Sunday, February 15, 2015

Conditioning during the winter

There are worse places to live in the winter than northern Virginia.  In general winters here are quite manageable.  I think our average snowfall is 5 inches and temperatures rarely go below 20 at night.  During the day, temperatures are in the 40s and 50s for much of December through February and we usually have a few nicer days each month.  Occasionally, we do have winters with massive amounts of snowfall, like 20 plus inches at a time, but they are rare and they are countered with winters like the one we are having this year, where we really haven't gotten any snow at all.  We also do have a few really cold days that would count as winter in almost any climate, and today is one of those days.

Yesterday's high was 45 degrees, which was perfectly respectable, but as evening fell, the wind picked up and we got a Blitzkrieg of winter with a 30 minute blizzard and than gusts of wind up to 50 mph.  Apparently the winds were blowing from North Dakota (I'm being sarcastic - I don't know where they came from - maybe hell?, but my memories of winter in North Dakota basically scarred me for life and I compare all winters to those memories), and they brought single digit temperatures overnight.

I was left with quite the conundrum.  You may remember that I've been keeping Nimo out almost 24/7.  He just comes in to the barn to eat in the morning and the evening, but is otherwise in a 3-plus acre paddock with a 24x36 run-in shed.  During the day, he has 4 pasture-mates, but at night he is by himself.  This system has been working out pretty well all winter.  Until yesterday. 

Yesterday I rode out at Phelps Wildlife Management Area.  My original intent was to ride about 10 miles in as close to 2 hours as we could manage.  But, I realized pretty quickly into the ride that Nimo was going to work up quite a sweat at that pace.  I haven't clipped him because I discovered that he was totally fine without a blanket at all, even during the crappiest, wettest, coldest weather we've had, and I have to admit that the freedom I feel about not having to worry about which blanket to use is intoxicating.  Nimo can just be a horse and I don't have to spend several hundred dollars on a new wardrobe for him because he trashed all his sheets and blankets.

The problem comes into play when he works up a sweat and the temperature is cold.  For the most part, the work we've been doing has been slow enough this winter that he hasn't sweated much.  What little sweat he does generate is dry by the time we get back to the barn from wherever we've been riding (I put a fleece cooler on for the trailer trip home to wick the moisture and keep him warm).  But last weekend, when I rode with Saiph, Nimo was damp all over and absolutely not dry by the time we got back to the barn, despite almost 2 hours in the trailer.  I think I made a mistake by putting his regular sheet on instead of a fleece cooler and the sheet either didn't allow for enough evaporation or it made him too hot, so he kept sweating.  So I ended up spending all this time getting him dry once we got back to the barn.

But back to yesterday.  I knew we were expecting some kind of Arctic blast overnight, so I absolutely did not want Nimo to get very sweaty.  Even if I could get him dry, I've found that it can take a couple of days for the hair to "fluff" back up and regain its full insulation properties, even with lots of brushing.  Because we were expecting the coldest weather of the winter, I wanted to make sure he would be able to stay warm.

After my ride, Nimo was dry everywhere except under the saddle pad.  I put his cooler on him, but after the 25 minute ride back to the barn, he was still wet.  So, I left the cooler on while I chatted with people and unloaded the trailer and parked it.  But I felt like Nimo's back was still damp as was the girth area.  The temperature was at 45 degrees, and I had sworn to my husband that I would be home for the special Valentine's Day dinner he was going through a lot of trouble to make, so I decided to go ahead and turn Nimo out, go home for dinner, and then come back later that night after the temperature had cooled to reassess the blanketing and turnout situation.

