Expect the unexpected.
Here at Horse Nation headquarters in the heart of lake-effect snow territory, we’re getting our first big dump of the season: there’s a foot or more of measurable snow at home and around eight inches or so at the farm about twenty minutes away, and there’s plenty more on the way thanks to the large unfrozen expanse of Lake Erie churning away, producing its own microclimate snow clouds that promptly dump on us here on shore.
That means that my daily trek to the barn will simply take a little more time as I pick and choose my way carefully down the road. Horses still need to be fed and blankets need to be checked and a million other tiny tasks that have to happen daily, so I’m not going to let a little thing like some snow stop me.
While I’m certainly not the world’s best driver OR equestrian, I’ve learned a lot over the years based on personal experience. And in my personal experience, driving in the snow is actually an awful lot like riding — which is an encouraging thought on days I can feel the car slip-sliding around, a metaphor that keeps me going (albeit much slower than on a good day).
1. Slamming on the brakes is usually not a great idea.
When I was regularly riding reining horses and coaching riders on how to achieve the picture-perfect sliding stop, I spent some time debunking the myth that you just gallop really fast and then hit the brakes all of a sudden. A good sliding stop is actually a multi-step process that requires a lot of focus and preparation on the part of both horse and rider; the ill-prepared stops that involved a rider just wrenching on the reins usually resulted in some pretty ugly moments and was incredibly unfair to the horse. No horse alive enjoys getting chucked in the mouth with no warning.
On a snowy road there may be some moments in which slamming on the brakes is totally unavoidable — say a car cuts out in front of you or a deer leaps into the roadway. Usually, if you’re on a slushy, snowy road and you mash those brakes, you’re going to skid, and if you’re really unlucky you might skid right off the roadway or into another car. To avoid needing to stomp on the brake as much as possible, snow driving requires an extended following distance and a certain amount of anticipation of things like upcoming turns or stops.
2. Forward motion! Forward motion!
We’ve all ridden through some crow hops or pony bucks in our horse life — our reflex might be to grab the reins and try to halt, but the most effective way of getting through this kind of monkey business is maintaining that forward motion. A horse in engaged forward motion isn’t going to be able to sustain crow-hopping for very long, but pulling back on the reins can sometimes send all that naughty energy up into bigger bucks and hops.
In parallel, I pulled onto a slushy road today that didn’t look as treacherous as it actually was — my car fishtailed as we slowly glided down the road, and keeping the car moving straightened us right out. Pounding the brakes could have whipped me completely around and yanking the wheel one way or the other could have fishtailed us right off the road or into oncoming traffic. Maintaining that gentle forward motion (not to be confused with applying a lot of gas!) helped the problem take care of itself.
3. Discretion is still the better part of valor.
Yes, my horses ARE waiting at the other end of my drive, but in truly abysmal ice/whiteout conditions I do have family members living much closer to the farm who can step in to feed and check that all four legs are still attached to everyone on an emergency basis. Likewise, if conditions aren’t right for riding — it’s about to thunderstorm, or it’s 95 degrees with 98% humidity, or my horse humped his back up and made a noise like a dragon when the saddle went on — it’s totally okay to not ride and opt instead for something like lunging.
4. You can’t worry too much about what other riders or drivers are doing.
It’s been awhile since I had to fight my way around a warm-up arena, but I can still remember those moments well: trying to carve out enough personal space to lope your circles (or catch your practice fences) while trying not to take out the girl on the hot and reactive chestnut that wants badly to buck her off, or be taken out yourself. The minute you try to anticipate where someone else is going to go, they’ll surprise you and you’ll end up having a wreck or causing one yourself.
On a snowy road, I also can’t let myself obsess too much about what other people are doing. So what if there’s someone tailgating me, obviously wishing I would go much faster? I can only drive the car I’m sitting in, and I can only ride the horse I’ve thrown a leg over. Trying to respond to what you think everyone else might do is a recipe for disaster.
(This doesn’t mean you should go careening down a snowy road or galloping through a warm-up ring with nary a care in the world — keep your head on a swivel and stay alert and aware. Just remember that you can only drive the car you’re driving, and you can only ride the horse you’re riding.)
5. When things do go wrong, it’s still just a horse/car.
As hard as it can be to talk yourself down in a dicey situation, panic does not help. I’ve found that the more I ride and the more western New York winters I get under my belt, the more I react intuitively with muscle memory to developing situations with either my horse or my car, rather than psyching myself out and going white-knuckled on the reins or steering wheel. Take a deep breath, talk yourself through it and chances are you’re going to be just fine.