Many of us continue to ride through the winter months. Some will train or ride in an arena, or others will enjoy a wintery trail ride, perhaps through freshly fallen snow. Exercise, especially with a thick winter hair coat, can make horses sweat, even in the cold weather. Traveling through snow can be hard work for a horse, so your horse may sweat, even if you are going slow. There’s nothing wrong with that, as long as you take care to cool your horse out properly and make sure you dry its sweat-dampened coat out before leaving your horse out in the cold.
Cooling out After a Ride
The process for cooling a horse out after you ride in the winter is much the same as it would be any other time of the year. During your cool down, however, you might want to cover your horse with a moisture-wicking sweat sheet over its haunches (the biggest muscles) so it doesn’t get chilled by the cold air. The easiest way to begin cooling out is to walk your horse for about ten to twenty minutes, depending on how long and hard you’ve been riding. This allows the heat generated in the horse’s core and muscles to disperse. Keep an eye on your horse’s respiration rate, as this will give you a guideline as to whether it has recovered from the workout. Once the horse is breathing at a normal resting rate, you can dismount.
After dismounting, un-do your girth or cinch. Leave the saddle and blanket or pad on, so the cold air doesn’t hit your horse’s back too quickly. Continue walking with your horse covered shoulders to haunches in a moisture-wicking sheet. Then remove your saddle, and cover the horse with the sheet. If the sheet becomes damp, replace it with a dry one. When the horse begins to dry, you can put him in the cross-ties or stall.
Toweling helps to dry a damp horse’s coat faster. Rub your horse all over with moisture-absorbing toweling. Replace the towels as they get damp. It’s handy to have a stack of old towels around if you ride a lot in the winter. A combination of keeping the horse covered by a sheet and vigorous toweling can wick the moisture away from the coat quickly. Just uncover the horse where you are rubbing its coat dry, and recover it when you are done. This taking off and replacing the blanket as you work is sometimes called "quartering."
A thick coat may be difficult to dry during the winter. And, if your horse wears a blanket normally when turned out, it may be very uncomfortable for it if a blanket is put on before the horse is thoroughly dry. A thick blanket may hold dampness against the skin, which can cause the horse to become chilled.
There are blankets made to allow airflow between the blanket and the horse. These blankets are made to stand away from the horse’s coat, so they don’t sit directly on the horse. Another method to encourage airflow, while keeping the horse dry is to stuff about a four-inch layer of loose hay or straw under the horse’s blanket. The horse dries beneath and the straw or hay falls out after a time. If you’ve put the stuffing beneath your horse’s regular blanket, and your horse is dry, check to see that all of it has fallen out and that there’s none left rubbing uncomfortably under a tight spot under the blankets.
Some people use a spray bottle of rubbing alcohol to help their horses dry out, or rub the alcohol into the coat with a cloth. Rubbing alcohol can be drying to the skin and coat, and used often can cause skin irritation. But the process is to spray or apply the alcohol and then rub the hair dry. The alcohol should help the sweat dry quickly.
If you plan to ride a lot in the winter, clipping your horse may be a good idea. A clipped horse must be blanketed at all times during the cold weather because you’ve taken away its natural insulation. Clipped horses will also have to be stabled in severe weather.
Clipping under the belly and neck in an under-belly neck clip or a trace clip that removes the hair from the lower neck, shoulders and under the belly may be suitable for horses that are working lightly, but spend much of their time outdoors. A high trace clip removes more of the hair coat and is good for horses who are doing harder work.
Outdoors the horse will need to be blanketed. Blanket and hunter clips remove most of the long hair coat, except for under-the-saddle area and legs. A full clip removes all of the long hair coat from the entire body and legs. Horses with these clips will need a blanket while stabled and outdoors. Horses with full-body clips may need stable bandages on their legs during very cold weather. Clipping your horse requires a lot more maintenance, but may be worth the time if you must work the horse and cooling out and drying it takes a long time each time you ride.