After a lovely steak dinner with green beans, mashed potatoes, dinner rolls, and apple pie, I grumpily headed back out to the barn to figure out what to do with my horse.  (I should note that my husband was remarkably understanding about the whole thing - I'm not sure how many husbands would appreciate an eat-and-run approach to a special dinner.)  Meanwhile, I debated various options in my head:
  1. Bring Nimo in for the night.  Pro:  He would be warm enough without a blanket no matter how cold it got because the barn would stay at least 10 degrees warmer than the outside temperature.  Con:  Nimo would be unhappy being cooped up all night.
  2. Put a blanket on Nimo for the night.  Pro:  He could stay outside and be happy.  Con:  I wasn't sure what weight of blanket to use.  Having not needed to blanket this winter, I hadn't developed a feel for how much of a blanket he would need.  Nimo has historically sweated under blankets, even sheets, and I worried that if I put a heavy blanket on, he would sweat, get chilled, and die of hypothermia by morning.  On the other hand, if I used too light of a blanket, and it suppressed his ability to use piloerection to warm himself, he could get chilled, and die of hypothermia by morning.
  3. Do nothing.  Pro:  Nimo could stay outside and be happy.  Con:  If Nimo didn't use the run-in shed, the wind combined with the predicted snow could cause him to get chilled and die of hypothermia by morning.  (If you haven't noticed, dying of hypothermia is something I worry about - this is because I grew up in North Dakota, where your skin can literally freeze in seconds if not covered and dying from exposure is not out of the question if you get stranded or dress inappropriately.)
As it turned out, when I got to the barn, I saw my beloved (and smart) horse happily munching on hay in the run-in shed.  At first, I thought I might just bring more hay to the run-in shed so he could stay in there all night to eat (there are round bales out in the paddock for the horses to eat, but nothing to eat in the run-in shed).  But the wind...It wasn't just windy outside.  It was dangerously windy outside.  While 20 mph winds can make the temperature feel much colder than it is, gusts up to 50 mph bring a whole new dimension.  Just FYI, if the temperature is 10 degrees and the wind is 50 mph, the "feels like" temperature is -17.  And negative temperatures are well out of the range of normal for any winter here.

So, I ended up bringing Nimo into the barn for the night.  He was seriously unhappy, but I couldn't blanket at that point, because his back was wet from the brief blizzard we'd already gotten (he apparently didn't go into the run-in shed right away) and I was still struggling with which blanket to use anyway.  The actual temperature was still 30 degrees at that point, but projected to drop at least 20 degrees overnight.  That meant that a blanket that would be warm enough for 10 degrees might be too much at 30 degrees (see the sweating, getting chilled, dying of hypothermia problem above).  My head kind of hurt, and I admit to being completely exhausted, so feeling a little guilty, I dumped a bunch of hay in Nimo's stall, made sure the heated water bucket was working, and headed home.

This morning, I got up at 6:30 to go out into the death trap Mother Nature had set to check on Nimo.  Typically, the barn staff doesn't come out until 8 am on Sunday mornings, and in my opinion, that is too late for horses that have been in since 5 the day before.  It starts getting light at 6:30, so I wanted to be out at the barn shortly after 7 to re-assess the blanketing/turnout situation.  So, I fished my real winter parka out of the back of the closet and headed out to the barn.  (I don't think I've worn it since Snowmageddon 4 or 5 years ago, when we once had 36 inches of snow on the ground, low temperatures, and 60-70 mph winds.  I felt compelled to check on Nimo that day and had to hike in the last half-mile to the barn because the barn crew couldn't keep up with plowing the driveway with the wind constantly blowing.  My truck is pretty good in snow, but I would rather walk a bit than get stuck.  I remember having our dog, a German Shepherd who considers 40 degrees too warm, with me, and at one point, she crawled into a snow drift and wouldn't budge - it was too miserable even for her.  That is the only day in the 14 years I've lived in northern Virginia that I decided Nimo didn't need to be turned out...)

Nimo was looking fit and healthy (and definitely not hypothermic!), but he clearly was unhappy being in.  I had brought his mid-weight Rambo blanket (amazing how getting sleep improved my decision-making abilities) and put it on him after he finished his breakfast.  He was thrilled to get outside even when he discovered the crazy wind and seemed perfectly happy being out.

I decided to clean his stall because it looked like 16 horses had spent the night in it, and I felt bad inflicting that on the barn staff when they were going to have to be out in terrible weather all day (expected high 23 degrees with continuation of crazy wind).  Plus, that would give Nimo time to be out in his blanket for a bit, so I could check to see if he was getting too hot or shivering before I left.  I had other blankets out at the barn that I could use if I needed to.

So about the time that my legs felt like they were going to freeze right off my body, I had the stall cleaned and had determined that the blanket seemed like it would work.  Nimo was happily eating hay out in the paddock and the wind didn't seem to bother him at all.  I left just as the barn staff were getting there and I wished them luck staying warm because even working in the barn with all the doors and windows closed was challenging.

