Everything is Relative. Here in Houston, our winters are very mild and we grumble if the thermometer dips below 50 degrees. However, television reports of blizzards in other parts of the country remind me that others are not so lucky during the winter months.
Any winter, be it mild or severe, will be easier to deal with if you are prepared in advance, instead of waiting till the first hard freeze to realize that you forgot to insulate the water pipes.
Preparing Your Horse. Humans have a tendancy to think that if they are cold, their horses must be cold. Not necessarily so. Nature has provided the horse with a very effective thermal blanket in the form of a coat that increases both in length and density as the days grow shorter. In addition to this thick winter coat, they have the ability to fluff out their coats in cold weather, thereby trapping a layer of air in the coat which provides them an insulating layer. Having said that, your horse will be the best indicator of whether he is feeling the cold or not.
Before I moved to the US, I looked after a Welsh/Arabian mare named Bracken. She grew a coat like a Yeti every winter and could easily withstand cold temperatures while she was out during the day. The only times she wore a new zealand turnout blanket was when she was turned out at night or if it was windy or rainy. The field hunter turned out with her was Jupiter who was trace-clipped and therefore needed to be blanketed all the time in the winter.
A horse's ears are said to be a good indicator of whether or not he is cold - cold ears mean a cold horse. Two of my previous features give further information about selecting a stable blanket or a turnout blanket for your horse.
Preparing Your Pasture. Wind and rain (or snow) are your horse's main enemies during the winter and making sure that he has protection from the elements by means of appropriate horse clothing and a well built field shelter will keep him comfortable. Make sure that the field shelter is large enough to house the horses and that the entrance is big enough so that any bullies in the herd do not get an opportunity to corner the other horses.
If your area suffers from regular freezing, check the water supply daily. A basketball or soccer ball floating in the water trough will keep it from completely freezing over. However, if you get very hard freezes you may want to invest in one of the various water heaters that are on the market.
Winter fields often offer little in the way of forage for the horses. Supplying sufficient hay will keep the horses occupied and the energy released as they eat will be used to keep their body temperatures up.
Preparing Your Barn. How you will prepare your barn for winter depends largely on where you live. In the South, with its mild winters, there will not be much need for expensive heating systems and heated water tanks. In the North, however, where areas may be snowed in for a length of time, it is essential to ensure that your barn is self sufficient and capable of riding out winter's worst.
Make sure that you have sufficient supplies of feed, bedding and hay and that they are stored in a dry place. Needless to say, all feed should be stored in rodent-proof containers.
Check you water supply. Insulate above ground piping with the wrap around insulation available at building centers and hardware stores. If interior buckets freeze overnight, various insulating devices are available that your water buckets fit down inside. Alternatively, heating elements that hook over the side of the bucket are available. Check the tack shops and feed stores in your area to see what they suggest.
Ventilation is extremely important, especially in winter, to provide fresh air and reduce the risk of respiratory ailments. Resist the temptation to close every window and door in the barn. It's better to put an extra blanket on if necessary than to keep horses in a completely closed barn.
Have your electrical wiring checked over. Winter means long dark evenings and if you haven't used your lights in the barn since last year, it's best to avert a fire-hazard before something awful happens.
Preparing Your Riding Arena. Of course, the ideal solution to winter riding is to have access to a lighted (and heated) indoor arena. Many of us are not that lucky though, and have to make do with less than perfect conditions.
If you are like me and do not get to the barn until about 7 pm you probably dislike losing an hour of light in the evenings when the clocks go back. At one place I used to board, a private barn, the owners allowed me to put up arena lights. They were rather makeshift, but they worked and I was able to ride Annapolis throughout the dark winter evenings. What I did was to purchase some 20 foot lumber from the local builders supply center, along with three yard lights. I erected the lumber by literally standing it up against the rails of our little outdoor arena and tying it to the posts - one at each end and one in the middle. By an intricate arrangement of extension cords I was able to wire all three together and then all I had to do whenever I wanted to ride was to drag my 200 foot extension cord from the barn to the arena and I was all set to go. Reeling the extension cord in was made easier by having it hooked up to a reel with a handle for turning.
If your riding arena turns into a sloppy mess in the winter there are various ways you can alleviate this. First of all, make sure your drainage is working for you and not against you. If necessary, hire a contractor to come and look at it and follow his recommendations. Various all weather surfaces are available for arena use.
If you ride in a corner of your horse's field, without access to an arena, there are ways you can make sure that you have somewhere you can at least get on your horse and ride him around. Taking used shavings (droppings removed) and laying them in a circular track will help out with both wet and freezing extremes. As your horse moves on this "all-weather" track, he will churn the shavings into the dirt, so you will need to replace the shavings regularly. On the plus side, this constant addition and churning will improve the going on the track.
With all the inconveniences of winter, it's important to keep everything in perspective. Somehow, there is nothing quite so invigorating as riding your eager horse along the trail on a crisp winter morning. Of course, that is rich coming from someone who has been known to wear shorts to the barn on Christmas Day!