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Winter Riding Dangers & Staying Safe

Believe it or not, riding in the winter is a good idea. It helps keep you and your horse healthy in what are usually lower activity months. But you want to be safe. While some hazards usually seen in warmer weather, such a bees that can spook your horse or other human activities sharing the trails (such as motorcycles) are not a concern, the winter season brings its own hazards of which we must be aware.

Winter Riding Dangers
While Beautiful, Winter Can Be Slippery and Cold

This article identifies the more common hazards with which you may have to deal when riding in colder weather. These hazards are not a reason to avoid winter riding, rather, you want to know about them so as to avoid them and enjoy the fun and health benefits that accrue by staying active year-round.

The most obvious hazard is hypothermia for you and your horse. You must dress warmly in ways that maintain your body heat and keep both weather moisture, like rain, snow, and fog, and also your own perspiration from wetting your clothes. The Winter Riding & Staying Warm article addresses those issues and provides many suggestions, but what about your horse?

You MUST be cognizant of your horse's condition at all times. Is he cold? Is he wet from perspiring or from aforementioned weather moisture? If he is wet, it likely won't be long before he's also cold. Moisture of any kind in cold weather can make any warm-blooded mammal cold very quickly. The air itself is already cold and evaporation of moisture from any source will provide still more cooling, especially because the cold air is very dry and the evaporation will occur quickly.

You want to keep your horse burning enough calories to keep him warm, but not so many that he perspires profusely. And if you have any doubts as to your ability to regulate your horse's body heat and perspiration, it's a good idea to not venture as far from the barn during the winter months. I do a lot of walking rides in the winter with occasional short spurts of trotting and sometimes cantering if the ground allows. This helps my horse keep warm and get exercise without overdoing it. And breathing a lot of cold air in and out while exercising heavily can be hard on your horse — take it easy.

Slippery Ground
Ice and snow can make the ground very slippery. A fallen horse can get seriously hurt and a horse with a broken leg can be the end of things. I avoid riding on severely icy ground. If I can get around the ice, that's one thing. But here in New England, we've often had a week or so each winter where the ground seemed to be covered with sheets of ice from a day with freezing rain. During those periods, I keep my horse indoors and exercise him in an indoor arena or the barn. Even a small barn can often allow some trotting, sometimes even cantering depending on its length. If head-clearance is low, I'll run alongside my horse with his lead-line and he'll trot or canter depending on our speed. Needless to say, I get tired first, but a short rest and I can do another dozen loops back and forth before another rest. Obviously, this helps keep me in better shape also and additionally allows me to further indulge in holiday food without fear of weight gain — a double benefit!

By the Road
I never like riding on the side of a road with vehicular traffic, and I especially try to avoid it in the winter months. That's because the cars themselves can slide on ice, snow, slush, sand, or road salt — all of the foregoing reduce the friction between a vehicle's tires and the road. I don't want them slamming into me and my horse.

If you have no choice because you must ride on or by the road to get to your destination, it's important to be aware of the risks and to try to be very alert to the traffic moving near and approaching you from any direction.

On Hillsides
Remember that hillsides become more dangerous when the ground is frozen. Obviously, ice and snow are slippery, but even moving on frozen, dry earth on a hillside is like trying to walk on a piece of plywood at an angle — it's slippery! Your horse's hooves are hard and therefore have even less traction than the softer soles of your riding boots or sneaker would have. Stay on more level ground during colder months to avoid becoming part of a "slide".

Warm Days & Mud
Even on level ground, watch out for those warm winter days following a cold spell or the spring thaw. You'll often find the top surface has melted, but the ground is still frozen an inch or two down leaving mud on the top. That mud will slide very easily over the frozen ground or ice below — it can be as slick as glare ice itself. Your horse could not stop or turn on such a surface and could easily fall or slam into a tree, fence, building, or other obstacle. These are good days to keep our speed down even though the warmer air beckons to "let loose" to both us and our horses.

Hard Ground
If no snow or rain has fallen onto frozen ground, it may seem relatively safe to go faster. But another consideration is the impact shock your horse receives with every step. It's not bad at the walk, but worsens as the speed increases. Going too fast too often can give your horse shin splints — don't do that to him — they're very painful!

When the ground is hard, I'll generally keep to a walk. But I'll sometimes find some soft sand on a dirt road and use the opportunity for a fast trot or a few canter hops until we approach frozen ground again. I've also found fallen pine needles in a pine grove to provide a soft bedding on which we can trot. But be very careful and make sure you know the trail under that pine needle bedding because many evergreens have a root system that also runs above ground and is a stumbling hazard for your horse. Make sure the path is both soft and clear before speeding up.

Hidden Hazards
We know ice is slippery, but it's also easy to misjudge in other ways. If you and your horse must cross a stretch of ice, make sure it's level. Then, let your horse pick his footing across — he's likely had to walk on ice before.

Water Under Ice
Look closely at the ice before crossing and ask yourself some questions: Is it thick enough? How long has it been cold recently? Is there water under the ice? If there is, ice could freeze to the bottom of his shoes — even winter shoes. Ice on the bottom of your horse's feet would make every surface slippery and would almost assure a fall if he stepped on ice with an icy foot — ice on ice has no friction at all. Even on rough, dry ground, that glob of ice underneath would put pressure on his frog(s) and could hurt with every step. And the cold, icy water against his foot and lower leg would be anything but comfortable.

A Hole Under Ice
Is there a deep hole under the ice for whatever reason (water has drained away or a small sink hole)? If the ice gives way, your horse could stumble and/or fall. He could also cut himself on the sharp edge of the ice. ALWAYS be VERY CAREFUL on ice — avoid it altogether when you can and cross it only in the safest conditions when you really know how thick it is and what you've got under it.

