Use these cool-down methods after a rigorous winter workout.
Bundled from head to toe and with a wild rag around your neck, riding in cold temperatures can seem cumbersome. Then halfway through the ride you’ve warmed up and are tempted to peel off some of the layers you piled on. But unlike you, a horse can’t slip on a warm, dry coat when a chill sets in. In fact, how you cool down your horse after a sweaty ride is critical to its wellbeing.
“A horse that does not get properly cooled down in the winter and is turned out into cold temperatures while still sweaty can be more susceptible to issues such as increased muscle soreness, respiratory disease and even colic,” says Timothy “Jake” Cox, DVM, of Noble Equine Veterinary Services in Purcell, Oklahoma.
Before becoming a veterinarian and moving to Oklahoma, Cox rode cutting horses in Colorado and New Mexico. He emphasizes that a horse that’s grown a full winter coat is able to stay warm in temperatures well below freezing. When the brain senses cold, it triggers a reaction called piloerection, in which the outermost layer of skin contracts and causes hair roots to stand on end. It’s the same process that causes people to get goose bumps. The horse’s fluffy hair captures and heats air pockets close to the skin to stay warm. When that winter coat gets sweaty, however, it inhibits the hair from holding the air pockets and the horse can get cold.
Cox says recovery time depends on many factors, from the horse’s condition to the length or strenuousness of the workout. To ensure your horse is ready to be turned back out or put up in a stall after being ridden, follow these four steps to safeguard its health.
1. Walk for about 20 minutes, or until the hair is mostly dry.
This can be done horseback or by hand-walking. Walking slows the heart rate, relaxes muscles and encourages blood circulation, which aides in the removal of lactic acid. Build-up of this metabolic by-product in muscles can cause inflammation and soreness.
“As the horse’s muscles cool down, the amount of blood flow to the tissues decreases and starts moving back to the digestive organs,” he explains. “If the horse is cooled down too rapidly, the normal metabolic processes that remove the [lactic acid] may not take place and the muscles may not recover from the exercise session as well. In some cases, cramping may occur if the muscles are exposed to extremely cold temperatures while [the horse is] still hot and sweaty.”
He recommends loosening the cinch and throwing a fleece cooler over the saddle to speed up the coat-drying process. If the hair on the neck has already started to dry, loosening the cinch to allow some airflow under the saddle blanket is sufficient.
“As a general rule of thumb,” he says, “I don’t [let] the horse stand until the hair on the neck has started to dry.”
2. Check respiratory rate and heart rate.
“The respiratory rate should be less than 18 breaths per minute and the heart rate should be approaching 36 beats per minute,” says Cox. “An easy, quick assessment is to look at the horse’s nostrils for increased flare and watch the abdomen for increased respiratory effort. If it all looks relaxed and calm, your horse is usually in good shape.”
Still-hot horses are susceptible to infection because they have a high respiratory rate. He says the higher rate increases the amount of air they are moving in and out of their lungs, and exposes them to more potentially harmful pathogens.
“If the horse gets chilled because it was turned into freezing temperatures with a coat that is still wet, it may experience a degree of cold shock which can compromise the immune system,” he adds.
3. Groom well.
Cox says to ruffle the horse’s hair with a currycomb or stiff brush to speed drying. Rubbing straw or a dry towel over the horse’s coat can also quicken the process. If sticky, grimy dirt must be rinsed off, use warm water and tie your horse in a draft-free, sheltered area, such as a stall or wash rack. Keep a cooler on until the coat is completely dry, allowing its natural abilities to maintain warmth.
4. Provide water.
A hydrated horse in cold or hot weather is less likely to colic, so it’s critical to have water readily available. It’s a myth that horses need to be cooled down before drinking water to avoid founder or colic, or that the water cannot be cold, Cox says.
“Colic may occur for the same reasons it would occur in a horse that was not cooled down enough in the summer,” he says. “Horses still need to be offered water to replace the water lost during their workout. Just because they may not sweat as much, it still utilizes a lot of water through its normal metabolic processes.
“Horses can drink as much as they want [after a workout]. Most horses will self-regulate their water consumption. The [water] temperature should not be freezing, but it does not have to be warm.”
Once the respiratory rate is back to normal, feeding small amounts of hay is fine, but wait at least an hour before offering grain.
Some owners choose to clip their horse’s coat, in a trace clip or other pattern in areas where the horse sweats, or keep it heavily blanketed and under lights in winter. This keeps coats slick and speeds up a horse’s cool-down time.
“Clipping is fine if the horse is to be kept in a barn and blanketed during the cold winter months,” says Cox. “Several of my clients that show year-round will clip their show horses. With these horses, use a cooler or a sheet to initially wick as much moisture away as possible before placing the regular blanket back on.
“However, if the horse is kept in an outside paddock or pasture, with or without a blanket, I do not recommend clipping. The hair plays an integral role in providing a warm layer of air between the horse and the environment. If the horse is clipped or a heavy blanket is placed on a horse with a thick winter haircoat, that layer is eliminated. It makes the horse much more susceptible to the cold in those cases.”
If possible, Cox recommends not blanketing a horse and allowing its winter coat to grow, despite the added time it might take to groom or cool down after a ride.
“Horses have adapted to live with their external environment,” he explains. “The only times I recommend blanketing a horse is if it is a clipped horse in an airy barn or outside environment, or if you have a waterproof blanket to put on a horse that is being exposed to an extended period of wet cold [i.e., rain and heavy snow]. Otherwise, let the horse live as naturally as possible.”
He says winter weather should be seen as an opportunity to spend more time with your horse and fellow equine enthusiasts.
“Riding in the winter can be fun and enjoyable,” he says. “In fact, it tends to be the time of year that I actually get a chance to ride with my family.”
This article was originally published in the January 2018 issue of Western Horseman.