Best of HN: Too Cold To Ride? Using Common Sense & Science

Photo by Kristen Kovatch.

A recent Facebook posting from Yates Equine Veterinary Services has been going viral around equestrian social media concerning what temperatures could be considered too cold to work a horse. The post has sparked plenty of lively discussion, with plenty of equestrians on both sides of the issue cherry-picking a few key facts to back up their own theories. We’ll establish the facts, combined with common sense, to help readers decide for themselves in the middle of the United States’ intense cold snap (not to mention this coming “bomb cyclone,” whatever on earth that might be…).

The post that launched a thousand comments:

I am frequently asked, and I wondered myself, about working horses in extremely frigid weather like what we are…

Posted by Yates Equine Veterinary Services on Friday, December 29, 2017

Thanks, Dr. Yates, for digging into the research!

The tl;dr version in bullet facts:

  • The horse’s respiratory tract is designed to warm and humidify air by the time air reaches his lungs. Intense exercise (anything more than a walk) speeds up and deepens breaths so that air is not as warm or humid when it reaches the lungs
  • Scientists discovered in three studies that respiratory tracts in horses can become damaged by breathing cold air (23 degrees Fahrenheit)
  • Damage to lower respiratory tracts was found 48 hours after exercise, including elevated white blood cell counts and inflammatory proteins as well as narrowing of the tracts
  • While full text was not available for two of the three studies, the third study was performed on nine horses on a treadmill in a climate-controlled facility. No further information is given on the horses
  • Dr. Yates observes that there are no studies done in natural environments (outside) and no studies done in relation to horses’ acclimatization — are horses who live outside in cold environments better acclimated to working in cold temperatures?

Dr. Yates’ conclusion is that she will likely avoid exercise (trotting, cantering and jumping) when temperatures are under 20 degrees F.

Interpreting the results

Some riders are taking these studies as evidence that all riding should cease when temperatures are below 25-20 degrees F, while others are reading this post as justification to just bundle up and keep on training. As with lots of discussions in the horse world, the best path may lie somewhere in the middle — and with the unknown factor of how acclimatization might affect a horse’s ability to work in the cold, common sense should continue to dictate the ride.

Here are a few considerations when deciding to ride in the cold:

How is your footing? Frozen hard-packed bare ground at 25 degrees is a far different riding surface from a snow-covered pasture at 25 degrees. No matter how warm it is, icy conditions should be a no-go for any rider.

Where does your horse live? Again, while acclimatization did not come into play with the above referenced studies, I believe you can make a case that a horse coming from a heated barn to a cold outdoor arena would likely have a harder time both breathing cold air and physically/mentally settling in to work, while a horse living out 24/7 working in the same environment should feasibly be more likely to be ready to go.

What’s your horse’s level of fitness? Going hand-in-hand with considerations of acclimatization, cold weather is not a good time to decide to bring a horse back into work if he’s going to be breathing that cold air into his out-of-shape body as you make him trot and canter. It may take some creative management to exercise a fit horse in extreme cold; hand walking and ground work are good strategies that will protect his respiratory system while keeping him mentally and physically engaged, especially if he’s not the sort of horse who can go out for a snowy trail ride around the property.

Take your time in warm-up. Regardless of your horse’s acclimatization, both his muscles and his respiratory tract need plenty of time to warm up in this weather. The golden rule from multiple sources seems to be a 10-15 minute walking warm-up if you’re planning a regular work in colder weather. If it’s under 20-23 degrees, it’s advisable to walk only to avoid damaging your horse’s respiratory tract.

Cooling down is equally vital. Even if your horse is clipped to allow him to work without sweating up a long, shaggy coat, an appropriate cool-down is essential. For unclipped horses who have worked up a sweat, cool-down is critical to allow the horse’s coat to dry before it freezes, giving the horse a chill.

Discretion is the better part of valor. Seriously, very few of us are in true life-or-death scenarios where we MUST work a horse hard in extreme cold. (And those of us who are — I’m thinking of ranchers with livestock to tend — may have horses who are acclimated to working in the cold and therefore may not be as prone to respiratory damage — again, we’ll need another study to look into this). While it’s frustrating in the immediate moment to be “grounded” due to weather, in the long run our horses and we ourselves may ultimately be happier and healthier if we skip a training ride and instead slow things down for this period of intense cold.

Take a look at your own conditions, your horse and your weather forecast to make decisions in your riding life. And if you can — go riding!

Further reading

SmartPak: Ask the Vet: Too Cold to Ride?

Certified Horsemanship Association: Exercising Your Horse During Winter

Study: “Cold air-induced late-phase bronchoconstriction in horses” (subscription needed for full article)

Study: “Influx of neutrophils and persistence of cytokine expression in airways of horses after performing exercise while breathing cold air” (subscription needed for full article)