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Winter Horse Turnout and Riding Horses in Snow or Icy Pastures

Horses are, for the most part, incredibly well-suited to snowy conditions. Convex hooves and thick winter coats make most horses more comfortable in snowy conditions than in high humidity heat. That said, there are still some wintry conditions that are unsafe for a horse to be turned out in.

Read on to learn more about winter turnout do’s and don’ts.

horse standing at a fence in the snow

How do you decide if your snow-covered pasture is safe for turnout?

In my first seven or eight years of horse ownership, I would have said that an abundance of caution should be exercised when considering whether to turn out horses in a wintry snowy pasture. I would have encouraged the judicious turnout of horses in snow-covered pastures only if the snow was soft but still frozen – not too hard and not slippery slush.

That all changed in the winter of 2008 when Southwest Missouri experienced the worst ice storm anyone could remember hitting the area. Many rural areas went without power for weeks on end, on our far power was restored 10 days after the initial storm. Those 10 days challenged our winter horse keeping skills and norms, forcing us to trust our horses a little bit more and to rely on their instinct to navigate the dangers of a snowy and icy pasture.

I’ve written at length about our creativity in keeping water tanks thawed without electricity and in this article I’m talking a little more about turnout in icy pastures.

horse eyelashes in cold winter snow

Why I Leave My Horses Turned out During Winter Storms

The interesting thing about an ice storm that leaves 1-2 inches of solid ice on the ground is that the sounds of a farm change. Between the cracking of ice and the utter silence, I noticed that I could hear each of my horses’ footsteps in the pasture, even from inside my home about 150 yards away.

For several reasons, we chose not to keep horses in the barn after that winter ice storm had passed. We kept stalls closed for a few hours during the initial rain-turning-to-sleet phase of the storm, then immediately turned them out (with access to a shelter with hay) even though there was solid ice frozen on the ground. Why? The forecast promised that the ice would remain for more than a week, and for various reasons we were not comfortable keeping the horses in stalls that long. Rather than keeping them in for a few days and then letting them out (with the boundless energy that accompanies turnout after days of being stalled), we chose to let them have free range of the icy pastures. By allowing horses access to the icy fields, we avoided having to eventually release over-energetic horses onto slick ice or dangerously slick post-thaw muddy pastures, and instead left them loose and trusted their instinct.

Letting the horses free-range through and beyond that storm gave them the opportunity to exercise just as much as they needed to.

A pinto horse standing in a snowy field while snow is falling.

Horse Turnout in Ice-Covered Pastures

I realized as I listened to my horse’s hooves reverberate on the solid ice through those days and nights of eerie silence, that they were each taking themselves on a slow, careful walk around the perimeter of the pasture about once per hour. This fascinating experience led me to grow more trust in my horse’s intuitive ability to know when and how to move on ice and other conditions.

After this, ice storm experience I began to leave my horses turned out during all sorts of storms and weathers – only bringing them in during lightning storms.

Horse Riding in Snow

Most horses will avoid running in snow and ice unless they are feeling the energy build-up caused by being kept in a stall. This image shows Silver Red Ebony, one of our former broodmares, running through a snowy pasture in December. This horse’s white color almost blends in with the snow.

Many horses with thick winter coats, like Bashkir Curlies, don’t usually need to be blanketed with horse blankets in this type of weather. Their winter coats are thick enough to keep them warm in most temperatures. Putting a winter horse blanket on a horse with a good winter coat actually makes horse’s own coat less effective in keeping them warm- long after the blanket is removed. Horses naturally warm themselves by puffing up their coats. When a blanket is added, the hairs are made to lay down and, if the blanket doesn’t compensate sufficiently for that with insulation- can potentially make a horse colder.

A white mare running in a snowy field.

The picture below shows our white mare trotting through the snow in our back pasture after a snow fall in December of 2006. Our horses were happy to get turned out and played happily in the soft fetlock-deep snow. Notice our Chestnut mare, Lucy, following close behind! Some types of snow are perfectly safe to turn a horse out on- it provides a soft but somewhat supportive footing. Most horsekeeping experts advise that horses should not be allowed out on snow, because the danger of slipping is too great. Generally, they say, ice or hard frozen snow on top of mud provides unsafe footing for horse turnout or riding, but soft snow covering footing that is safe and well-drained is fine to ride on or allow horses to play on.

Trouble Areas

Even if you trust your horse’s winter instincts- like our tough and snow-loving Bashkir curly horses-  and chose winter turnout, it is a good idea to take note of footing around water troughs and stock tanks, and this area can be dangerous- particularly if it is trampled and partially thawed in the day, and frozen again overnight. While a horse can navigate this tricky footing, troughs can become a crowded hot-spot for group turnout and any scuffles between horses on this treacherous footing could be unsafe.

If you note that the footing around your trough is particularly bad, there’s not much you can do in winter weather (short of the laborious process of draining, moving, and refilling) but you may want to make a note to made footing upgrades before next winter.

Click here for more information on horseback riding safety.

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