published in Ride! Magazine, January 2004)
While training my
horse prior to my trip in 2003, I was riding my new horse, Ginger,
and ponying my regular horse, Gwenevere, in a shallow creek. I was
training Ginger to walk in water without fear. A friend, Martha,
and her horse, Nick, were along for the ride. The creek we were
riding in was higher than usual as it had recently rained. As we
rode, the water levels were rising and I judged them to be getting
too deep to be safe. I decided to climb up the embankment out of
the creek, to ride on flat land again.
I rode up the embankment, leading my other mare out of the creek.
Martha and her Arab, Nick, followed behind us on the same path.
Suddenly the muddy bank gave way under Nick's front feet. Nick and
Martha both fell backwards into the cold creek. Martha slid off
Nick and climbed out of the creek to safety, but Nick ran off
downstream. He soon lost his footing in the deep water. He
began to thrash violently and contort his body, in complete panic.
Legs flailing and rolling from side to side, his desperation
mounting, it seemed no matter what he did, he couldn’t get his
legs under him and stand up. His body wrenched in every direction
and he just got deeper and deeper in the creek, until all at once
he just stopped and lay still. Only his nostrils showed above the
water, and he was straining to breathe.
Winter riding can be fun. But since that particular winter day, I
have learned some important lessons. Riding safely in the winter
requires special considerations and plans, because winter
conditions can vary greatly from the other seasons.
Rains drench soils and they become often unstable, especially
along creek and stream banks. Weather can change drastically
without warning, and temperatures can easily drop 15 to 20
degrees. Days are shorter and along with the evening comes cold
air. Unplanned events can prolong your ride into the dark, leaving
you without proper provisions and clothing. Here are some basic
tips to prepare for safer winter riding.
1. Before setting off, warm your horse up properly. After your
ride, cover all the wet areas on your horse with a cooler or a
blanket, until they are dry, even if your horse is not usually
2. Hypothermia is very common in persons outdoors in the winter.
Wear layers and pack clothing in your saddle bags for temperature
drops of at least 20 degrees. Remember your hands, ears and face,
as winter winds can be brutal. Wear boots that will keep your feet
warm and dry, even in water. Layers of modern lightweight fabrics
like fleece will allow you to still move easily. Your jacket
should be wind- and rain-proof, preferably of modern lightweight
breathable fabrics like Gore-Tex.
3. You should carry a small first aid kit for you and your horse.
4. A basic survival kit of matches or a lighter, a “survival or
space blanket” and a cell phone, are all light enough to carry,
and could be life-savers in an emergency.
5. You should carry a small flashlight. However, a
flashlight may spook your horse, if it is not accustomed to
the light. If your horse isn’t trained to a light you might
carry chemical light sticks in your bags instead. Reflective
strips on your jacket and helmet will make you more visible after
dark, should you get lost or have to cross roads.
6. Always tell someone where you plan to ride and when you plan to
return. Plan to return home well before dark, allowing extra time
to arrive, should your trip take longer than planned, and time to
cool down your horse properly and clean mud and water from your
7. Watch for changes in the trail conditions due to weather. Take
routes that are less likely to be affected by fallen trees,
standing or running water, and slippery or loose footing. Avoid
drop-offs on trails and steep embankments.
8. When riding in water make sure you can see the bottom and avoid
riding in flowing water deeper than one foot. For swifter currents
limit the depth to eight inches.
So what happened to Nick that day? I jumped into the creek, tugged
on his saddle, and rocked Nick to his feet. He left the creek wet
and scared but completely unharmed. Martha and I both aged ten
years. She is still discussing the incident with her therapist. We
were fortunate that day and things turned out well. Now we are
both better winter riders.