Winter Wonderland

Snowy horse and human

All along I thought I had it rough during the winter. Up until last year, I had spent my entire life raising, riding and showing horses in Southern California, and from December through March I was plagued with what I considered nasty weather.

Contrary to climatology lore (and at least one pop song oldie), it does indeed rain in Southern California. Every winter I had to slog through thick adobe mud in order to catch mares and foals. Seasonal trail rides presented other obstacles. I had to coax my horse to step over rows of sandbags as if they were cavalletti.

Yet admittedly, much of the time I rode in sunshine. In fact, my annual holiday lament was that the balmy temps prevented me from ever wearing my collection of horse-themed Christmas sweaters.

Rude Awakening

Then I moved to central Arizona, a region that should never, ever be confused with the parched desert valley that encompasses the Phoenix area. Instead, I ride among conifers, manzanita and stately oak trees at an elevation of more than 5,000 feet.

It’s beautiful, mountainous scenery, but it’s also downright cold once winter sets in. Maybe it’s some kind of equestrian karma, but I feel as if I’m getting payback for all the times I chided my horsey pals who were scattered around the country in places like Idaho, Pennsylvania, upstate New York and Kentucky.

The snarky jokes I scribbled into greeting cards and onto gift tags—taunts about how they had to muck stalls in snow suits or crunch across frozen tundra to reach the barn—have come back to haunt me.

In other words, I now feel their pain.

Truly, I don’t have any regrets about moving here, even when winter comes. There’s something magical about trail riding on a brisk morning, just after a light snowfall. It’s as if the whole world is scrubbed clean and wrapped in cotton. Wally genuinely seems to relish the novelty of being the first creature to stamp footprints in virgin snow.

Yet don’t be misled. I definitely had to reconfigure my approach to winter riding and adapt my horsekeeping skills.

Here are 10 of the adjustments I’ve been forced to make. For those of you who have lived in wintry climates, along with your horses, for many years, feel free to laugh at me. I deserve it.

  1. I’ve learned the art of layering my riding clothes. I first swaddle myself in thermal leggings, then slither into jeans and zip up my leather shotgun chaps. I do manage to stay warm. The only drawback is that the flexibility in my legs is reduced to that of Oz’s tin man.
  2. On a moment’s notice, Wally can unleash the powers of a super horse. Although he maintains an admirably sleek winter coat, if the air gets a bit chilly he can spontaneously morph into a giant fluffy gerbil.
  3. Apparently, it’s not a myth that snowballs can form in a horse’s foot. Silly me, I simply thought Wally had grown 2 inches. This snowballs-as-horse-stilts discovery coincided with my epiphany regarding the durability (or lack thereof) of plastic hoof picks in frigid weather.
  4. When I ride on frosty mornings, I have to wrap a knitted scarf about my neck, and pull it upwards on my face until I resemble a bandit from the Great White North. Otherwise, when I canter, tiny icicles form inside my nose.
  5. No matter how hard I scrub, I can never fully neutralize what has become my wintertime trademark scent: L’Air du Dirty Horse Blanket.
  6. Last January I went to bridle Wally and realized the bit felt like ice in my hands. For a moment, I pondered the concept of a bit warmer, a curious item I’d never before needed. Bereft of one, I was faced with the rather repellent task of slipping what amounted to a metal popsicle into Wally’s mouth. Naturally, I did what any devoted horse mom would do: I placed the entire western curb bit on my own warm tongue. My taste buds have yet to recover.
  7. I now have an idea for a new game show. It’s called The Ultimate Winter Barn Challenge. Contestants must navigate a path to the barn without slipping face-first on the ice.
  8. Want to know the best purchase I’ve made thus far? Insulated riding boots. Now I can feel my toes when I dismount after a ride!
  9. I made the mistake of washing Wally’s polo wraps with horse shampoo, and then leaving them draped over the corral fence to dry overnight. I had to wait until noon for them to thaw. Until that time I had this bizarrely intertwined, dimensional artwork, completely frozen in place.
  10. I’m afraid I’ve acquired an obsessive-compulsive disorder. Once I realized that water buckets really do freeze when nighttime temps dip to 17 degrees, I became fixated on the heating element in Wally’s automatic waterer. I’d lie awake at night, wondering if it was still functioning. Several times I trudged to his stall in my moose-print fleece pajamas, flashlight in hand, just to confirm his water was still in fluid form.

    In fact, maybe I should check it again right now.

During her lengthy show career on the hunter/jumper circuit, CINDY HALE won more than 20 medals for hunt seat equitation. She currently serves as a judge at local and regional open horse shows.

This article originally appeared in the November 2017 issue of Horse Illustrated magazine. Click here to subscribe!


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