Ahh! Our horses have gotten all furry! It’s that time of year again…days are growing shorter and colder with the inevitable approach of winter.

You may have guessed this already, but your horse is much happier in cold weather than you are. In fact, he’s probably happily gallivanting around in turnout while you’re just trying to keep feeling in your toes.

As winter weather hits Littleton, snow may fall on his furry coat and even pile up there, but it doesn’t phase him. He’s too busy eating it off the fence or pawing it away in some wishful attempt to find grass beneath. That long, coarse outer coat keeps him insulated.

Horses are much better equipped for the cold than we are. As long as they keep drinking and have plenty of good food, they’re fine and even happy in the worst Colorado winters. Nonetheless, there are temperature limits when it comes to riding.

Two main concerns for horsey health dictate when horseback riding in the cold is OK and when it’s risky: 1) lung burns and 2) sweat-related chills.

Lung-burn: Have you ever gone for a run on a really cold day and felt that horrid chest pain that signals you overdid it, you silly overachiever, and freeze-burned your lungs gulping in the frigid air? The same thing can happen to horses if they’re worked hard when it’s in the single digits.

Yes, they can recover from it in just a few days. But it can also be, as trainer Julie Goodnight puts it, “a serious physical issue that can turn into a respiratory nightmare.” Better not chance it.

Experts disagree on exactly what temperature is too cold to ride. Horses have a long air passageway, after all. But a 2005 study by Oklahoma State University found that strenuous exercise (cantering or galloping) in sub-freezing temperatures provoked airway changes in otherwise healthy horses and “may in fact be a part of the cause of the eventual development of chronic airway disease in equine athletes.”

They studied horses’ airways after just 5 minutes of easy cantering. So better safe than sorry. We like to use about 20 degrees Fahrenheit as a cutoff point for riding.

You can still give your horse some gentle walk-trot exercise or turn him out when it’s colder, though.

Cooling down: With their thick winter coats, horses may work up a sweat in the arena. No problem there—the challenge is for them to dry without catching a chill.

Of course we have coolers for this and they often do the trick. But you have to wait until the horse is dry to remove it and that could be a while. It’s a bad idea to leave a blanket on a wet horse, as that could do more harm then good. Never leave a sweaty horse standing in a cold barn, paddock or field.

Some people use trace clipping to deal with the sweat issue, as clipped horses need less time to dry. But clipped horses have less natural protection against the elements and need blanketing, as well as more feed. Generally, unless you are seriously showing and/or training through the winter, we don’t recommend clipping. If possible, au natural is best.

All told, even if you have been to Dover’s sale and found the very best winter gear and the coziest lined boots EVER and feel like staying outside in sub-zero temperatures with your equine buddy, don’t work him hard under 20 degrees. Your own lungs and toes will thank you.