Riding in the snow

Shunpiking Magazine
February-March 1998, Volume 3, Number 18

THERE ARE DAYS in the wintertime when I think the only thing that can save my sanity is a trip to the barn. I admit that I tend to let the cold weather influence my choice of activities, preferring to spend my leisure time indoors if nothing forces me out the front door. A good novel is a great excuse after all. But as the days go by and the winter drags on, the walls in my apartment start to close in on me. That's when one largely overlooked winter activity manages without fail to pull my body off the couch and get me outside.

Over the past 16 years I've come to depend on horseback riding as a form of relaxation, as well as an invigorating way to spend an otherwise dreary winter afternoon indoors.

For some reason, many people consider riding strictly a summer activity. While some horse owners do prefer to give their animals the cold season off, and others seek the luxury of indoor riding arenas, horseback riding is an activity that both horses and people can (and do) enjoy outdoors in any season, with careful planning. After all, riders and their mounts have been sharing trails together in our North American cold seasons for about five hundred years.

Although it may seem trivial on paper, the extra work that goes into riding in the winter can easily discourage riders. First, the extra layers of warm clothing a rider must wear can be a frustrating, since they slow down and restrict movement. There's also the extra care that horses need. Besides the regular amount of preparation it takes before the ride to brush, saddle, bridle and warm-up, there are other steps to undertake. Each added detail, such as warming a metal bit in your hand before putting it into your horse's mouth, keeps you in the barn and away from riding just a little while longer.

When you finally get outside, the snow can hamper the ride's progress. When snow is sticky it has a tendency to "ball" under a horse's feet, especially if he wears winter horseshoes. Hard lumps of snow can make it difficult for the horse to keep balanced. The chunks of snow can also injure the sensitive underside of the hoof. Although greasing the foot with anything from butter to Vaseline can help prevent balling, it may not always be effective, which can mean a rider may have to dismount to scoop the snow out of the feet once in awhile.

After the ride it also takes extra work to dry off and cool down a horse's sweaty, shaggy winter coat, an extremely important step to prevent him from getting chilled. With all these extras and more, it certainly isn't as simple to fit a quick ride in on a busy day in a busy week during the winter.

However, when time and opportunity do present themselves, the ride can be more fulfilling than any summer saunter. Not only is it a treat, but spending time with a horse in the winter can be almost therapeutic, a temporary cure for the winter "blahs."

First of all, most horses love winter. Who can blame them really? The insects that plague them are gone, and the cold seems to give them an extra burst of energy. My twelve-year-old quarter horse just loves the snow. When he's turned out in the pasture, he turns into a colt again. He rolls in the snow, eats it, prances around in it with his tail held high, ears pricked forward, nostrils wide when snorting, his breath plainly visible in the cold air. Seeing him in this mood always reminds me of the poem Winter Evening by Canadian poet Archibald Lampman. He creates a wonderful visual image of horses in the winter:

Tonight the very horses springing by
Toss gold from whitened nostrils.

At any rate, I always come away from the barn with more enthusiasm for winter than when I left the house.

Then comes the ride itself. Wherever we go can be great, whether it be an outdoor trail or in a field somewhere, provided I know the area well enough when it isn't covered with ice and snow. I personally like to escape through wooden trails, as far away from "civilization" as I can. Four long and powerful legs can get you just about anywhere. The soft crunching sound of hooves making their way through the snow is natural, comforting, relaxing. Deep snow and slippery surfaces make it unsafe and sometimes impossible to travel at a fast pace, so why take a chance? Slowly making our way through a well-known trail or field forces me to unwind. I also don't want my horse to injure his legs with too much strain or a slip, and I certainly don't want to end up under him, so most of the time I just sit back and enjoy winter's beauty and the four-beat rocking motion of a nice walk. Then, wherever the footing is safe, a trot or even a canter through shallow snow is extremely invigorating.

In fact, it can be a real rush.

One last great thing about a winter ride is turning in the saddle every once in awhile to see the hoof tracks in the snow. If I accomplish nothing else that day, I'll still be fine.

* At the time of writing, Line Goguen, a native of Moncton, was enrolled in the one-year-journalism program at the University of King's College, Halifax and an intern with shunpiking magazine. She went on to work with the Halifax Daily News.

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