Fall of 2016: Long, warm, beautiful...and over. Winter is here, suddenly and without warning. Last week we went abruptly from sunshine and temperatures in the 60s, to freezing temps and SNOW! Good thing the horses were growing their winter coats regardless of the unseasonably warm weather...they knew what was up.
Winter poses several issues and inconveniences for us riders, but with the right mindset and preparation we can all get through this time of year and come out the other side ready for show season!
First, there's the sweaty horse issue. You'll have to start budgeting extra time at the end of your rides for properly walking out your horse, and if they are sweaty, cooling them/drying them out under a fleece or wool blanket before turning them back out in the cold. This is super important–wet horses will get chilled (and sick) out in the elements. Please note that throwing their winter blanket on top of a steaming body just creates condensation inside the blanket, and will make the blanket wet, which will then freeze out in the cold and do absolutely nothing to insulate your horse (in that instance it's actually worse than them being naked because the weight of the blanket flattens their hair. A horse's coat is meant to be able to stand on end and create a fluffy barrier to cold and moisture.)
Another winter problem is our own comfort and warmth. There are many optional things you can get by without in the horse world, but a good pair of winter riding gloves is not one of those things. Your fingers and toes are the first casualties of a cold day at the barn, so do them a favor and get a pair of gloves that still allow you to grip the reins but also keep your digits toasty. Wool socks inside your boots, or a pair of insulated winter riding boots, if you're fancy like that, will also be essential. This is my typical winter riding-and-lesson-teaching uniform:
- Winter-weight riding breeches (buy them roomy enough to fit long-underwear underneath)
- Smartwool long-sleeve shirt
- Wool sweater
- Wool neckwarmer/scarf
- Wool socks (at least one pair, sometimes two!)
- Barn coat
- Barn boots (again, buy them roomy enough for a couple pairs of warm socks!)
- Warm hat or headband (thin enough to fit under my helmet)
- Winter riding gloves
You might sweat while you ride, so dress in layers you can take off/add on as needed. I personally love layering a Smartwool (or any thin merino wool shirt) under my sweater because it wicks and dries sweat, so I'm less likely to get chilled after my ride.
Third, your horse needs to be worked and you need to keep riding all winter long–especially if you are planning to attend shows come spring/summer. Dressage is wonderful in that, done correctly, it helps create a beautiful physique and a sound and healthy horse. It also creates a content animal. Horses are domesticated animals bred for centuries for work. They do better all around when they have a job to do.
Of course, there will be days when it is just TOO cold to work your horse, and on those days it's the right decision to give them (and you) a break. My rule of thumb is that lessons are cancelled when the temps are below 10 degrees Fahrenheit. If you do choose to ride when it is that cold, keep it light and avoid letting them work up a sweat...it's hard on a horse's lungs to work in that cold of weather, and any sweat at all will likely leave them feeling chilled.
There are plenty of worthwhile things you can do with your horse that don't involve heavy work. Liberty play, trick-training, grooming, etc. all serve to strengthen the bond between you and your horse, gives them an interesting and fun break from the monotony of their normal work, and keeps them in the routine of doing something with you every day so that they don't get herd-bound or sour about going to work. Be creative and have fun with it!
Happy winter, everyone!