When it comes to winter, my preferred posture is to be a literal fair-weather friend to my horse, Trooper (this is one of the advantages of being a full-time boarder). This year, however, I have made it a point to try and keep him going. I have some small hopes and dreams of getting to a schooling show or at least a clinic this year. In order to achieve this, it behooves me (love that word) to ignore the siren song of my warm comfy bed.
As many of us know, riding life outside of the indoor arena has quite the many challenges in these semi-arctic states. Here in Massachusetts, we have four seasons: winter, pre-winter, rain and kinda-summer, which lasts about two weeks. It is extraordinarily helpful to have access to an indoor arena during at least three of those seasons but not all of us have that luxury, including myself. So far I have tried several “plans” to keep riding this winter, and they have already failed in one way or another.
Based on my experience, here is a helpful list to keep you anchored in reality as you are planning out your winter outdoor riding days. If these facts haven't already beaten you into submission, start the acceptance process now.
1. The nicest days with the best footing will always be when you cannot go to the barn—whether it be a sick kid, last-minute work meeting or some sort of “important” family event that you reluctantly prioritize over the equine, like your kid’s birthday.
2. The day after your horse shows a bit of promise with something you are working on, there will be a lovely rainstorm followed by sub-arctic temps encasing the riding arena in 4 inches of ice.
3. Should you have something like a January thaw and you joyfully celebrate the melting of the ice-ring by planning a riding day... Temps will drop to an unsafe frigid level for being outdoors. By the time reasonable-ish temps return, so does the rain/snow and the ice-ring.
4. The day you decide to take advantage of a fresh snowfall and sunny day by asking someone to take a few pictures, the sky immediately darkens and Kansas-like winds will pick up just as you start to tack up. (True story. This happened for the first photo in this blog.)
5. The colder it is, the more likely you will lose your right glove and glove liner after removing it to buckle your bridle. Then, of course, your hand will freeze and fall off while you look for it. This makes riding a bit more challenging. While the search continues for your hand and the glove, you can practice that one-handed riding we see our dressage stars do down the centerline. How hard can it be?
6. You might as well just give up on trying to do anything in February. Those of us in the cold temp areas are all power eating cookies and browsing for houses down south. You are not alone.
So how do you keep the critter from atrophying into a wild and fuzzy fat lump? Heck if I know, but I will share how things have been going so far for me:
Admittedly, I started writing this a while ago when I was convinced I had a brilliant plan for this year. I mapped out my goal (Yeah, only one. Trooper is not the only non-overachiever in this relationship) and even updated my ancient winter wear to try to motivate myself with “comfort” and “style.” I was going to look “great” and be an undauntable winter athlete. This plan was obviously doomed from the start and now the reality of execution has seeped in. The winter-barn-hag look returned almost immediately and after failing to get any riding accomplished with Plan 1 and Plan 2, I am trying to be hopeful for Plan 3.
For funsies, let's take a look at how Plans 1 and 2 failed.
Plan 1 had to do with creating consistent days that I would head to the barn. It was designed around the fact that life sometimes does not let you ride, so perhaps some fair warning for the family to plan around would help. If the family is expecting you to head to the barn on Day X,Y and Z, perhaps there would be fewer challenges getting out the door. This plan failed spectacularly and quickly. Between my job requiring some last-minute late nights and unpredictable weather, the hope for a few dedicated days of blissful riding dwindled.
Plan 2 was designed to try to leverage the days on which my job does not consume me. I dreamed of riding in daylight unfettered by work schedules. This kinda worked, except there is always a family/friend/whatever event on the weekend that gets in the way at least one day. Then the holidays occurred and, of course, during this time, ice-ring happened. Yay. I hate winter.
Plan 3 seems to be working the best. It relies on personal dedication (in which, statistically, success should be low. But so far I am doing ok.) Basically I obsess about the weather patterns for the week and plan out the reasonable temp and footing days. Then on a particular day I basically tell the family that I am riding, put on my 1000 layers and abandon them as quickly as possible. It is not the best nor the most consistent method but for whatever reason, it has been the most effective.
So what could I possibly accomplish with this inconsistent insanity of a schedule? Well, let's talk about my goal. It is pretty minimalist, which I think is in vogue for life planning—Marie Kondo and all—so I am super hip with this! Basically, I am just trying to keep Trooper’s feet moving this winter as best I can so spring conditioning will have a fighting chance to happen in the spring—instead of spring through most of summer and finally ending early pre-winter like last year.
Each day the riding plan will be based on the footing situation. This can range from dire and slightly dangerous (“Gee, I hope my horse is not spunky today or we will die”) to “Hey, we may be able to canter a few strides today!” While most rides include taking my pumped-up equine through the ring on a very tight rein (OK, death grip) and try to walk around the scary icy spots, occasionally there tends to be a reprieve for one day where I feel a bit normal—and try to release the death grip. Productive? Maybe not for the traditionalists who know how to ride, but heck if I throw a leg over him and we manage not to slip and fall, I call it a win.
However you battle the limitations of this lovely season, focus on just getting out there. Screw the plan. As the famous phrase goes, with most things in life you are 80 percent there if you just show up.