, I leave a lot of my training work and work that would get the horse possibly really sweaty for the warmer months of the year. That being said, though, “warmer” winter days are also great days for doing “review work”! 🙂

     
    • Susan

      January 25, 2014 at 6:19 pm

      Yes, Lindsey, I completely agree with you!!! I feel that horses need their energy to produce heat in their bodies…I don’t want to steal it from them by greedily needing to ride to satisfy myself!!!

       
  9. Martina Braden

    January 25, 2014 at 6:11 pm

    Thanks for the information. Sometimes Randi and I want to haul our horses to an indoor arena down the street and we always wonder if it is to cold to ride. The one question I do have is how long should a horse have a cooler on before putting them back outside? They still look wet after a period of having the cooler on and I always feel bad putting them out.

     
    • Stacy

      January 25, 2014 at 11:19 pm

      Martina-We keep the coolers on until they are dry. They may look wet because of the sweat pattern, but they will be crusty dry. You can tell because if you brush the crust it turns back into normal, un-crusty, hair that is dry. Dry is the key and it changes from horse to horse depending on their hair coat. The thicker the hair the longer it takes to dry. If I have a thick haired horse that cools and isn’t dry yet I have used a blowdryer before to dry them the rest of the way. Really! A barn blow dryer. Sometimes we fire up the torpedo heater to take the chill off the indoor. On those days you can dry a horse in a few minutes (full body) by standing in front of the heater.

       
      • Stephanie Kinworthy

        February 19, 2014 at 9:58 am

        Where can I get one of these!? It sounds amazing! I had a problem with working my horse in the cold because after he would sweaty and I didnt want to hose him down. After so much sweat build up his white coat turned yellow and it wouldnt come off for nothing! So I had to shave him…

         
    • Kristin

      January 26, 2014 at 10:10 pm

      you need to get them dry before putting them back out wet. it may take multiple cooler changes as if a cooler gets to wet it loses its effectiveness, you also need to make sure you groom them to uncrust their hair so it gets the ability to stand up and provide the insulating layer to keep your horse warm, if the hair is wet, or crusty they lose the point of the thick coat to keep them warm

       
  10. Jenny Hiscox

    January 25, 2014 at 6:11 pm

    I used to worry about freezing my horse’s lungs or whatever, until my horse vet made the excellent point; what about us when we go skiing? We exert ourselves in the extreme cold, have you EVER heard of anyone freezing their lungs? Of course not!

     
    • Jenny Hiscox

      January 25, 2014 at 6:12 pm

      In fact, if your horse is cold, a little exercise is just what she needs to help her warm up!

       
    • windy acres

      January 25, 2014 at 7:24 pm

      Actually, I myself have burned my lungs, just by breathing fast, exerting myself when it was -10 outside, and I was trying to get chores done quickly. Took over 3 weeks to recover. I also have seen a horse collapse in the middle of the road, that had been trotting when the temp was subzero. gasping for breath. So yes, it does happen, to both humans and horses.

       
      • Susan

        January 26, 2014 at 7:53 am

        Agree with the Ohio University coach and Windy Acres! Yup, doing chores in the very cold. I coughed for a week with the “cold burn” I felt in my chest afterwards. I feel the horses need their energy reserves to help them stay warm. Exercise them to feel warm….they get warm at the time but afterward, they are left out in the cold. They don’t go into the warm house like we do.

         
    • Stacy

      January 25, 2014 at 11:23 pm

      Jenny-I love your vet’s point here! I also think this ties in well with the “if they are adapted to it” phrase. My horses are ridden, and I ride, as the temps drop. If I hauled one up from southern Florida I would give it time to adapt…but I would do that no matter what time of year also.

       
  11. Mary

    January 25, 2014 at 6:24 pm

    Good info!

     
  12. Priscilla Baldwin

    January 25, 2014 at 6:27 pm

    I do not mind riding in the cold as long as it is at least 20 degrees. I just wish I had a indoor with safe footing to ride in. I am so ready for spring.

     
    • Mary Ann Kirchoff

      January 25, 2014 at 8:04 pm

      Me, too!

       
    • rcatheron

      January 25, 2014 at 9:18 pm

      It’s been in the single digits and below zero for several weeks in upstate New York, but I just can’t stand not riding. About the only time I won’t ride is when it’s that cold and also windy. My horse’s coat is so thick I have to use a longer girth, though!

       
    • Raphaëlle

      January 26, 2014 at 8:43 am

      Same here!! I would love to have an indoor arena so I can have a nice footing and no wind, or rain of snow storm.

