Wow, it's cold outside. There is snow on the ground and ice on the roads. We are certainly feeling Mother Winter and when the mercury drops, we prefer to stay inside where it's warm and cozy and often neglect the fitness of our horses.
I find winter to be the worst time to work my horse. Outdoor arena footing is bad, it's dark with the limited daylight and generally the weather is awful. It can be rather daunting to not work your horse at all for the entire winter and then get on him in the spring after 4-5 months off! Not only is it hard on you, but it is also hard on your horse. Younger horses tend to forget more over the winter months and older horses that tend to get stiff will take longer to get in shape once the spring comes. Doing a few simple routines during the cold, winter months, will prepare you horse for the warmer weather riding.
Unless you are the lucky ones that have access to an indoor arena, you'll be forced to work outside and at the mercy of the shorter days and weather. Most ground work exercises that can be performed in dry conditions can be performed in the snow. Pick some exercises that doesn't require the horse to move out, such as backing or moving a hip. Seriously...you can't overdo these kinds of exercises and in reality most of us stop doing them before the horse responds really well. If the weather is really miserable, you can always use the isle of the barn to practice your groundwork. Your horse should be able to understand basic cues such as go forward, soften his neck, move his shoulders over, move his hops over, disengage his hips, pick up his feet and drop his head. These exercises can all be worked on in a closed barn or even in the stall. Come April, you'll be amazed how much better your horse will be.
Riding in snow up to a depth of 2 feet offers excellent resistance training and as a bonus, the snow and cold decreases inflammation in the joints and tendons. When riding in the snow, remember that it is harder work for your horse, so adjust the workload accordingly.
Plan to work at a slower pace so your horse doesn't sweat as much as cooling down will take much longer. If your horse is used to being stables or is blanketed, consider using a quarter sheet to keep his muscles from getting chilled while riding.
Dress yourself in layers that can be removed easily if you get worm while riding. Don't forget to wear warmer boots during the winter.
If snowballs form in the hooves while you ride, coat the bottom of the hooves with petroleum jelly. A frosty cold bit can be really uncomfortable for your horse, so warm the bit before putting it in your horse's mouth. I use the Bit Blanket as it's a great tool for warming a bit in a cold barn.