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Alpha Natural Horsemanship

‘Ask with lightness, encourage without forcing, correct with softness’
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Winter Training Workouts

Winter Workouts and Training



Periods of downtime come as realistic parts of horse ownership, although how a rider uses these stretches of poor weather or busy schedules contributes profoundly to a horse’s long-term soundness and performance. Recent data from biomechanics researchers and veterinary schools shows that large vacillations in fitness can be detrimental to overall health, particularly for horses past their mid-teen years. Most notably, periods of lesser activity lasting over a month can weaken deep postural muscles and supporting soft tissue. When a horse is once again placed in a workout routine, he is more likely to use compensatory postures and muscles, leading to lackluster performance or injury, not to mention fail to progress in his training. Below I offer simple tips to not only manage times of lesser activity, but to use them to actually move your training forward.

First, it is worth dispelling the myth that horses somehow hold on to acquired levels of fitness when their weekly training schedule drops below three times per week. This is not the case. De-training effects can be measured in the cardiovascular system as early as two weeks after a workload reduction. Following layoffs longer than a month, losses of musculoskeletal strength, bone density, and tendon and ligament tonicity can be detected. These structures, once weakened, require considerably longer re-conditioning than the cardiovascular system. In fact, most horses are held back by weakness or failings in these underlying soft tissues, not from deficiencies in cardiovascular or gymnastic muscle strength.

A general rule of thumb in exercise physiology is to allow one month of progressive re-conditioning for each month off. A better rule might be to not allow these losses of underlying strength in the first place. The good news is that you do not need a big time investment to prevent them.  Short daylight hours and icy cold temperatures can cause many riding challenges. A basic understanding of how to keep your horse healthy and safe in cold weather will keep you in the saddle all winter and give you a head start on conditioning your horse for the heavier riding season once spring rolls around.

Before you ride 
Use common sense. If it feels painful to take a deep breath of wintery air into your lungs, it’s most likely too cold for your horse to be galloping around sucking in ice crystals. I cut my lessons and training off when my thermometer in my indoor arena reads -20°C. Any colder is too hard on horses’ lungs.”  Keep in mind this is indoors where there is no wind chill. So if you are planning to ride outdoors, check your local weather forecast and take wind chill into account.  Before tacking up, check your horse’s feet for ice balls and packed snow. If you’re not able to chip it off, groom your horse while you wait for the snow and ice to thaw.  Use snow padsPeople or; I recommend spraying w/Pam or spraying with WD40 or using vaseline.  Grooming is a splendid time to check over your horse. Grooming is also a vital part of your routine for it will help rev up your horse’s circulation and unclog any blocked pores allowing him to sweat.

Allowing for a proper warm up
“It is important to give your horse a lot of time to become warm in the winter and to gradually bring their body temperature up.  Typically, horses feel very tight when it is cold so warm up your horses by allowing them a lot of time to walk and gently stretch laterally. “I always walk in both directions and bend the horse both ways to encourage equal muscle development. A warm up should be progressive with lots of time spent feeling how your horse is responding; straight lines and gentle bends initially are better handled by the horse.  The time frame I spend in the winter walking to warm up is 10 to 15 minutes.”  Once horses have enough time to get their circulation going to the large muscle groups and lower extremities, then they should soften up.  Once your horse feels relaxed under saddle, then it should be okay to move to the jog or trot.


How hard should you work your horse?
Likely your horses is not conditioned to strenuous exercise, the extreme cold is not necessarily the best place to start.  However, consistency in workouts will help your horse maintain his fitness level and contribute to his overall physical well being. 

I use this rule of thumb in my training program; if the horse is stress it is too much ride. There are plenty of simple, less strenuous ground exercises you can do in the cold such as lunging at a walk and trot.  Desensitizing, bending, flexing, stopping and backing up or even just spending time standing still. This will allow for time on your horse and help promote an all around well trained horse.

Cool down
At the end of a riding session allow at least an extra 15 minutes to walk your horse out and start the cool down process. For optimal cool out and drying, riding during daylight hours is best. But, since this isn’t always possible, you must make sure your horse is completely dry. It’s a good idea to put a cooler on your horse whether he is blanketed full time or not to help cut down on drying time. An excellent choice would be one made of polar fleece, which absorbs moisture and washes well. “By using a few different coolers you can really cut down on your drying time. I use the first to absorb the majority of the wetness, a second and even a third if necessary to make sure the horse is good and dry,” says Grams. Ensure they are completely dry by feeling between his front legs in the chest area and behind the elbows.  Places like the flank and abdomen also need to be dry.  Once your horse is dry, remove the damp cooler and brush him out. This fluffs his under coat, which is a natural protector from the cold. Once dry and you have decided to blanket your horse, use a dry blanket! 

Turnout after exercise
Should you blanket your horse? Horses that are not ridden during the winter don’t usually need a blanket because they will grow a fluffy undercoat or loft, which helps keep a pocket of air next to the skin that heats up. The loft combines with longer guard hairs to keep the horse warm and dry.  “Blanketing has advantages for horses that are shown and/or clipped, hard keepers, older or naturally short haired such as some Arabians and Thoroughbreds.  A blanket may be needed if your horse does not have access to a shelter. But remember; if you start blanketing you have to keep a blanket on all winter. Make sure the blanket is well fitted to avoid excess rubbing and check straps and belly bands to keep your horse safe. A weatherproof blanket is important because a wet blanket will cause your horse’s hair to become flat, eliminating the loft part of the hair and causing your horse to become cold more quickly.

Generally a horse that is in normal health, has his natural winter coat, and lives outside won't need sheets or blankets while warming up, cooling down, or working or, for that matter, while turned out, as long as there is an area of protection from precipitation.  It's another story for clipped horses. In extreme cold--generally temperatures that are 20 degrees below the temperature that the horse is comfortable without a blanket--clipped horses benefit from the bit of extra warmth of a quarter-sheet while starting the warm-up or cool down, or a sweat-sheet to wick away moisture while cooling off. But clipped horses don't need blankets during their workout--they'll get too warm and sweaty.

Maintenance Workout
As with summer work, you should gear post-warm-up maintenance exercises toward keeping your horse in some sort of condition and refining its skills. "In the winter I try to ride at least two days a week, with at least one serious ground lesson. "The other days I mix with hacking, mounted  work, gymnastics, ground obstacles.  Do trot and canter work through fields and hill work for about five to eight miles, at least twice  a week.  Also do natural horsemanship exercises a lot of bends, flexion, circles, and serpentines. "Walking hills really gets horses to use their hind legs, which are the muscles that seem to lose condition first.  Walking hills also allows horses to work both sides evenly without causing the amount of sweating as when cantering hills.

In Saskatchewan my horses lived and work outside, unblanketed, 24/7. Having natural coats, they always work up a sweat during their rides. To cool them down, I would walk them under saddle for the last10 minutes; the time it took to return to the farm.  This would cool down the muscle and the sweat.  Although the coat would remain wet at the hair tips, the skin was dry."

Finally, I would give the horse a quick grooming with a curry comb to fluff up wet hairs, I would take him to water and give him a treat in a pale on the ground, then turns him out. "The first things would do is go roll in the snow, then shake off the snow.  This fluffs up the coats, creating an insulating layer of air. As long as they have a windbreak and plenty of heat-generating hay to eat, they do just fine."