Anyway, I'm writing this post because I wanted to document my frustration with trying to condition Nimo through the winter to prepare for an April ride (Foxcatcher 25 in Fair Hill, Maryland on April 11).  I feel torn between body clipping so that we can condition at a faster pace without having all the sweat to deal with and letting Nimo keep his coat so he doesn't have to wear a blanket.  In the past, when I've body clipped him for the winter, I did enjoy Nimo not being covered in mud all the time and the shorter cool-down times.  But, I haven't found a brand of blanket yet that doesn't start causing shoulder and mane rubs about 6 weeks into the process.  One compromise that I've tried is body-clipping at the beginning of February.  By then, we usually don't have too much real winter left, and I can expect to spend about 2 months worrying about blanketing before spring arrives and we often have nice warm days, especially in March.

This winter seems different, though.  We just aren't getting the warmer days and the forecast for the next 10 days shows even the high temperatures not getting above freezing for almost all the days.  Nimo hasn't started shedding at all yet, even though he frequently starts in January, which leads me to believe he senses that he needs his winter coat for a little longer.

And this year is different because I'm not normally trying to condition for a 25-30 mile ride.  I feel like I need to start ramping up our ride miles and pace, but I worry about all the sweating if I don't clip.  I'm curious to know what other people do for the winter in terms of keeping their horses fit as well as blanketing, clipping, and turnout.  So, please feel free to leave a comment with how you handle conditioning in the winter:)


  1. I've sucked at conditioning this winter between one thing and another, one of the issues being the health issues that you know about and the other being boarding at a barn where I'm expected to help out with the chores, which means I've been dealing with some guilt when it comes to riding while others are working, even when I've already done my part.

    I was surprised to read you used to body-clip in February! My magic clipping month since moving here has been March. Our first winter here, I left Lily fuzzy throughout but did a high trace clip in March. The second one (last year) I did a bib clip in November and continued taking more and more hair off throughout the winter because I was boarding at a barn with a compulsive BO who would pile on the blankets even against the horse owners' wishes and then LEAVE THEM ON even after it warmed up! It's the main reason why I was going to the barn every. single. day. BO was happy to put on the blankets but it was a whole other story when it came to removing them. I've never seen or heard of anything like it. Hence why Lily spent most of last winter with very little hair. That and I was riding a lot more than this year, prompted by the snow and frozen ground: I'm much more likely to ride in cold + snow than in cold + mud. :)

    This year I let the hair from Lily's blanket clip in October grow back. She's been completely unclipped this winter mainly because I have only been able to ride once or twice a week. I'm still blanketing this year because Queenie and Deja are left in their stalls and thus, despite having access to a very large run-in where we hang haynets when the weather is bad, she would still rather stand outside under the elements so she can keep her stalled herdmates company (their stall windows look out into the run-in shed paddock so she'll stand outside in the paddock next to the stall windows) than stay sheltered under the run-in. -_- Herd Leader Lily is not a Smart Lily. I'm kind of looking forward to having her in a different herd where she is lower down on the totem pole. For the -20 wind chills we had last night and that we're having tonight, she's wearing her 200 gram midweight, a 180 gram blanket liner, and a neck cover, since she will stand out in the raging wind and not eat. If she was taking shelter and eating like a smart horse would, I would have just left her with the midweight and neck cover. She was fine with just that in these temps with an Irish clip last year. But she was being smart about the weather then.

    Gracie, who will take care of herself, has been living in a 180 gram blanket liner + waterproof sheet when it's been below 20. I put a neck cover on last night because of the -27 wind chills we were expecting.

    In November I gave Gracie a high bib clip that hasn't fully grown back. I took more off on her neck because she had been getting very hot when worked in 30-40 degree temps earlier this winter, and it has done wonders for her temp regulation when exercised. It has not affected her blanketing. She hasn't needed any more than 180 grams of insulation when it's been below 20 degrees. She could go naked most of the time but there are nights when she'll stand next to Lily when Queenie and Deja are stalled, so she gets blanketed with something to make up for that.

    So that's what I'm doing this winter given the particular circumstances. :) I'm planning on giving Lily a high trace clip come March when it starts to stay warm more consistently.

