Warming up the Winter Blues

Winter blues got you down? Horse Nation writer Kristen Brennan is no stranger to that feeling, but this year she is approaching the cold season with a glass-half-full mentality. 

t’s hard to be mad at the temperatures outside when you look out your window at a winter sunset sky. Photo by Kristen Brennan.

I will fully admit I am a fair-weather rider and I feel more and more dread as the sunshine fades and the air gets cooler. We are lucky here in Kentucky that we tend to have a long fall and spring with a short winter in between. But frankly, I am a wuss and those few cold months feel like they drag on for years. I spend most of my time mourning the loss of my seasonal true love, summer, and wishing and hoping as I open the weather app on my phone each day. I dream of the day where I buy that lucky lotto ticket and we can pack it all up to winter in Aiken or Ocala.

While I grew up in the Northeast and went to school in the Pacific Northwest, somewhere over the last decade in “The South” my blood thinned and I grew to hate winter (with one caveat: I love to ski, so while I am on the slopes winter is okay). As a horse person, there’s just so much to dislike about winter. The frozen toes that feel like they shatter when you dismount your horse. Chipping ice off water buckets only to have them freeze over again in a few hours. The mud — oh, the mud — all over every inch of every horse and sucking off very expensive shoes. Add in the lack of horse shows and activities and I start to think hibernation is the best option to get through until Spring.

My attitude this year started out no different, declining as rapidly as the hours of daylight. Each time I added another layer to my #ROTD, I felt the winter dismay increase a little more. To add to it, 2020 has been long, hard year for so many of us. So, I decided that instead of wallowing in my own seasonal melancholy, I am going to try something new –optimism! Instead of continuing to focus on what is awful about winter, I am going to take the “Glass is Half Full” approach. While I may still be counting the days until Spring, I’ve thought of some “perks” that come along with the winter months.

Winter Sass Keeps Them Young

At least the fact that they are cute and sweet (sometimes) makes up for barn chores when it’s single digit temps, right? Photo by Kristen Brennan.

Every year, winter brings cooler days and feistier horses. For my young horse Geoffrey, it might, on a bad day, mean a few snorty blows before mounting and a squeal, a head snake and a bit of dolphining, but it’s always pretty harmless. But for Marcus, my retired eventer turned western dressage superstar, the short days and cold temperatures means it’s his time to SHINE.

Marcus has always had two things going for him in the winter. First, he is a master of the art form I lovingly referred to as “recreational spooking.” Second, he is always very easy to keep fit and by the end of the eventing season, he was so fit that he would feel like a pressure cooker ready to blow as soon as I swung a leg over. That combination means that even at 22 years old and semi-retired, each ride would keep me on my toes. Crunchy leaves? We’d end up on the other side of the arena. Honking migrating goose overhead? He’s outta here. Mums near a jump? Spook, spin, and run. In the past, these antics annoyed me, and more times than once almost landed me in the dirt, but this year I am going to look at the upside. First, his nonsense has given me the seat of a reining rider after our more than a decade long partnership. Second, his annual winter sillies mean my old man still still feels great and young at heart. Keeping that mind, I am going to try to smile not roll my eyes next time he spooks at his own shadow.

Dressing for Success

I don’t know about everyone else, but my horses LOVE to be dirty. Marcus, in true gray horse fashion, has the innate ability to sense when you’re short on time for a ride, and meticulously coats himself in layer upon layer of mud. It’s an art form he’s perfected over his 22 years and it’s quite impressive. In the spring and summer, we tend to get heavy rains and our clay rich soil provides the perfect medium for his artistic efforts. But in the winter, blanketing is a savior. He still gets the satisfaction of rolling and attempting a mud bath, but I get the benefit of 50% less daily grooming efforts.

The perks of winter blankets — at least your gray remains sort of clean from the belly up. Photo by Sean Endfinger.

On the other hand, Geoffrey spends less time worrying about mud and more time acting out the movie Fight Club in my field of geldings. In the other seasons, he comes in with new battle wounds and missing chunks of hair all over his body and I have no clue how it happens (first rule of Fight Club — you don’t talk about Fight Club). Come winter, I wrap him up in blankets that wear like iron and send him out wishing him the best and telling him to make good choices, and for a few months, I get a break from daily First Aid.

Layers to Cover the COVID 15

Thank you puffy coat, fleece pull over and base layers for helping me hide that COVID 15. Photo courtesy of Kristen Brennan.

I don’t know about anyone else, but for me the COVID 15 has been the real deal. While I’ve remained active with riding and running all year long, a few extra pounds have crept up on me as the result of things like weekly Chick-Fila-A lunches (and an extra glass of wine or two at happy hour) while quarantining with a wild toddler when daycares were closed.

When it was warm it was a little harder to hide breeches that were a bit snugger, but winter brings camouflage in the form of layers. No one will notice an extra roll or two on your belly when you’ve got a base layer, a fleece, a vest, and a warm puffy coat. Feeling self-conscience? Add another layer! This year, I’m looking at it like how blanketing can make it easy to miss body condition changes in horses — no one needs to know until it’s Spring, when I’m forced to peel off those bulky layers.

Body Clipping for An Artistic Outlet

When I was still competing in the hunters with Marcus, I would give him a full body clip before the start of every winter. The process itself I absolutely hated, as he is a horse that could metabolize a dose of dorm/torb lightning fast, leaving me dodging hind legs by mid-clip. But I loved that body clipping allowed my extremely left-brained self to have a bit of fun with art and clip random things into my horses. Every year, Marcus, whose show name is “Moscato,” would get a wine glass carefully traced onto his hind end. My trainer would roll her eyes but tolerate it for few months, only asking me to clip it off before we returned to the hunter ring. Now that he is semi-retired, he doesn’t get body clipped, but I think to cheer myself up as we head into winter, I am going to bring back the tradition and clip that fancy wine glass into his hindquarters.

Though it will never be my favorite season, I think I can do a better job over the next few months. Instead of showing disdain at the inevitable winter weather, I can try to be a bit more optimistic as the temperatures drop. I can’t say that the good points I identified above will fully make up for having to de-ice automatic waterers at 2 am or for rides in sub-zero wind chills, but they will help shine a more positive light on the next few months as I wait for warmer days.

At least December brings winter hacks with friends and children’s Christmas photo shoots to spook at. Photo by Becca B Photography.