Sure, those folks in Wellington might be warm, but they’re missing out on the joys of the snow riding. Here are a few considerations before you saddle up.
I recently went for my first ride in the snow. Yes, me, a lifelong horseback rider who grew up in Pennsylvania and then willingly relocated into the heart of the lake-effect snow phenomenon, just this winter at the age of 26, finally went snow riding. How did it take me this long? Well, having access to covered and indoor riding spaces helped (the last one was even heated). Snow, until now, was just an inconvenience.
But life on the cow farm means that if I’m waiting for perfect trail conditions again, I won’t be in the saddle again until, oh, April. So when we had a few days of moderately warm weather (read: over 20 degrees Fahrenheit) I bundled up, brought in my horse and headed out to the pristinely untouched back pastures to go romp. Here are a few considerations, as well as personal observations about riding in the snow:
I mean, maybe this is a no-brainer, but for a first-time snow rider I had to remind myself of this fact when asking Red to do anything more than plod through drifts at a marching walk. The same way that you’re quickly out of breath after slogging through deep snow, your horse will tire out from all of that work. Combine that with cold temperatures and you’ve got potential to overwork your horse in frigid air, or get him sweaty and then chilled. Most of my snow rides are long walks with one or two short sections of trot and canter. Some of this might depend on the horse–my Red is a short, stocky cow pony who caps out at 15 hands if he’s thinking tall thoughts. He’s going to max out in snow long before someone on a 17-hand warmblood is going to even notice.
Regular shoes? Stay in the arena.
My horse is barefoot, which is pretty ideal for winter riding. Snow can ball up in shod hooves and protrude up to a few inches, meaning that the horse is hobbling and slipping about like he’s got billiard balls for feet–not fun, not safe! If your horse does need to stay shod for the winter, consider looking into snow rims–special rim pads can prevent snow from balling up. You can also add borium for extra grip in the snow: chips of the super-hard borium are welded onto the shoe, creating areas of grip. Just remember to plan ahead in late autumn when scheduling the farrier.
Test the snow first to make sure there’s no ice crust.
Imagine punching through that kind of snow that gets crusty on top, without any boots on. Ouch! If there’s a crust of ice on the surface, or a few layers down, leave your horse in the barn today–he won’t enjoy riding in that, and if it’s sharp enough, he could even injure himself.
Proceed with caution.
Sure, you might be riding the same trail you ride every day and you might normally be able to navigate it blindfolded–but once you’ve dumped a bunch of snow on top of anything, it becomes unrecognizable. Little things like sticks and stones are invisible, and much scarier obstacles like holes and ditches can be impossible to see. Patches of ice could be lurking in areas with poor drainage. Don’t move out at a trot or a canter unless you’re confident that you’re on good ground beneath that snow. Case in point: I knew there was a dry creek ditch somewhere at the top of the hill where I was riding the other day, and Red knew it too–but we disagreed on where it was. Red wound up standing up to his chest in a slough and had to suck back and jump to free himself. Winter is NOT a good time to go exploring new trails that you’ve never ridden before.
If you’re like me and you have a hard time remembering to look up, snow riding will cure you in about thirty seconds. I trotted my horse across a previously-untouched pasture the other day and gave myself total vertigo for a few moments by looking down at the ground. With no visual landmarks to break up all that white I was totally disoriented. Eyes on the horizon, people.
Sit up and enjoy the ride.
When I was finally comfortable that we were not going to fall into a giant hole hidden under the snow, Red would not bog down in a drift and that there was no ice lurking to cut his legs to ribbons, I really really enjoyed snow riding. The feel of riding in the snow is different from just riding down the trail–my horse lifts his legs higher to clear the surface, and even though we’re moving at a good pace everything feels slowed down. In the snow, I can see signs of other winter residents (rabbit tracks, mice trails, the perfect wing imprint where a turkey took flight.) It’s quiet, it’s serene, and for a few minutes it truly seems like we’re the only things out here in the great white expanse.