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Winter Riding & Staying Warm

For most people, winter means activities indoors and less time with their horses — but it doesn't have to be that way. I ride ALL winter, and like most of you, I, too, DON'T LIKE BEING COLD. My rides take my horse and me, and often fellow riders, far into state forests many miles from the barn or the trailhead, therefore, I can't afford to risk hypothermia when so far out. So, I've put together a clothing system that keeps me warm for the duration of my ride, which is often several hours. I also don't like wearing lots of weight in clothing or spending lots of time getting dressed to ride and taking all this outerwear off after. So what's the solution? Part of it is today's high-tech outerwear and the rest is the degree of active riding you do.

Winter Trail Ride

Staying Dry
Keeping yourself dry MUST be the first order of business because you can't keep warm in the winter if you can't first keep dry. In fact, getting wet while outdoors during the winter is often life-threatening. That's because the water will conduct away your body heat very, very quickly and it's evaporation will cool you still further.

I wrote a little about this topic in a May 2008 article about Staying Dry. This also important because some of the same technology used to keep us dry also helps us to keep warm. These different requirements are addressed in different ways, but there is also some overlap and synergisms. The aforementioned technology is "breathable polymer membranes" — you know some of them as Gore-Tex®, Epic®, eVent®, and L.L.Bean's Tek2.5®. These membranes do three major things that you care about in winter:

  1. They prevent water from penetrating into your clothing;
  2. They let your perspiration escape (they breathe); and
  3. They prevent the cold wind from passing through.
And other than requiring normal care and cleaning, these garments are "hassle free", are very light thereby adding almost no additional weight, and last just as long as any other clothing.

Keeping Warm
While breathable membranes will keep out the water and the wind, they don't provide much insulation. For that, we need other technologies and they also include some names you've likely heard before, such as Thinsulate® and Polartec®. These products provide high-level insulation properties in a very lightweight fabric. And they're also very thin which means you won't have to look like the Pillsbury Doughboy when you wear your warm, winter-riding garb.

In natural fibers, duck and goose down are known for their lightweight and excellent thermal insulation properties. They can be a little bulkier, but they will be warm. Wool is also quite warm, and unlike most other fabrics, will keep you warm even if it and you get wet. But wool is also heavy (and much heavier if wet) compared to these other fabrics and I don't like it as much for riding.

Now we get down to discussing the items themselves. Keep in mind what I've explained here about the available materials to help you stay warm and dry as we discuss each piece of clothing. It can make all the difference in your comfort and safety.

Riding Coat
Your riding coat requires the moisture and wind protection discussed as well as the ability to keep you very warm. Remember, at the walk, you're not moving much and you're therefore not generating much heat. That means your coat has to keep in what little heat you do genrate. But you also want control over the zippers. A coat that can also be unzipped up from the bottom is a great help when accessing your pant's pockets, a cell phone on your belt, and even just to cool off a little without having to shed your coat. I also like to have side zippers at the bottom that allow cooling and prevent a longer coat from bunching up while sitting in the saddle.

     Lots of Pockets
My coat has 12 pockets, some inside and some out and every one of them zippers closed. The outside pockets have a snap cover that goes down over the zipper. This has the added advantage of shedding rain and I can quickly and easily remove and replace frequently changed items (e.g. think gloves) without fear of losing them.

There is a "flask pocket" on the upper portion of the main zipper just under the placket that I use instead for my sunglasses (I won't drink while riding — you shouldn't either if you ride the way I do — maybe I'll ride better next year). I find that I like to remove my sunglasses when the sun goes behind the clouds and I'm in the shadow of a hill or mountain and then like to wear them again when everything gets bright. The flask pocket works perfectly for that and doesn't interfere with my riding (though I don't make these changes at a gallop).

In another pocket, I carry a wool hat colloquially called a "toque" (pronounced "toke"). If the helmet and cover are not warm enough or it starts to rain, I have the option of wearing the toque and pulling up the waterproof hood (the whole coat uses waterproof Gore-tex). While this means I no longer have head protection, I'll only walk if I'm going to be stuck in driving rain and it's more important to remain dry and warm in the coldest weather.

Still another pocket carries six packages of hand/foot-warmers. If the previously described gear is still not enough to stay warm, these packages will generate heat for at least four hours. Between the high-tech insulated, waterproof garb and the ability to artificially generate heat in addition to my own, I haven't yet experienced a cold winter ride.

And finally, I carry a small waterproof flashlight (a 2 AA cell Maglite®) and spare batteries in case I ever find myself miscalculating my return time and coming back in the dark. Though the items in the pockets do add a little weight, the fact that the clothing items are all lightweight means I'm not burdened down.

Head Warmth
I've written about the importance of wearing head protection in the past (see: Why I Wear a Riding Helmet). But a helmet can do still more. On my helmet, I avoided getting one with cooling vents. I did that because I wanted to keep in more heat in the winter (it didn't help much) and I wanted to keep the sunlight from coming through the helmet in the summer because, alas, I've lost the hair on the top of my head (don't you dare tell anyone!) With vented helmets, I would get vent-shaped sunburn spots on my pate — it hurt and I don't want a sun-damaged scalp — the lack of vents does prevent that.

