If you have ponies that have been overweight then you understand the worry of winter fat. However a little winter fat is fine and even natural! Especially if you live where it gets very cold and your ponies live outside without blankets. They need these fat reserves to stay warm. Feeding our native breed ponies carefully through the winter will help them come into spring at an ideal weight and ready to work!
Here is a wonderful article about feeding native ponies: 13 tips for feeding natives during the winter.
While some ponies will not be worked in the winter months, some of us do enjoy winter driving! So how do we go about working our ponies when it’s cold out? Especially when we don’t want them to get sweaty?
I find winter to a great time to work on our walk. We spend many miles and many hours walking in the winter. I will do this on a lead rope, on long lines, and in cart or riding in the sled. We focus on a nice swinging walk, relaxed and super forward. Sometimes it’s less about the amount of miles we go and more about the quality of the walk we accomplish. Sometimes it is about the miles and we work towards a certain mileage goal for the month. It’s rare that a good swinging walk will make Zorro sweaty. Maybe at first if he is very out of shape when we start but normally he won’t come home sweaty at all!
Kirsty does work her horse and ponies up to a sweat in the winter. I’ll let her share how she deals with that!
Winter time in my neck of the woods can make working my ponies difficult at times. We often are hit with lots of rain, snow, and fluctuating temperatures so much that sometimes temps can raise or drop 20 degrees throughout the day and nights!
Because of this, I too like to slow down a bit with workouts in the winter. However, I do try to keep my ponies exercising so they don’t lose all of the fitness and endurance we’ve build up over the warmer months.
I especially like to take advantage of the snow when we have it. As long as it is not too slippery, working your horse in the snow is very similar to working in deeper sand. It gets them picking their feet up and engaging their hind end a little more to get through that deep snow. Just think about how much harder it is for you to walk through the snow – the same goes for our horses. Plus, they are usually willing to stretch down to investigate the snow and get a better look at where they are placing their feet! I generally keep this work light since it is something they are not used to which makes it a harder work out even for a short time.
I also like to give my horses and much longer warm up period when working in the winter. This can include a longer grooming session, more massage and stretches before starting work, and much more walk work with halt transitions before going into any trot or canter work. All of these things combined will help your horses muscles to loosen up and literally warm their body up to get ready to work! For my larger horse, I always make sure he has his Back On Track therapeutic sheet on for at least 30 minutes before we start working as well. I wish they had a miniature size sheet for my ponies as I have noticed his warm up time is drastically different when he wears it as apposed to not.
This winter, my horses and I are at a very barebones barn. It’s a lovely barn that has all of the real requirements we need, including great pasture space that allows them to live out 24/7 with access to a stall. However, we have no heat anywhere and it gets very cold. We also do not have an arena to work in. So, I have to think about the condition of the ground we are working on as well. I try to take advantage of every nice day I have. Most days are either wet and muddy or cold with frozen ground.
For these reasons, we are taking this time to focus in on ground work, like strengthening whip and voice aids (which can be done in the barn if you have enough space!), and good quality walk work like Mindy mentioned above, especially out on the roads where there are lots of hills to walk up and down. Even good quality walk work can sometimes leave my ponies a bit sweaty, especially my large warmblood who I swear sweats like a pig no matter the time of year!
So, there are a few things I do to help my horses when they do sweat during these colder months.
Probably the easiest drying tool to keep in the barn, is a good cooler. Last winter when my riding horse, Arie, was kept in work almost every day, he was often wrapped up in a cooler afterwards to keep him warm and to soak up the sweat to help him dry faster. I also have a little fleece cooler for the miniature horses as well! This little purple fleece cooler was actually the first little blanket I bought when Jasper was a foal, so it’s a bit small on him, however, he only wears it to dry up some sweat without catching chill, so it has actually been quite useful to repurpose as a cooler! It is certainly time to order him a new one though.
Another way you can help keep your horse dry in the winter time, is with a simple partial clip. There are many different type of clip patterns you can do on your horse. Two good options for a horse in light to medium work in the winter is either the trace clip or the bib/apron clip.
The trace clip removes the horses hair on the parts of their body that generally get the sweatiest, including under their neck, chest, under belly, neck, and flank areas. This way, when they do sweat, they are not drenching a full winter coat that will take a long time to dry. Your horse will dry much faster with a trace clip. If you have a very hairy pony like I do, this may also help your harness traces lay a little more comfortably on the horse when you’re driving.
The bib or apron clip is a great option if you’re doing light work with the occasional drive with your sweaty horse in the winter. This clip only removes the hair from under the neck and the chest, sometimes under the belly as well.
You can really come up with any clip combo you like that works best for you and your horse!
Be cautioned – If you do decide to clip your horses over the winter, they will need to be blanketed depending on how low your temperatures drop!
While I personally have not yet clipped my horses through the winter, I do clip the minis at the very end of the winter as we creep into spring time and start blanketing them as needed. Our temperatures fluctuate so drastically here that if I do not clip them during this time of the year, they will sweat just standing out in their pasture!
You can also keep a hair dryer handy in the barn to help dry your horses faster. Just make sure the dryer has either a no heat or a cooling temperature feature so that you do not overheat / burn your horse. I have a dog grooming blow dryer that I use for drying after a bath that could also be used to dry sweat if needed. It works really well to dry their coat after we did some desensitizing to it as it is very loud and powerful!
Keeping your ponies in shape during the winter can sure feel like a daunting task at times. So just remember to take it a little slower, and have fun! Winter is, after all, a time of rest in nature, as the earth prepares to re-grow and flourish in the spring. All of the quality walk work you do in the winter WILL pay off come spring when your horse is fit and ready to go!