Ah, autumn! In many regions, that means it’s time for the best riding of the year. Temperatures are finally bearable and crisp fall days reinvigorate horse and rider. Colored leaves, dramatic sunsets and harvest moons provide especially scenic backdrops to training sessions: Autumn is the time of year when being on horseback is simply an enriching and inspiring sensory experience.
While making the most of all fall has to offer, seasoned trainers also utilize this time of year to begin preparations for winter facility management, horse care and training. Proactive fall maintenance means beginning to winterize the facility to ensure high-quality horse care and productive riding can continue even during the inclement weather to come. So what should be on your “Fall To-Do List”? In the following pages, established dressage trainers, who are also experienced facility managers, share their priorities for fall facility maintenance and winter preparations.
Maintain Pastures and Driveways
According to Carol Seaman, a Grand Prix competitor, USDF silver medalist and L Program graduate who owns and operates Outfoxed Farm in Chester, New York, fall is a busy time, especially for her husband, Jim, who does much of the farm maintenance. “There are fallen leaves everywhere, which need to be raked, blown and cleaned out of gutters. But during the fall, Jim will also winterize our farm equipment, especially the large snow-plow attachments, Bobcat, backhoe, truck and tractors. One year, we had our first big snowfall on Halloween night, so we start early to make sure we’re prepared.”
The Seamans drive flagged stakes into the ground to mark the edges of the farm’s long gravel driveways, which will make plowing easier and safer when the time comes. Though any major driveway repairs are completed in springtime, the Seamans patch low spots with extra gravel during the fall. The more level the driveway is, the easier and more effective plowing will be. Seaman emphasizes the importance of marked pathways and well-maintained driveways in order to keep the facility accessible for clients as well as ensure that horses and people can get on and off the property in case of emergency.
During the fall, the Seamans also check gates and fence lines for minor issues such as unstable rails. As the weather cools, they close barn and arena windows, checking that all latches work properly. This is a good time to check indoor and outdoor lights and bulbs, helping to ensure visibility around the farm, even as the days shorten. Seaman says, “It’s much easier to get ahead and make small repairs now than to try to handle preventable problems once it’s icy and bitter cold outside.”
Consider Water and Food Sources
Lisa Gruen, USDF bronze medalist and 2003 Maryland Dressage Association Trainer of the Year, operates Ryder Dressage from the Chesapeake Dressage Institute in Annapolis, Maryland. For Gruen, important winter preparations relate to ensuring the availability of fresh water and quality feed at all times. Gruen explains: “We want to make sure we don’t ever encounter problems watering the horses, either inside the barn or when they’re turned out. Inside, we’re fortunate to have insulated pipes, so we rarely have a problem with water flow. However, we need to make sure our barn staff is trained to drain and disconnect hoses when the weather gets really cold, maybe even moving the hoses to a heated space like the tack room at night so they will be functional the next morning. Outdoors, we need to check that the electric sources are ready, as we use heated buckets that hang over the fences. In the mid-fall, we get those buckets out and check that they’re working well before it actually gets cold enough for us to need them. In our bigger fields, there are troughs with water-heating units in the bottom, so we also need to check that those are functional.”
Jaclyn Sicoli, a USDF silver medalist and L Program graduate with distinction, owns and operates Peace of Mind Dressage out of Woodvale Farm in Frederick, Maryland. She says that fall is also the time to prepare for feeding the 25 horses under her care all winter long. “Horses will need more hay and grain to maintain weight in the winter. Certain horses don’t take well to coming off grass, so in the mid to late fall, we might add alfalfa cubes or rice bran to the feed, just to help keep their toplines for the winter. While we don’t use round bales, we do hay the fields when horses are turned out during the day, beginning in late fall and continuing all winter. Therefore, I want to order as much hay as I can store before winter arrives to prevent being caught off guard by a shortage or if bad weather prevents a delivery.”
Attend to Arena Footing
Seaman emphasizes the key to good arena maintenance in fall and winter is the same as throughout the rest of the year: regular and careful attention to the quality of the footing and dust control. She explains, “We’re fortunate to have an automatic watering system in our indoor arena. I find if I sprinkle early in the morning and drag immediately, I can keep the footing nice all winter long and the dust does not become unmanageable.”
Sicoli mentions that facility owners who do not have a watering system in their indoor arena may consider adding magnesium chloride to the arena footing before winter sets in. According to Sicoli, magnesium raises the temperature at which footing freezes. It also helps reduce dust because it attracts and holds moisture. Note that it is important to research the specific magnesium chloride product—its ingredients, application, intended use and maintenance—before adding it to your indoor arena footing in order to ensure safety and efficacy. Because magnesium chloride will wash away if rained on or excessively watered, it is only suitable for indoor use.