And don't forget about "black ice". This is the ice that's so thin you don't see it very well, or see it at all. You could walk onto it thinking you're on solid ground to find your horse is slipping for unknown reasons.

Wind Hazards
The wind presents hazards at any time of year, but it's worse in the winter. The sheer force of a stiff breeze is greater because the cold air is much more dense due to the air molecules being closer together at lower temperatures. That's why your car's gas mileage is lower in the winter: the more dense air provides increased drag at all speeds. That also means the same 20 MPH wind in the winter will push harder on you and your horse.

Winter wind will also often break more tree branches for the same reason. The wind blows through the leafless branches and knocks them against each other while snow and ice will aggravate the problem by adding additional weight onto branches and break them that way. Some branches fall to the ground and block our path. More dangerous, are branches that partially break and hang overhead. Or they break completely and land precariously perched on a lower branch. The slightest breeze can then make them fall on us, or fall nearby and spook our horse. It pays to be alert, careful, and to look up often to see what might be coming down.

And, of course, don't forget about wind-chill factor: the effect the wind has in taking heat away from you and your horse at a much faster rate than still air at the same temperature.

While hunters are also active in autumn and spring, the fewer people outside and quiet of winter can conspire to let us forget that hunting is permitted during the coldest months in many states. It's good that the absence of foliage will let us, our horses, and hunters see much further. But let's not forget that accidents can still happen.

To reduce the chances of a hunting accident, wear the very bright color specified for this purpose: bright, fluorescent orange. You can buy inexpensive orange vests. I also have an orange helmet cover and an orange saddle pad that I use just during hunting season. Some of my fellow riders have even inexpensively purchased a square yard of orange felt that they cut into strips and share with others to tie one around their horse's neck and another around his tail. All this orange really helps make us much more visible and significantly increases the chance that hunters will see the bright orange even if catching nothing more than a glimpse through the trees at a distance.

During the holidays, some riders will also put a strap of bells around their horse's neck or just one bell on a collar. Anything you can do to make yourself and horse more easily visible and heard significantly improves your joint safety. And if you did ever get hurt, these "visibility increasers" greatly increase the chance that a search or rescue party would find you much sooner and easier.

We've already touched upon misjudgment risks, such as how thick ice may be, how slippery the ground could be, and such, but there are also other assessments we must make. If you go out on a longer ride, make sure to plan enough time so you don't return to the barn after dark. Even the onset of late afternoon brings rapidly dropping temperatures — have you dressed warmly enough? Do you have another layer to add or heavier gloves to which you can switch? How about your horse? Is he getting colder? Is he tired from a long ride? If so, his ability to generate heat will be compromised. He's also likely to be quite hungry at this point; it's hard to generate heat when you're low on fuel. And if it gets dark, now you'll also be trying to avoid ice and hanging branches you can't see. Did I mention that winds also often increase at night? You likely get the idea — return before sunset, preferably an hour or two before.

Ride in the Snow, But be Prepared
If there's snow on the ground, you might be tempted to think that riding is a bad idea — it could be depending upon the conditions; or it could be magical. If you've ever seen a dog playing in a fresh-fallen snow, they get very excited kicking it up and frolicking around — well, so do horses. If the ground is not slick underneath and you're going to be on level ground, it can be great fun for you and your horse to ride. Go out early enough to stay in the light of day and stay within a few miles from the barn.

It's a good idea to wear sunglasses on bright days with snow covering the ground. They'll help to avoid snow blindness which increases in risk as the altitude increases. Of course, make sure those shades provide UV protection.

Back at the Barn
When you finally return to the barn, make an assessment of your horse's condition. While we think more of providing water during the summer months when we and our horses perspire more, in fact, my horse and I get just as thirsty in the winter. The air we breathe is so dry and we're still exerting ourselves, so we still need lots of water. When you water your horse, it's best if you can warm it to about 50 - 60 °F. Colder water will take more heat away from his body when he can least afford it after the ride when he's cold, tired, and hungry.

Also, if he's wet, you want to put a cooler over him. A cooler is a warming blanket that wicks away your horse's perspiration so that he dries without getting severely chilled. It's only called a "cooler" because it's used for his "cool down" after your ride or other exertive activity.

Depending on the temperature and how wet he is, an hour or two with the cooler is usually sufficient. During this period, you should occasionally slide your hand under the cooler and can remove it when he's warm and almost dry. The cooler will also likely be moist at that time and you'll want to hang it so it can dry and be ready the next time you need it. You DON'T want to just roll it up and throw it into your tack trunk or the trunk of your car — it can't fully dry that way. And don't forget or intentionally leave the cooler on him — that brings its own problems — an hour or two is usually about right.

Too Much Work? No!
After reading the foregoing, you might feel that winter riding is just too much work and worry — I would disagree. It's an opportunity to continue riding and staying in shape year-round. And it offers sites, sounds, and opportunities to view wildlife and gorgeous vistas that you'll never experience in the warmer months. Give it a try!

If you take reasonable precautions, it will be very healthy for your horse and you as well as lots of fun. And while I haven't mentioned riding with others, I prefer to not ride alone much in the winter — I'll do that more in the warmer seasons. Having other riders along makes for safer rides and the ability to get immediate help if something should go wrong. Don't let the cold weather keep you and your horse indoors and losing physical health. If you do ride, you'll both be in great shape when spring rolls around; and you'll both feel better the whole time!

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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