In Praise of Giving Horses the Winter Off

Giving horses the winter off

I’ve been fortunate enough, for the past several years, to ride at a stable with an indoor arena. I was not always so lucky. Throughout my entire childhood and young adulthood, we kept our horses at home, with no indoor.

We stopped riding when the ground started to freeze (usually mid-October or so, although some years we were lucky enough to be able to keep going through to November), and, with the exception of the occasional snowy hack, or the traditional Christmas Eve ride, we started back up on April first (no matter the weather). This day was always circled on my calendar. It was the most exciting day of the year.

Now that I have use of an indoor, sometimes I look back on those days and think about how my riding life has changed. Year-round riding, not needing to leg horses up in the spring, not losing everything we’d worked so hard all year to improve…

But the funny thing is, I don’t ever remember wishing for an indoor arena back in those days. That was just the way it was, and besides, there were plenty of non-mounted horse-related projects to be completed in the winter, and if the horses didn’t have a few months off, when would those projects get done?

giving horses the winter off

It wasn’t like my horses didn’t improve back then. In fact, within my group of peers at the time, I don’t really see that there was a big difference between horses who had the winter off and horses who kept going all year long.

Now, don’t get me wrong. If you’re a professional, and you need to be able to ride every day, or if you show at a much higher level than I do, then yes, you probably need an indoor. But for me, as an amateur, doing training level eventing, first level dressage, and pony clubbing, not having an indoor never set me back. In fact, I wonder if maybe my horses were actually better off by not working all winter?

The Up-sides to Down-time:

Because they weren’t being worked, our horses were able to go pretty much blanket-free, and grow those big wooly winter coats that horses who live in Canada are supposed to grow. In our barn, horses just didn’t wear blankets indoors… ever. I think we had a few winter rugs hanging around for those days when it was 25 below, with cold wind or rain, but otherwise, the horses just remained au naturel.

giving horses the winter off

And, because they grew real winter coats, we didn’t brush them very much. Too much currying could remove oils and hair from the coat that the horses needed to stay warm and snow-proof. We picked out their feet daily, brushed the mud off their legs (at night, after it had dried), and left the rest alone. By the time the hair was shed out in the spring, the horses’ coats always had a nice, dappled bloom. Obviously a winter of “roughing it” didn’t hurt!

 

Having the winter off also allowed us to give the horses’ feet a break from shoes. We usually pulled their shoes before the first snow fall, and left them off til we were sure there would be no more ice to deal with. Horses without shoes are much better able to keep themselves from sliding around, and they also never have to deal with the dreaded ice build-up that you get with shod horses in winter. Having a few months off from shoes really seemed to lead to a healthier hoof for most of our horses (and gave a little relief to the pocketbook as well!).

Another up-side to some down-time is that sometimes we all just need a breather. A little bit of a break. Time to re-charge, to re-define our goals, to sit by a warm fire with our feet up, daydreaming about next show season, while our horses contentedly munch on hay in their snow-covered paddocks.

See, here’s the thing. Back in the days when the horses had winters off, there are a few things that I don’t remember having to deal with, like mystery lamenesses, ulcers, rider burn-out, horse burn-out, schooling boredom, or unproductive rides when it was minus 10 in the arena and I was just too cold to be effective.

My horses and I had a fresh start every spring. Their lungs were clear and their limbs were sound after a winter of playing in the snow. Their minds were fresh, and so was mine. There was a clear-cut beginning and end to the riding season. It was easy to set goals, and there was plenty of time in between for re-hashing what went wrong last season, and figuring out how to make it right.

 

I’m not saying that having an indoor arena, or working horses year round, is a bad thing. I’m just saying that if you’re among the many who don’t have this privilege, don’t sweat it. There are plenty of reasons why winters off might just be a blessing in disguise!

Do you ride all year round, or take a break during the winter months?

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