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(first 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 blanketed.

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 tack.

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.

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Copyright Garry Stauber © 2004. All rights reserved. The above article is the property of the Author, and may not be duplicated or redistributed in any way without permission.


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