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Maintaining an Equine Athlete in the Winter: A Vet’s Perspective 


Written for Utah Dressage Society

Maintaining an Equine Athlete in the Winter: A Vet’s Perspective

By Haleigh Lundgreen, DVM

January 2023

Let’s face it, riding in Utah in the winter is hard. This article is about the Do’s and Dont’s of riding through the winter: ways to keep your horse conditioned while still giving you and your horse a little R&R from the show season. Horses are like us; it is healthy to have changes and cycles in training for their brain, muscles, tendons, ligaments and joints. We’re going to start with the basics. It’s always about the basics, right? If you do not have the basics, then you have nothing upon which to build.

Nutrition! Winter is calorically harder on horses than summer. Now is not the time to back off of their nutrition and supplement program. You may need to make minor adjustments to maintain proper body condition but don’t take the winter off on your horse’s nutrition.

Shelter! Providing proper shelter from wind, rain, snow and sun (yes, even the sun in winter!) will allow your horse’s body to focus on the work instead of keeping itself alive. This applies to the heat of summer as well.

Water! Yes, this seems obvious but pay attention to your horse’s water. If it is too cold or frozen over, they may not be drinking or enough, if at all. A dehydrated horse leads to a cascade of undesirable consequences (i.e. colic). 45 degrees or warmer is the ideal temperature for water.

Beyond the Basics

Winter riding in cold weather is all about slowing it down. Spend more time at the walk.

Take longer to warm up. I recommend at least 15/20 min walking prior to any trotting. This allows the joints to warm up, increasing the health of the joint fluid allowing it to better cushion the joints. This leads to less inflammation and joint point. This will also decrease your risk of injury to tendons, ligaments and muscles. Do the exercises you’re working on or learning at the walk. As a rider, I know it can feel slow and tedious. However, when you lean into it, you realize that it requires a whole different set of muscles which can be very challenging. It is great for your horse’s brain and is low impact for your horse's body.

Use your ground poles and cavallettis, in hand or in the saddle. There are many rehab and muscle-building exercises that use hills and poles that are low impact and can be done at the walk. I highly encourage these exercises as they work on micro-stabilization of the muscles and joints which will translate into more correct movement. An excellent tool for these types of exercises, especially for the dressage athlete, is the book, 55 Corrective Exercises for Horses by Dec Aristotle Ballou. Winter is a great time to consider taking your horse to a water treadmill or rehab facility. Many of these facilities will allow you to come in and ride your horse.

The Don’ts of Winter Riding

Don’t skip shoeing cycles. Often I see horses that are still in work through the winter but owners skip winter farrier visits. Unfortunately, I’m seeing them to diagnose a lameness that resolves with proper foot care, or could have been prevented in the first place.

Don’t put your horse away wet. This is an oldie but a goodie. Putting your horse away wet after a ride can cause your horse’s body temperature to drop rapidly. This can lead to colic and other illnesses. If needed, blow-dry their hair, body clip/blanket or do ground work and walking exercises to avoid your horse becoming sweaty.

Don’t procrastinate on vet work. Every horse is an individual, but in my experience if the vet work has been delayed 3-4 months when it is warranted now, the horse is significantly more sore in 3-4 months and requires more extensive vet care. So if you’re inclined to wait until spring, my advice is not to wait. You may think you’re saving money by pushing it off, but I promise you’ll end up spending more.

Winter is a great time to allow your horse some well deserved time off but doesn’t mean you have to stop riding, working and progressing. Many of the above ideas can be accomplished without an arena and in the snow. Take advantage of the slow down and just enjoy your horse!

About the Author:

Hello fellow UDS members! I am Dr. Haleigh Lundgreen, owner of Paragon Equine Sports Medicine & Chiropractics and fellow dressage rider. A little about me: I grew up a hunter/jumper and have always been a crazy horse girl. This passion lead to my career as an equine sports medicine vet. This career has afforded me the opportunity to work with top vets, trainers and horses of our sport in Wellington, FL. I attended Colorado State University, where I received a degree in Equine Science and Biomedical sciences. I continued at CSU School of Veterinary Medicine for vet school. After vet school I completed an internship in Weatherford, TX at Equine Sports Medicine and Surgery, a large sports medicine practice. These experiences confirmed my passion for sports medicine and the equine athlete. This past year my horse, Ruger, and I dove head first into the world of dressage (for the first time in my life). We had a great year, starting with the schooling shows, graduating to the short tour shows and “bridged the gap” into our first recognized dressage shows. We had a blast doing it and can’t wait for this coming season and meeting all of you! I’m excited to write these articles for you. If there are any topics you want to hear about, please let me know!

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