    1. I understand what you mean about barn owners over blanketing - I'm not sure it's possible to be a barn manager and not over blanket in this area:) Luckily I'm in a situation where I have some flexibility to deal with blanketing mostly myself or leave notes/send texts to make sure Nimo has the right blanket on, so while it is a pain to monitor it so closely, at least I have the option. And thanks for the detailed description of what you do with your horses. I think Nimo would tend to be more like Gracie - he needs more assistance with cooling for work, he tends to run a little hotter in general, and he does use the run-in shed when he needs to. We need to start some sort of endurance barn in the area, where horses can be horses but still get a high level of care to compensate for the work that they do:)

  2. For Nimo, I would recommend what I recommended Liz last year: a bib clip. You only remove the hair from the throat, the chest, and the girth area. This is often enough to allow them to cool down faster/stay cooler throughout the workout without requiring blanketing. You can do any of the first 3 clips shown in the illustrations of this post without requiring blanketing:

    Hope this helps! :)

    1. OMG - I had no idea there were so many variations on clipping! I kind of want to experiment with all of them now:) Thanks for sharing - and I'm going to start planning my clip for as soon as this latest winter weather crap moves out of the area!

  3. I have never clipped before so have no advice to offer, but I will be following comments as this is something I may be experimenting with myself in the future. On another note, that wind is killer! Even down here it was -5 last night with the wind chill!

    1. Winter is definitely relative to where you are, but anything below zero is serious in my book, especially if your horses aren't used to it!

  4. Where I live we don't get snow or anything like that sort of cold, so I can't help you there. But I wanted to suggest the Weatherbeeta Freestyle blankets. They're expensive but they fit my horse's shoulders better than any other (he has broad/point draft-type shoulders despite being a short little thing). Whilst I rarely need to keep blankets on for long (so not sure about rubbing in that situation), I do find the shoulder fit is much better. They are the only rugs I can put on my horse without needing a padded shoulder bib underneath - which is important in the weather we get more often: raining a lot but humid and not really cold.

    1. Thanks for the tip on the Weatherbeeta blankets. That's actually one brand I haven't gotten around to trying, but I think Tack of the Day often has them, so I might see if I can score one for a discount this year and give it a try.

  5. Also, as you're doing endurance, just be careful of clipping girth-area hair unless you've done it before and know he'll be fine. Although the sweating is a pain, some long-distance horses can have issues with the girth (or even just their elbow skin) chaffing when the hair is clipped off. He may be fine, but just be aware that it can be a problem ;)
    (Also above, my horse has broad/pointY shoulders)

    1. Thanks for the heads up. Luckily, Nimo is unlikely to ever have elbow chafing because the saddle sits so far back due to his shoulder angle. That means the girth is always a little further back than on most horses and there will never be any elbow interference (it also means I probably can't use a heart rate monitor during our rides, but that's another story...). He has also never had girth chafing issues when clipped in the past, although I don't clip really close to the skin.

  6. Feel you. I was doing well with winter conditioning until February settled in. The constant snowfall and arctic blasts have made conditions nigh impossible for riding. I wanted to ride last night, but upon arriving at the barn realized it would be a bad decision.

    You see, the snow here is currently over a foot deep. It's compressed significantly from what it originally was, but it's still so deep! Compression has made it worse. Warming to 30s with some rain and refreezing at subzero temps has made it nigh impossible to traverse in. It makes you think you'll be able to walk on top of it, but then you crash through last moment. The horses are very slow moving in it in their fields, mostly sticking to paths they've made. I'm pretty sure walking around in it at a conditioning pace would lead to both tweaked tendons and superficial lacerations from the icy crust. Coupled with not wanting a sweaty horse in this kind of weather....yeah.

    So for me, for this winter, I'm throwing in the towel until the ground is clear. Too many hazards!! I hope you don't have the kind of snow we do right's a bear.

    If you're able to remove the snow factor though, I recommend the bib clip (Saiph mentioned above). It did great for Q and Griffin last year. Between a conservative bib clip and time management, I never encountered an issue. I'd plan a bit of time to be able to let the horses have a cooler on post-ride while I mucked about doing other things so that they could truly be dry. I'd also try to plan my harder rides where there was more potential for over heating on days when the weather was clear of precip and when I could finish my ride at least 2 hours before sunset. Sunset results in rapidly dropping temps, and I wanted them to have a few hours back out in their fields when I was done with them to re-acclimate to the weather and do horse things before the temps plummeted for the night. It seemed to work well!