I’ve never been a fan of the cold. Today it’s -20°C, too cold even for a winter riding enthusiast, which I’m not. That doesn’t mean I don’t ride in winter. The picture above shows me and one of my earlier horses, Tristan, on a cold winter day. (Notice the box of Kleenex on the shelf, strategically located to deal with drippy noses). But when it gets really cold, it would be easy to stay home. That’s when I remind myself what winter riding used to be like when I had my first horse, Lancer.
Those were the days before snow pads for horses had been invented. The snow would pack inside Lancer’s shoes and form icy balls. Coming back into the barn from a snowy paddock, he’d start to skate and slide in the aisle. The packed snow in his shoes was like having a giant slippery marble on the bottom of each foot.
The younger me didn’t have a lifetime’s experience of all the terrible things that can happen to a horse. If it happened now, I’d be freaking out, expecting Larry to do the splits and break his legs off. Back then, I’d just put Lancer in cross-ties and hack away at the ice-balls with my hoof pick. It was like trying to dislodge cement with soup spoon. When an ice-ball finally fell out on to the floor, I‘d be too busy admiring how clean the bottom of his foot was (all residual dirt had come out with the ice) to appreciate that a potential disaster had just been averted.
Those were also the days before riding horses weren’t all routinely blanketed against the cold. Lancer certainly wasn’t. He’d start growing a winter coat on Labour Day, and by the time to cold weather struck, he’d have a beard under his jaw, and his legs were so hairy he looked like a stumpy pony. When I was riding, his breath would freeze his whiskers into frosty dandelion fluff.
Riding arenas were cold in those days, and arena footing wasn’t the carefully engineered surface it is now. Often it was plain sand, and would freeze solid when the temperature got really cold. Yesterday’s hoofprints would turn into rock-hard dips and ridges. One particularly cold day, I took Lancer into the arena and started riding around. He teetered and slithered, but it wasn’t till his foot nicked a frozen horse turd and sent it cannonballing into the kickboard that I started questioning what I was doing. There’s a saying that good judgment comes from bad experience, and a lot that comes from bad judgement. I was very lucky that Lancer was tough and agile enough to keep my bad judgment from turning into a bad experience.
Riding clothes back then didn’t benefit from all the high-tech fabrics and materials that are available now. The highest-tech part of my riding gear were my winter riding boots. The feet were made of some kind of rigid polymer with a fluffy lining, but the legs were a soft padded material, so saggy and loose that the only way I could keep the boots from falling off was to wear spurs, buckled really tight.
None of this deterred me, though. One wintry Saturday I stopped at the barn at dusk, determined to go for a hack. There was no one around, just me and the horses. I got Lancer all tacked up, led him outside, and climbed into the saddle. Did I mention it was blizzarding outside? Within three steps, the drifts were past Lancer’s knees and the wind was whipping snow sideways out of the near-dark. Lancer didn’t stop, but he did hesitate as if to say, “Are you sure about this?” There’s another saying, ‘Experience is something you don’t get till just after you need it’. This time, I was a little quicker to recognize that Experience was tapping me on the shoulder. I turned Lancer around while we could still find our way back.
I have tons of Experience now, and the years have brought a pile of innovations that make winter riding more pleasant. Best of all, I have my little brown horse Larry to ride. So whenever I feel like staying home and hibernating instead of venturing out to the barn, I remember how lucky I am. It always gets me on my feet and out the door, even if it ends up being too cold to ride. When I look back on these days of winter riding, I want them to be the best.