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Warming Up and Cooling Down: Exercising Your Horse in Cold Weather


As winter is upon us, extended periods of colder temperatures right around the corner shouldn’t stop you from regularly exercising your horse. During the winter months, the warm-up and cool-down components of a ride are essential in helping your horse stay fit and sound.

A good warm-up and cool-down routine reduces stress, loosens muscles, and diminishes the chances of injuries. We asked professional horsewomen Dodie Howard, Jennell Pogue, and Darci Rapley about riding horses in cold temperatures.

Dodie Howard, Howard/McKillips Show Horses

Trainer Dodie Howard lives in Central New York, where temperatures often drop below freezing during the winter months. Howard specializes in top-level hunter under saddle, western pleasure, and all-around horses. Howard says, “Winter riding is just something we deal with. I’ve always lived here, and it’s something you just have to prepare for.” Dodie does not have a heated barn, but the body heat from a barn full of horses keeps the temperature comfortable. All outside horses have appropriate winter blankets.

Howard’s warm-up routine is consistently at least 5-10 minutes of longing at the walk, trot, and lope. She explains, “This helps the horses adjust to the temperature change from no blanket and helps improve blood flow to all major organs, muscles, tendons, etc. Plus, it also helps provide a working mindset when it’s extra chilly out.”

Dodie does this whether she is riding indoors or outdoors. However, Howard doesn’t ride when the temperature is below 15 degrees and says, “It’s just pointless; I feel there is nothing to accomplish when you can’t focus on anything but how cold you are.”

After a ride, there are multiple areas to pay close attention to: body temperature, respiration, muscle care, and leg condition. Howard states, “the cool-down is just as important when it’s chilly out.” Howard uses a cooler or two, depending on the temperature, and will continue to walk the horse until its heart rate is normal again. The horse will then stand tied until thoroughly cooled and dry and then get a blanket back on.

Howard stated, “It’s definitely more of a struggle doing our job in the winter in the north, but again it’s all I’ve ever known.”

Jennell Pogue, Jennell Pogue Performance Horses

Multiple World and Congress champion trainer Jennell Pogue of South Bend, Indiana, says, “The cold weather makes things challenging, but we are prepared for the long winters, so we usually get through it pretty well.”

Whether riding inside or outside, Pogue likes to keep her routine the same. Pogue’s warm-up routine depends on if the individual horse needs to be longed or not. If a horse doesn’t need to be longed, Pogue begins her warm-up by walking, followed by a working trot and bending exercises. Longing or light riding will help warm up and stretch cold muscles and increase circulation and loosen up stiff muscles and joints.

Once fall and winter seasons hit, riding outside is always tricky. Pogue admits, “When the temperature drops to less than 20 degrees, I am careful about working horses hard. When in single digits, horses may get turned out inside the arena with blankets on.”

Pogue pays close attention to her horses during frigid temperatures and tries not to get them overly sweaty. She will walk horses out to cool them down, but she will tie them in heated stalls until they’re dry if the temperature is very low.

Darci Rapley, Darci’s Show Horses

AQHA professional horsewoman Darci Rapley of Ontario, Canada, deals with cold weather six months out of the year. Rapley contends, “Our horses pretty much work in any weather. Sunshine and warm weather sure make riding and training more enjoyable. If it is painfully cold or hard to breathe, we will wait until it warms up later in the morning to ride. If it doesn’t, then there’s always something else to do.” Rapley prefers to ride outside, but she rides inside until the spring thaw after the ground freezes.

Slow and steady activities warm up your horse and prepare its body for higher energy activities. In addition, these measures help to reduce muscle soreness and the risk of injury. Rapley admits, “Longing isn’t fun when it’s sub-zero temperatures, but sometimes it’s a necessity with colts. Often, it’s better to get on and long trot to warm them up.” A successful warm-up will give a horse’s heart, blood vessels, and breathing a chance to ease into an exercise session.

After exercising, Rapley uses coolers to help horses dry off. “If they have long hair and they get super sweaty, then we cover them up in coolers until they dry, which sometimes takes hours,” Rapey said. “A cooler helps to slowly bring a horse’s body temperature back to normal after a workout, keeps a clipped horse warm while being groomed, and wicks moisture from a wet horse’s coat while keeping it from catching a chill.

Darci states, “The horses are resilient and like to work. The worst part is all the clothing we have to wear not to freeze. It makes moving awkward.”

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Keeping your horse moving during winter has many benefits. Using good practices by gently and gradually warming up and taking your time in cooling down (including drying off if necessary) can help you, and your horse enjoys the benefits of staying active. Be aware of the footing in your riding area, especially if you’re riding outside, and respect your horse’s current fitness level.


About the Author- Celsey Crabtree is a devoted APHA competitor and enjoys showing in the all-around events with her horse SmoothChocolateScotch. Celsey teaches at Kansas State University and is a Ph.D. student. When not riding, Celsey enjoys being outdoors, CrossFit, and playing with her dogs.

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