To warm my head in the winter and still protect it from falls, I use a Polartec helmet cover — it works really great! The cover goes over the top of my helmet and comes down around my neck like a scarf to connect under my chin with velcro patches. It's a fast easy on/easy off solution that truly keeps my head warm — highly recommended for winter riding!

I've recently learned that they are now also available in fluorescent orange — so, of course, I got one. While I completely admit that I'd rather not look like a pumpkin riding a horse, it does beat the idea of me or my horse taking a bullet or arrow during the winter hunting season. So if you see some funny looking, orange-headed jamoka bouncing quickly through a forest trail in New England, feel free to say hello — that'll be me!

To keep my legs warm, I wear insulated jeans. And if really cold out, over them, I'll wear Gore-tex lined ski-pants to keep out the wind and rain. It's astounding how much warmer I feel with my legs warm.

I've already discussed this subject in a prior article, so I'll just point you there for your convenience. It's called: Riding Footwear. The main issues with footwear regarding winter riding are keeping water out and wicking away moisture — you MUST keep your feet dry to not only maintain their comfort, but to avoid frostbite. And there are other riding aspects of choosing footwear that are critical for safety, like your boot coming free of the stirrup if you fall off so you don't get dragged — that article explains further.

Keeping your hands warm is very important. Not only are cold hands uncomfortable, if they get too cold, your joints will actually hurt and your dexterity becomes very limited. You need the ability to use gentle half-halts and such to properly signal your horse — you don't want to just yank back; and gentle signals are difficult when your very cold hands feel like blunt clubs. I deal with this need in several ways.

  1. I carry a light pair of riding gloves;
  2. I carry a heavy pair of riding gloves;
  3. I switch between pairs or actually remove them as needed.
The foregoing gives me three different options (heavy gloves, light gloves, no gloves) amongst which I can switch while on the trail, and so far, one of them has always been comfortable, if only for a little while until I change to another.

Active Riding
You'll generate a starkly different amount of heat if you're shifting your weight at a canter or slow gallop avoiding trees on a forest trail compared to riding at the walk. The former will warm you up quickly while the latter will let you and your horse cool down and possibly get cold if the temperature is low and you're too lightly dressed. Keep this in mind as you select your winter riding garb.

Winter Riding The best advice is either to dress in layers so you can adjust your garb to the temperature and your activity, or wear garb that can be opened up some to ventilate heat. My approach is to use the latter.

The problem I've found with too many layers is that you need to have ways to carry them all as you remove them. This means you're stripping down during high activity or midday warm-up and doing the reverse as you slow down or sunset approaches. Instead, I purchased a high-tech winter coat that has zippers at the sides (to reduce bunching when sitting in the saddle as well as to vent heat) as well as unzipping down or up from the bottom. It also is made of tough, thick, rip-stop nylon that has taken many branch hits without tearing or catching.

The problem I've found with too many layers is that you need to have ways to carry them all as you remove them. This means you're stripping down during high activity or midday warm-up and doing the reverse as you slow down or sunset approaches. Instead, I purchased a high-tech winter coat that has zippers at the sides (to reduce bunching when sitting in the saddle as well as to vent heat) as well as unzipping down or up from the bottom. It also is made of tough, thick, rip-stop nylon that has taken many branch hits without tearing or catching.

Where To Get All This Stuff
Riding footwear, riding gloves, and riding helmet covers are all available at tack stores and tack suppliers on the Web. The coat I'm so happy about and regaled you with above regarding warmth, waterproof liner, and a plethora of pockets is the Maine Warden's Parka from L.L.Bean®. The liner is removable and you can wear it or the outside waterproof shell alone. I usually wear the shell in spring and autumn when the temperature is between 45 - 65 °F and rain is possible during my rides. And I'm surprised at how warm it is at these temperatures even without the liner.

The Gore-tex ski-pants also come from L.L.Bean. I think that any waterproof ski-pants should work well. Hand and foot warmers are available from L.L.Bean, Cabellas®, Eastern Mountain Sports (EMS) and most camping and hiking outlets.

These suppliers and others like them may be able to provide much of what is discussed in this article. But for two specific items, I recommend you get footwear and a helmet actually designed for riding horses to assure they accommodate the unique safety aspects of riding.

The above discussion describes a winter riding system of dress that works quite well for me. It's flexible depending on temperature, and in the coldest weather, keeps my whole body dry and warm. And it's nice to know that I've got protection if the weather should unexpectedly change when far out on a winter trail ride.

Don't be afraid to ride in the winter — it has benefits to you and your horse in keeping you still active while many people get out of physical shape and have to restart in the spring. Your horse and you will stay in better shape and you'll both "hit the ground running" come springtime.

Note: As mentioned earlier, getting your body wet in cold weather can be life threatening, therefore, special precautions should be undertaken for those that ride in the rain during the colder seasons. Some people never go out in the winter if it's raining or rain is forecasted for the time they plan to ride because they feel it's not worth the risk while others assure they have proper gear and clothing to keep themselves and their horse's adequately dry — this is especially important when venturing far away from your barn. And there are other hazards to consider, such as frozen ground and ice that we explore further in Winter Riding Dangers & Staying Safe.

Besides being an avid trail rider, Jerry Tardif is a technology consultant and a horse and nature photographer in SE Connecticut — see his work at: www.jerrytardif.com. He is also co-founder and President of QueryHorse.

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