      I am looking for to walk in my sand! 🙂

       
  13. Joan Peterson

    January 25, 2014 at 6:35 pm

    As I get older, the temp must be warmer for me to ride. I only have access to the outdoors. And most times, the wind is a big factor. A day at +3c with strong winds might be colder than -5 with no wind. But generally, it has to be at a temp where I still feel comfortable after an hour or so. Probably a nice sunny day and plus 5 would do it if it was not too windy. But much below 0 celcius now and I won’t ride. Anything above 0 I will if it is not too windy. The wind can cut right thru you out in an open field. And once it is real icy out there, I just wait till it thaws. Not going to risk my life or my horses life by riding in icy conditions.

     
  14. Siv

    January 25, 2014 at 6:47 pm

    I live in Norway, and this winter has been all storms and temperatures below zero. Temperatures? No problem! Wind? BIG problem.. Some days the horses stay inside all day, because if we try to put them out, they turn their backs towards the wind, and waits just inside the paddock. It is clear that they would much rather stay inside when the wind is that bad.. And I’m telling you; its reeeeeally bad!
    There is also a lot of stuff flying around, because the wind tears up roofs and stuff.. Dangerous for both horses and people. Wish we had a indoor arena at days(or weeks, months) like this…

     
  15. Glenda

    January 25, 2014 at 7:17 pm

    30’s and below or too wet

     
  16. Stacey

    January 25, 2014 at 7:40 pm

    But the whole point of this article is – and it’s the closing statement – “it’s not too cold IF THEY’RE ADAPTED TO IT.” I feel like my horse, who is blanketed, in a heated barn, with heated water buckets, probably isn’t as adapted to it as some of the horses mentioned above. Essentially, we’ve un-adapted our show horses – and I’m not working them when it’s 35-below-zero here in Chicago. Heck, I’m probably not working them until its at least plus 20; even with the indoor, its hard to maintain the footing at less than plus 20 degrees. We’ve wussified our horses, and I’m not too proud to admit it 🙂

     
    • Joanne Pandis

      January 8, 2015 at 11:49 am

      In Chicago too.
      My ponies don’t get worked if it’s below 10F (-12C) outside. Right now it’s 1F, so no work today again. They live inside at night, in a heated barn (doesn’t get below 40) and they’re blanketed outside. Adapted? – I don’t think so.
      The rings are too cold. They turn the heaters off in the rings because they cannot keep up when it’s this cold (yes we have heated rings too) so the footing is harder. In addition the air is too cold to breath rapidly into my lungs. I have exercise induced asthma, which requires an inhaler to breathe when I exercise in the cold (anything below freezing).
      So for the dozen or so days in the winter when it’s extreme here, I don’t ride. Last winter was a nightmare – polar vortex anyone, thanks Canada! – Hardly any work done at all. This year so far so good, keeping fingers crossed.

       
  17. Laura Rupe

    January 25, 2014 at 7:53 pm

    I rode for Ohio University’s Western Equestrian Team under and our coach didn’t let us ride unless it was at least 20 degrees in the barn! Anything less is just to cold for him and us!

     
  18. Melissa Snyder

    January 25, 2014 at 8:51 pm

    When I was a teenager through my twenties it never mattered how cold it was outside, we rode as long as we could stand the cold. It never seemed to bother the horses at all! We took the bridles inside to warm them up, then tucked the bits under our arms inside our coats and took them to the barn so the metal would not be cold…and rode bareback down the trail. You stay nice and toasty sitting right on all that warm horse!
    Now, twenty five years later, I am a cold weather weenie. You won’t see me on a horse unless it is 40 degrees or warmer…

     
  19. Marlene Fulton

    January 25, 2014 at 8:52 pm

    I prefer high teens…the coldest I’ve ridden was 16 below. 🙂

     
  20. Madeline C.

    January 25, 2014 at 9:16 pm

    Love this post! People think I’m crazy when it’s like 4-5* out and I’m like, “Oh hey, I’ll see you after I ride.” I learned that horses are like snow men, it can get too hot, but it will never be too cold. 🙂

     
  21. Lindsay

    January 25, 2014 at 11:34 pm

    Boy you look Happy in this pic….. Not !! LOL

     
    • Stacy

      January 26, 2014 at 10:10 am

      Hey! I made a joke about it on the photo! I was actually listening because Jesse and all three boys were in the barn.

       
  22. Rob

    January 25, 2014 at 11:43 pm

    You will excuse me if I chuckle when i read how many of you brave ‘ frigid 20 degree weather’ … This winter we have hit – 41 with the wind chill. Doubt any of the learned instructors would train or expect a horse to perform at these temperatures … Cheers from Canada

     
  23. tanja

    January 26, 2014 at 3:02 am

    Riding schools in Finland usually have -15C limit for outdoor lessons, i guess you could do indoor lessons if your car just gets started 🙂
    Personally i recommend going bareback (keeps the rider warm).

