If you’re not blessed with an indoor arena during spells of freezing cold or wet weather, you must find sensible ways to exercise your horse. Your animal doesn’t need to stay in hard work during these times, but it does need enough movement to avoid colic or azotoria, also known as “tying up.” (For information on colic, see “Cold Weather and Colic” in my Blog; and for tying up, see http://www.thehorse.com/pdf/factsheets/tying-up/tying-up.pdf.) The easiest way to deal with days in which the footing is not good enough to ride is to equip your horse with a turn-out blanket (which is a special wind-resistant, waterproof blanket that has leg straps to keep it from sliding to one side), galloping boots, and hind boots and let it get the exercise it wants in a paddock or pasture during the daylight hours. (It’s alright to leave horses out at night in the summer, but they need shelter at night in the winter months.) If your horse is prone to pulling shoes, you can add bellboots, which will prevent shoe loss from overreaching, or hoofboots.
Note that whenever a horse is wearing a blanket or boots, you have to monitor the situation periodically to make sure the equipment stays in place. When turning a horse out for an hour or two, leave the boots on the entire time; but if the horse is going to be outside for a longer stretch during the day, take the boots off after the first two hours, as long the horse is just grazing or walking around in the paddock or field, having gotten rid of its energy earlier in short spurts of running and bucking. Sustained pressure of boots can cause injury to soft tissue, so they are something to be used short-term, not for hours on end. Leave the blanket on if the weather is still cold, but make sure to adjust it so that it is straight on the the horse’s body and not pulling hard against the shoulders from having slid back.
If your horse has had sufficient turnout time, it shouldn’t be too nutty once you get a chance to ride again. However, a horse is usually going to be a little fresh when it’s had a day or two off, so you need to be prepared for this. Start with loosening up the horse by going forward without trying to put the horse in a frame. From this, you can see just how excitable your horse is. If the animal is really cutting up, ease into a slow canter and get into two-point position (i.e., your seat out of the saddle). Let the horse canter around the arena (not hand-gallop) two or three times. Then, walk the horse on a long rein to let it relax, realize that it is a little tired, and get its brain in order. If the horse is still a little edgey, you can do the same thing again—no more than three times around, followed by a break. This should calm the horse down enough that you can get back to work at the lower gaits.
Another option is longeing the horse, but this is not as good of an option if the footing is still a little slick. The tighter the turn, the more likely the horse is to interfere (hitting one leg with the hoof of the other leg) or slide down. Also, people tend to work their horses too long on a longe line, and this is a huge mistake if the horse has been out of work a couple of days. All you’re trying to do is get the horse to calm down and concentrate a little, not to wear it out at the risk of causing physical problems.
Rather than longeing, you could hack your horse in a field or on trails if the footing is good enough, for this is a non-confrontational way to get your horse back to work. When your horse has once again accepted your hands, seat, and legs, it is easy to get back into more specific work routines. I hope this is helpful to those of you enduring the tough winter weather!