How to Survive Winter Without An Indoor Arena

Riffing off of Meagan DeLisle’s “How to Survive Winter” guide from last week, Kristen Kovatch offers a few tips based on her own experience riding without an indoor arena.

When all the stars align, outdoor winter riding can be a fabulous experience! Photo by Kristen Kovatch.

When all the stars align, outdoor winter riding can be a fabulous experience!
Photo by Kristen Kovatch.

I don’t hate winter. I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s my favorite time of the year, but I like to take each season in turn and make the most of what each season has to offer me as an equestrian.

Readers enjoyed staff writer Meagan DeLisle’s “How to Survive Winter Without Losing a Few Fingers” guide, published last week — but one reader comment in particular resonated with me, pointing out “this is if you have an indoor arena.” Being indoor-less for the first time in my horse life, I’ve had to make a lot of adjustments to my winter riding schedule. Readers without indoors, this one’s for you.

For background, I live in the “snow belt,” prime lake-effect snow territory on the shore of Lake Erie. For anyone unfamiliar with the lake effect snow phenomenon, as cold air passes over the large, open and unfrozen water of the Great Lakes, all that moisture forms dense bands of snow that can dump feet in concentrated areas (remember the Snowmaggedon of Buffalo a few winters ago?) Therefore, my winters usually consist first of lots of accumulated snow, followed by periods of intense cold — and I’ve written this guide accordingly. I’m sure there are readers with winter conditions like me, as well as many readers with a totally different set of conditions who might find that none of the things I’ve suggested will work for them. Keep this in mind as you read.

1. Be realistic about winter riding conditions.

You can be as hardy as you want to and have as steady of a cold-weather horse as you can find, but there are a few realities to winter riding that can’t be ignored. First of all, the days are a lot shorter — so if you don’t have a well-lit outdoor space, your riding time might depend on chasing the sun and those pesky things like day jobs can get in the way of unlimited daylight hours.

Then there will be plenty of days where it’s simply not that enjoyable to ride — I’d like to consider myself fairly hardy, but if it’s blowing, driving snow then I also know that neither myself nor my horse is going to be enjoying himself at all. Single-digit temperatures can actually cause respiratory harm to your horse — I might go for an easy bareback stroll if it’s a single-digit clear day and it feels pleasant in the sun, but that’s not a good time to go for a rousing canter through deep snow.

2. Realize that it’s okay to decrease your workload.

If you’re a diehard competitor who needs to keep their horse fighting fit all winter long, then I salute you, and am afraid I have no further advice to give you other than bundle up and good luck. I had a hard time accepting this fact in winters past with my horse Red, and attempted to keep him in work all winter long before realizing the hard way that he simply does not do well mentally to be worked inconsistently. My lunging space works great in the summer, but in the winter it’s the place where the cow barn roof drops its ice, so it’s basically unusable until the spring thaw and I will freely admit that I am no longer ballsy enough to try to ride the saltiness out of my lively little cow pony. I’ve finally learned to cut my losses, turn him out for the winter and let him be a horse (to a certain extent — I’ll get to the in-hand work later!)

Instead, I focus my attention on light maintenance rides for our arthritic old man — my sister-in-law is able to keep him in steady work during the summer months when the days are longer, and I take over when early sunsets prevent her from being able to ride. I don’t ask the old man for much — just some nice rambles through the snow where the footing is safe, and maybe a bit of jogging where the snow is not too deep.

I work Red consistently during the summer months and then start to decrease his workload through the fall so he’s not going from hero to zero. That said, in this part of the country you can never really tell what kind of winter you’re going to get or when, so this year we were rudely cut short with unseasonal cold and a lot of early snow.

Just keep in mind that it’s best to decrease your workload gradually if you can, rather than simply stop working your horse cold turkey. On the other hand, in unforeseen weather emergencies, you may not have much of a choice!

3. Focus on other goals.

I’ve slacked off on this a little bit this winter, but last year I spent a lot of time working with Red in hand — just simple things like learning how to ground tie, paying a bit more attention and being more responsive to my body language when in-hand, very basic massage and general “ease” with standing in the barn (the horses live out but come in to be fed, groomed, saddled etc.) I reaped the benefits in the spring when I discovered I had created a patient horse who is a pleasure to work around on the ground rather than the fidgety wild thing I had been dealing with the summer before.

This is great compromise — I’m not leaving him totally mentally turned out all winter long, but I’m not expecting him to be the kind of horse who can go on the occasional trail ride without copping a major attitude halfway through. It’s taken me a few winters to figure this out, but he’s a better horse each spring when I strike the right balance in the winter.

4. If you have suitable riding conditions, remember that warm up takes longer and other parts of the ride may need adjustment.

If you’re still able to fit in a full workout in an outdoor arena with good footing or another open outdoor area that’s safe for moving out, make sure you’re warming up adequately. Your horse might be stiffer than normal or have a little winter tightness that’s otherwise gone in warmer months. Make sure you set aside enough time for a long, gentle warmup.

If you’re riding in deep snow, be aware that this itself can be more of a workout for your horse — if you typically work on a long trot for ten minutes, pay attention to your horse’s responses and know that you might need to adjust for conditions!

Even if you’re quite familiar with your riding space, take the time to check conditions before you move out. Just this afternoon, I was out for a walking ride when we realized that the snow had formed a hard crust over air pockets in several spots in an otherwise benign meadow, and my poor horse floundered through a few of these air traps before he made it quite clear that he was not having a good time. I cut our losses and took a safer long route home.

5. Stay flexible and stay safe!

For whatever reason this year, we’ve been cursed with a terrible cycle of snow, slight thaw, freeze and more snow. This combination of conditions has created windows in which it looks absolutely GORGEOUS out — warm (as in, for me, upper twenties or even low thirties), sunny, and a beautiful blanket of snow that’s begging for me to hack through or perhaps drive my draft team in. The limiting factor? The icy driveway!! It was so slippery that I didn’t dare even lead a horse across it — they moved from the pasture to the barn and back again, but I never had an opportunity to bring a saddled or harnessed horse out of the barn onto the driveway and beyond to riding pastures or the road.

So despite these beautiful days of crystal-blue skies and balmy-for-winter weather, I had to accept the fact that conditions were unsafe and change my plans accordingly. My draft horses have not had as much conditioning work as I’d like, but they are doing just fine with our sleigh ride schedule. The old arthritic guy has been moving around enough in the pasture that he’s still flexing well and comfortable. Some days, you just have to admit that Old Man Winter might have the upper hand, hug your horses and content yourself with a good grooming session!

What are your tips for battling the elements without the aid of an indoor? Share in the comments section — and go riding!

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