Ask the Vet: Too Cold to Ride?

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“It has been 20 degrees F or colder here for weeks. Is it safe to work my horse in these temperatures, or is it bad for his lungs? Should I scale back or stop riding completely?” – Submitted via HorseChannel.com

I don’t mean to belittle your situation, but there are many folks around the country who would consider 20 degrees a “heat wave” and rejoice in the opportunity to work their horses! I know I’ve been riding my horse every day it’s been above 0° F only because less than that and I can’t feel my fingers (I must have really good boots; my toes are NEVER cold!).

Now, I’m mostly working at the walk, interspersed with some brief trot and canter work. Nothing too demanding. And according to Dr. Joyce Harman of Harmany Equine Clinic in Virginia, “there is no temperature where it is too cold for a horse to be ridden or to go outside if they are adapted to it.”

However, I wanted some evidence-based medicine to back us up, since this isn’t the first time I’ve been asked this question. So I went to PubMed to try and find some peer-reviewed, published scientific papers about this topic. Unfortunately most of the papers about the effects of temperature on exercising horses dealt with the opposite extreme—high heat and humidity (remember the ’96 Atlanta Olympics?)

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It wasn’t until I typed “equine cold temperature” into their search engine that I uncovered a few studies on the effect of cold air on exercising horses. Turns out that breathing cold air more rapidly and deeply may represent a significant environmental stress to the airways! (keep in mind though, that the experimental protocols often included cantering on a treadmill for 15 minutes or more, something cold-weather riders may not be doing). The mechanism is that at rest, when the body takes in cold, dry air, the upper respiratory tract warms it to body temperature as well as humidifies it before sending it down to the lower respiratory tract. When excessive exercise speeds up and deepens the breaths, the body doesn’t have time to perform this function and the surfaces of the trachea, bronchi, and lungs become cooled and dried.

In addition, exposure of lower airways to cold air alters immunologic responses of horses for at least 48 hours, causing an “upregulation” of inflammatory cytokines and an influx of neutrophils, a type of white blood cells. Researchers also believe that excess heat and water loss from lower airways may stimulate bronchoconstriction immediately after exercise and airway obstruction a few hours after exercise.

With all this knowledge, now riding in cold weather doesn’t seem as attractive. However, keeping your horse moving during winter in the North still has many benefits as long as it’s not “excessive.” Here then is my common sense advice for winter riding, which I think has value for the cardiopulmonary system, the musculoskeletal system, the digestive system and certainly the central nervous system (your horse’s brain!): gently and gradually warm up, take your time cooling down (including drying off if necessary), be aware of the footing if you’re riding outside so that your horse doesn’t slip, and respect your horse’s current fitness level.

Lydia F. Gray, DVM, MA SmartPak Staff Veterinarian and Medical Director Dr. Lydia Gray has earned a Bachelor of Science in agriculture, a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM), and a Master of Arts focusing on interpersonal and organizational communication. After “retiring” from private practice, she put her experience and education to work as the American Association of Equine Practitioner’s first-ever Director of Owner Education. Dr. Gray continues to provide health and nutrition information to horse owners through her position at SmartPak, through publication in more than a dozen general and trade publications, and through presentations around the country. She is the very proud owner of a Trakehner named Newman that she actively competes with in dressage and combined driving. In addition to memberships in the USDF and USEF, Dr. Gray is also a member of the Illinois Dressage and Combined Training Association (IDCTA). She is a USDF “L” Program Graduate and is currently working on her Bronze Medal. Find Dr. Gray on Google+

Posted in Ask the Vet, Seasonal Horse Care

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2 comments on “Ask the Vet: Too Cold to Ride?
  1. Appy lover says:

    I guess I still want to err on the side of caution and don’t ride below freezing. Of course I’m in Texas so we don’t experience long bouts below freezing. :) My concern stems from lung burn. I’ve experienced it, and the last thing I want to do is inadvertently cause my horse harm by asking her to work. I’m wondering if my concern has any validity.

  2. Dakota D. says:

    I also live in Texas and it is freezing so I just leeve my 3 horses out in the pasture with my calves and now I am getting back into work, but I tried to work in winter but me and my horse got a little ill but now we are okay and I will not try that again

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