When is it Too Cold to Ride Your Horse?

Updated May 25, 2023
Winter riding outside through the snow

There are many folks who would consider 20 degrees Fahrenheit a “heat wave” and rejoice in the opportunity to work their horses! On the other hand, many others would consider that an artic blast and not want to go outside, let alone ride their horse! There is no set temperature where it is too cold for a horse to be ridden or to go outside if they are adapted to it.

To avoid inadvertently causing your horse harm, take precautions when deciding whether to work your horse in extreme temperatures or fluctuations that they are not used to. Keep reading to learn how your horse handles breathing in cold air and how to safely work your horse when you think it might be too cold to ride.

Research on Temperature and Exercising Horses

Most scientific studies about the effects of temperature on exercising horses deal with the opposite extreme – riding in high heat and humidity (such as at the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics).

However, there are some reputable research studies on the effects of cold air for exercising horses. Studies show that breathing cold air more rapidly and deeply may represent a significant environmental stress to the airways. Keep in mind though, that the experimental protocols often included cantering on a treadmill for 15 minutes or more, something cold-weather riders may not be doing.

How Horses Adapt to Breathing in Cold Climates

Winter riding in cold indoor arena

When the horse is at rest and breathes in in cold, dry air, the upper respiratory tract warms it to body temperature as well as humidifies it before sending it down to the lower respiratory tract. When excessive exercise speeds up and deepens the breaths, the body doesn’t have time to perform this function and the surfaces of the trachea, bronchi, and lungs become cooled and dried.

In addition, exposure of lower airways to cold air alters immunologic responses of horses for at least 48 hours, causing an “upregulation” of inflammatory cytokines. It also causes an influx of neutrophils, a type of white blood cells. Researchers believe that excess heat and water loss from the lower airways may stimulate bronchoconstriction (narrowing of the airway) immediately after exercise and potentially lead to airway obstruction a few hours after exercise. These stressors would make it difficult for the horse to breathe normally.

Tips for Riding Safely in Cold Weather

With all this knowledge, riding in very cold weather isn’t something to be taken lightly. However, keeping your horse moving during winter still has many benefits if it’s not excessive in below freezing temperatures. A good rule of thumb is to take precautions when the temperature is at or below freezing (32 degrees F), and if the temperature dips below 20-25 degrees F, keep your ride limited to light walk and trot work.

Exercise in the winter has value for the cardiopulmonary system, the musculoskeletal system, the digestive system and certainly the central nervous system (your horse’s brain!). In cold temperatures, gently and gradually warm up, take your time cooling down (including drying off if necessary). Be aware of the footing if you’re riding outside so that your horse doesn’t slip and respect your horse’s current fitness level.

Additional Horse Owner Resources

Evidence-Based References

1. Equine Vet J Suppl. 2002 Sep;(34):413-6. Airway cooling and mucosal injury during cold weather exercise. Davis MS1, Lockard AJ, Marlin DJ, Freed AN.

2. Equine Vet J Suppl. 2006 Aug;(36):535-9. Cold air-induced late-phase bronchoconstriction in horses. Davis MS1, Royer CM, McKenzie EC, Williamson KK, Payton M, Marlin D.

3. Am J Vet Res. 2007 Feb;68(2):185-9. Influx of neutrophils and persistence of cytokine expression in airways of horses after performing exercise while breathing cold air. Davis MS1, Williams CC, Meinkoth JH, Malayer JR, Royer CM, Williamson KK, McKenzie EC.

Article originally published in 2014 from a horse owner question submitted via HorseChannel.com.

SmartPak strongly encourages you to consult your veterinarian regarding specific questions about your horse's health. This information is not intended to diagnose or treat any disease, and is purely educational.