As the days shorten and the nights get cooler, Seaman begins the process of swapping summer gear for winter gear in an organized way. In early October, fly masks and scrim sheets are sent out to a blanketing service for washing, repair and storage until they will be needed the following spring. Around the same time, sheets and winter blankets are returned from storage to the farm. Laundered, repaired and labeled with the horse’s name, they are ready to go on the first cold night.
During the fall, Sicoli takes stock of and orders any necessary equipment for keeping her horses comfortable during winter training. According to Sicoli, “Around the beginning of October, we pull out coolers, quarter sheets and fleece girth covers. I also make sure clipper blades are sharpened and clippers are working well so we’ll be ready to clip as needed, usually sometime in November.”
In addition, Sicoli says that proper equipment for the rider/trainer is a critical investment for those who continue to train horses in a cold climate all winter. Mid to late fall is the time to make sure these essential items are on hand:
• Winter breeches, boots and layerable clothing
• Insulated ski pants that can zip over breeches in between rides
• Fleece riding gloves.
Prepare to Make the Most of It
Seaman and Sicoli, who both stick it out in northern climates for the winter, agree that aesthetic touches at a facility and realistic planning can help ease the transition from fall to winter.
For example, Seaman positions visuals—such as mums in fall or evergreen boughs in winter—in the barn and arena to provide an inviting seasonal flair. Seaman adds, “We’re also fortunate to have a great sound system in our arena. When it’s windy and cold, putting on some nice music and turning it up a bit can help muffle the wind. Riders enjoy it and it’s comforting for the horses, too.”
Sicoli values the quieter time that winter can provide for clients and horses, so late fall is the time to consider a community calendar that will keep clients engaged throughout the winter. She and her team offer video nights, Pilates workshops and other off-horse learning opportunities, as well as diversified training, focused preparation for next season’s showing and goal-setting sessions. Seaman agrees that creative training is important in the winter: “We hosted a cavalletti clinic, which was fun for the horses and had a good turnout. Desensitization training is also always fun. These kind of activities get everyone off the 10-meter circles when stuck indoors.”
According to Sicoli, “If you are up in the Northeast and don’t travel to Florida, the clinicians who are in Florida will not be available in your area from December through March or April. So, there is, in sense, a training void, where you have to rely on your previous training, your videos, your books and magazines for inspiration.
“As competitions wind down in the late fall, it is a good opportunity to reflect, rest a little and then set some realistic training goals that will help keep the winter season productive for you and your horse.” A well-maintained, prepared and organized facility can support riders’ efforts to make the most of the late fall and winter.
If You Plan to Migrate:
For those who move horses to Florida for winter training and competition, fall is the time to prepare for a big temporary move. Lisa Gruen has migrated from Maryland to Wellington many times, both shipping horses herself and working with commercial shippers. Here, Gruen shares key elements of the planning timeline that help ensure she and her horses arrive in Florida by the first of January:
September: Secure Florida accommodations for horse and rider
October: Allow horses brief downtime after regional competitions, then resume conditioning for winter season
November: Consult with farrier and adjust shoeing schedule as needed. Gruen explains: “Ideally, we try to plan it so they get their feet done in late December, about a week before they go. This way, they have a fresh shoeing for travel and are ready to hit the ground running when they arrive.” Likewise, consider when and how the horse is clipped. According to Gruen: “I typically clip horses around Thanksgiving, knowing I will likely need to clip again in Florida. I want them to already be clipped well before they go. I don’t want to do it too close to shipping, as that would another element of adjustment for the horse, which can affect his immune system and how well he copes generally.” Finally, reserve a commercial shipper for desired dates. If shipping yourself, now is a good time to get truck and trailer maintained for the trip and also book accommodations at a halfway point where you and your horse can overnight comfortably to break up the drive.
December: Consider the horse’s supplements. Gruen explains travel and intense training are inherently stressful for horses and supporting digestive health is a top priority: “I always start the horse on ulcer preventives at least four or five days before the trip, with a full dose, and I plan to continue it in Florida while he’s acclimating or for the whole time he is down there, depending on the horse.”
Gruen also adds immune-system supplements (different options are administered in the feed or as an injection by the veterinarian) to help prevent respiratory illness that can occur as a result of long travel. Because many horses will not drink sufficient amounts of water during shipping, Gruen plans to “prehydrate” the horse by adding electrolytes to his water and “soupy,” watery beet pulp to feed, beginning a week ahead of the trip. Upon arrival, closely monitoring the horse’s behavior and vital signs for several days is crucial.
Of course, in the last week or so before departure, there is always the challenge of packing equipment, apparel and necessities for a three-month journey for horse and human.