     
    • Susan

      January 26, 2014 at 7:45 am

      Uch, -15 is equal to 5 degrees Fahrenheit!

       
      • Cedar

        January 27, 2014 at 12:04 pm

        Hi Susan,
        I have ridden in 2°F/-16.6°C weather. Except for the space between my sunglasses and neck gaiter pulled up over my nose, I was fine. My horse was fine, too. She was even a bit frisky when we first got started. She was happy to get out on a ride with her friend: Horses, people and even the dogs in their winter jackets! Of course my friends and I may be an exception.

         
  24. Crystal

    January 26, 2014 at 3:44 am

    This is all pretty useful information. Lately its been getting slightly warmer by a degree or two, ad my horse is already sweaty after every ride! She also starts losin her winter coat mid Janurary, which ive only notice for 2 yrs now. Shes originally from AB where it can snow in summer at times, so i never have to worry too much about her 🙂

    Which equine school did you attend or what state? I worry sometimes about how the climate would change if we ever went down to the states, but still want to chase my dreams.

     
    • Stacy

      January 26, 2014 at 10:09 am

      I went to the University of Findlay here in Ohio. Many people travel with their horses, consider checking with people who have traveled where and when you want to travel to get more comfortable with the idea:)

       
  25. Raphaëlle

    January 26, 2014 at 8:51 am

    Stacy, I know that when a human does exercice in the cold, it’s not to good for lungs. But what about horses?
    I don’t ask for trot or canter below -20. I just go for a walk, or light work under saddle, or I do light ground work. What do you think?

     
    • Stacy

      January 26, 2014 at 10:06 am

      From what the vets are saying the length of our airway (nose/throat to lungs) is short and in horses it is very long. That is why they say the cold air isn’t a problem for horses like it can be for humans.

       
      • Raphaëlle

        January 26, 2014 at 11:16 am

        Yes, that is true. Thank you Stacy for your answer. 🙂

         
  26. Caelyn Adams

    January 26, 2014 at 12:26 pm

    Here in New Jersey, I go to Centenary College and we stop riding the horses if the high is below 16 degrees. If the high is 16 and over then we do some light work and we don’t really continue our normal work until it’s about 30

     
  27. Small Town Librarian

    January 26, 2014 at 12:27 pm

    I got to school at Centenary College in New Jersey and we won’t ride our horses if the high of the day is below 16. If the high is over 16 we do some light work, and until it hits around 30 do we really go back to our normal work.

     
  28. Gena Nicholas

    January 26, 2014 at 1:15 pm

    So is it safe to ride in snow?

     
    • Stacy

      January 27, 2014 at 12:36 pm

      Yes with caution. The snow often comes with ice, etc that is the problem. Some of my fondest memories of childhood are riding in a big field making paths and chasing each other in snow belly deep on the horse. Good footing though.

       
  29. Gena Nicholas

    January 26, 2014 at 1:31 pm

    Stacy I am in the “Huntington WV” area so I am asking out of honesty as I live on 85 acres hilly terrain and the withdrawals have set in..

     
    • Cedar

      January 27, 2014 at 11:58 am

      Hi Gena,
      I’ve ridden in some hilly terrain in Colorado in deep snow. I don’t like it to get to the depth of the girth because then the cinches usually need conditioning and the snow sticks. I like to know if there is ice underneath the powder, too. But barefoot horses are pretty surefooted! And they run in deep snow in the pastures, playing like crazy every day. If I am going down a steep trail, more than a 5% grade, I make sure the trail is not icy first. Every day after Christmas, the Surface Creek Women’s Saddle Club have a ride in the Gunnison Gorge Rec area, mixed terrain and icy and snowy. It is always fun!
      I say go for it and dress warm and just take a few precautions.

       
  30. Misty Wooddell

    January 26, 2014 at 1:52 pm

    I’m a wimp here in ohio and if it is below 20 degrees Fahrenheit in the Indoor where I have my horse boarded at I won’t ride. My horse is in a heated barn where they keeps lights on to keep show coats and so she is use to 50’s. Plus I am a winter weenie LOL!

     
  31. Vernon Cherni

    January 26, 2014 at 3:31 pm

    We have moved cow at -35 with wind it didn’t bother the horse as there winter coats are two inches thick plus and they live outdoors all winter.

     
  32. Amanda

    January 27, 2014 at 10:46 am

    Thanks for sharing! While I don’t own a horse (though someday I’d love to), I enjoy reading about them and this is especially informative! 🙂

     
  33. Cedar

    January 27, 2014 at 11:45 am

    I live in Western Colorado and the only days I don’t ride are blizzard or icy conditions. I knitted a special “winter riding hat” for my self and for 5 others. I just knitted a fisherman’s cap, added a baseball hat brim which I crocheted with the same wool and some ear flaps. I then put some windproof insulation in the ear flaps and then lined the cap with fleece. That hat plus my Schnee’s western winter pack boots, polypropylene long underwear and insulated pants compliment the winter slicker I sewed from a Suitablity pattern. I just added quilted thinsulate for a lining to the Macintosh slicker. Oh and some smart wool liners for my mittens that have a pocket for those chemical heat pillow packs. Although I don’t use the packs. Ah—–toasty warm!

     
  34. Cedar

    January 27, 2014 at 11:52 am

    Also, when we work the horses at the ranch, we give them a warm up period, usually a walk down the plowed road, work them a bit harder, say in deep snow out on the BLM land, and then a cool down period. Most of them have wooly coats and get hot fast, even on single digit days. Fortunately, where we tie them up to groom and saddle them is a protected south exposure of the barn. The dark color warms up fast and helps to dry them off. We also use a sheet on those rare occasions when they are not cooled down enough to stand while grooming and have a little warm nap and dry off. That is usually when I grab a mug of hot tea from my thermos!

     
  35. Ron Nelson

    January 31, 2014 at 11:21 am

    Good subject Stacey, around these parts just about ever other person has an arena and these take all the fun out of winter, my horses live outside all the time, the old quarter horse wants a blanket on only when it gets real cold out, the mustang just pulls them off however he can.
    But for riding outside I have done it all my life and the belly deep snow is great for exercising young horses, a twenty minute ride in the deep snow is plenty. We use wool blanket coolers only some are surplas Canadian Army blankets with a big clasp in the front, if it is wool they love them. There is never any sense over doing anything. But outside is the way to go your horse stays healthy and so do you! Win win!

     
  36. Adriana

    February 5, 2014 at 12:59 pm

    Up here in Canada if we didn’t ride when it was below 0 degrees Celsius we would only be able to ride 5 months outta the year!! I am from Alberta where it is basically always -20 degrees Celsius all winter long! The biggest thing I agree with is if a horse is adapted to it! Up here in Canada all of our horses are used to the freaking cold temperatures! But I won’t ride my horse if it’s below -25 without the wind. And I have an indoor arena and a barn to warm up and cool down my horses. The biggest thing I always do if I am ever going to ride in the cold is spend a really long time warming up. I don’t want my horse injuring themselves cause of cold muscles. And I won’t let my horse get sweaty so they won’t get chills. Basically I still ride when it’s -20 but not nearly as hard as I would in the summer. And coolers are amazing ifs horse ever does get sweaty! I use them all the time!

     
  37. Fernanda Camargo

    January 10, 2015 at 8:31 pm

    Dear Stacy, the information you have on this post is incorrect. Cold air is very deleterious to the lungs of athletes, causing inflammation and remodeling. There are many research papers showing the bad effects that cold air exercise has in horses (and dogs, humans, etc). Just to cite a few:
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12405726
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17269885
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22267570
    A little walk won’t be a problem, but horses, at the canter and gallop, synchronize their breath intake with each stride, and that is not nearly enough time for the air to warm up and get humidified.
    I am a DVM and also PhD. My PhD studies were on the pulmonary system of horses.
    Thanks
    Fernanda

     
    • Stacy

      January 11, 2015 at 11:01 am

      I am glad you posted. This will allow people to make their own decisions. I looked and read some of the study but found myself wanting to know more. For example the study said below 40 degrees Fahrenheit caused changes, but it I enjoy working out at and below that temperature myself. Does it matter if the horses, or people, are accustom? Can the body rebuild in an appropriate way? But then again when I ride it isn’t TB on the track or treadmill running either…does that make a difference?
      Thanks for the food for thought!

       
    • Tracey MacKenzie

      February 26, 2015 at 10:28 am

      Thank you for posting Fernanda! As a riding instructor in Canada, we often debate at what temperature it should be considered “too cold” to conduct our lessons at greater than a walk, or at all for that matter. Although we have an indoor arena, most of our lessons are in the evenings & this winter has seen multiple “extreme cold weather alerts” so the temperatures are often colder than minus 15 or 20 degrees celsius during scheduled lesson times. Most coaches typically cancel lessons at minus 30 but I wonder if that’s leaving it too late. What conclusions have you drawn from your research as to the limits for strenuous exercise?

       
      • Susan

        February 26, 2015 at 4:24 pm

        Am I correct in calculating -30 Celsius to -22 Fahrenheit??? You ride when it goes below 0 (Fahrenheit)? Holy Moses, you folks are really hardy. My face has gotten frostbitten in those kinds of temperatures!

         

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