Snow Days

It’s finally hit us, the first snow of winter. Or slush really. It’s not as bad as last year’s Beast From The East, but maybe now is the time to get snow ready at the yard, and create contingency plans.

Firstly, getting some grit to the yard is paramount otherwise you’ll be taking up ice skating instead of horse riding! It’s worth discussing with all the liveries about putting it down; either to prevent it being swept away or to prevent horses or dogs snuffling it up.

Ideally, I’d have a water butt, pre-filled with either rainwater or tap water, so that even with the yard taps frozen, liveries still have access to water. This is particularly useful for the early morning risers. It might also be a good idea, if you are an early bird, to arrange with a stable neighbour who comes at a more civilised time, for them to fill your water buckets in your stable for the night.

If you don’t think your car is tough enough to negotiate the icy lanes to the yard and bad weather is forecast then it’s time to get prepared! Find out if any liveries with an AWD live near you who could give you a lift. Organise with friends so that you all only need do one journey to the yard a day, to reduce the risk of having an accident. Mix some feeds up in advance, and make up some haynets so that if you are stranded and need to call in any favours then it is far easier for friends to sort out your horse. Just be aware you May be looking after their horse while they swan off on their summer holidays! A few years ago I worked at a livery yard when heavy snow hit over lunchtime. I was inundated with calls and texts of panicked liveries trying to come up to put their horse to bed and becoming stuck on the roads. My job was made far easier by those who had prepared night nets and evening feeds when they’d been there in the morning.

Prepare yourself for your horse to have limited turn out and exercise, which may mean cutting back on their hard feeds, or utilising your yard’s walker, and being prepared for a fresh horse when the weather improves, so perhaps lunging them before you get on.

Try and make sure you have sufficient feed and bedding in stock. If the horses are staying in more you’ll use more bedding, and they’ll eat more forage in cold weather. Besides, the last thing you want to worry about is a trip to the tack shop in the snow and ice.

Give yourself more time. You don’t want to be rushing around the ice rink, or jamming on the car brakes at corners. And stay safe by turning your horses out individually instead of a pair, or getting a friend to lead one for you. This morning, for example, I knew once I was off the yard Phoenix and her giant field friend would be fine walking to the field as they’re barefoot and it’s a grass and gravel track so had some grip. However, I was concerned how I’d get Phoenix out because her neighbour was still in and he’s very grumpy in the mornings. I didn’t want him to lunge at either mare, they shoot backwards and slip over. So I asked a friend to lead Phoenix out in a big arc so that she was out of reach of Mr Grumpy. Then, I could easily take the two of them.

Keeping enough coats in your car, plus a torch, food and drink, is really useful in case you get stuck somewhere, but I’m sure the RAC recommend that anyway.

I don’t think there’s much more you can do to prepare yourself for snow days, but if everyone communicates and pulls together all the horses should be fed, watered and happy with no casualties, even if it’s just by the All Wheel Drivers. Who I’m sure will cash in their favours when the summer holidays come!

Snow Day!

Now I’m not going to try and outdo my Canadian and bloggers from other Snow-covered lands, but today is a snow day.

Yesterday afternoon we had heavy rain until the early hours of this morning and then it snowed. So this morning we woke to a faint smattering of snow, but more importantly, the rain that had fallen yesterday had frozen solid.

Now us Britons are renowned for making a mountain out of a molehill when it comes to snow, but ultimately we aren’t used to it so need to take various precautions.

I’m going to London this evening, so I had a short day anyway. Plus the fact that I’d had a cancellation due to illness and moved a pony from today to yesterday in order to fill in a gap in my day due to a lameness. So I only really had four “jobs” to do. 

I don’t like cancelling, unless it’s really necessary, but I also know what weather like today’s tends to be very localised so I needed to speak to each client individually. 

When I got to Otis the roads were covered in black ice, so I decided not to take him for a walk – why risk either of our legs?! He could do a longer walk this afternoon.


The arena there had a light dusting of snow, but the surface had a fair bit of give still. With this client I’ve been introducing leg yield, so I decided that we’d focus on the leg yield in walk, with a couple of trots to get the circulation going. It was a good, thinking lesson and I feel both horse and rider benefited from the focus on leg yield, evenness of rein contact, and straightness. 


Meanwhile, I had spoken to my next client, who’s arena is not so good in cold weather. We decided to do some long reining and double rein lunging. Her cob tends to turn in, so the time was well spent keeping him walking on a big circle. Then to finish, we did some turn on the forehand from the ground. Again, another useful lesson given the weather conditions. With both horses we just kept an eye on the surface balling up in their hooves and removed it when it did.

Next up, I had two horses to ride another yard. I’d spoken to one owner, who said the ground was fine, but when I got there I was told the arena was frozen solid. It had become waterlogged yesterday afternoon and frozen solid. I could hack one of the horses around the fields; less ice, and away from the roads and traffic. It was howling a gale, and sleeting when we set off, but the mare behaved beautifully and we had a lovely ride. After that, we decided that the spooky mare didn’t need exercising – it just wasn’t worth the risk.

So that’s why I’m home already! It’s strange, and I feel that I’m skiving work!

To pass the time, here’s a family favourite snow story.

It was early 1995 and I was four, in my first year at school. We woke up one morning to snow. I don’t know, about two inches? Anyway I remember that the school bus didn’t come, but Dad thought the school would be open anyway, so he took me. I can’t remember why he didn’t go to work, but he was home that day. 

Anyway, we pulled up at the small village school, about five miles away, and Dad said words to the effect of,

“Right, off you go, have a nice day.” And out of the car I got.

I toddled along the snowy pavement, past the empty staff car park. I paused, the school looked shut. I turned to check Dad was still there, only to see the back of the car disappearing into the distance.

I tried the door, but it was locked and the lights were off. The school was closed.

I started trudging back along the path, I think I must have made the decision to walk to my best friend’s house around the corner. Then a car pulled up. In it was another school friend, and her parents.

They asked me what I was doing and if school was open. To which I must have told them the situation because soon I was climbing into the car and they were driving me home.

Once home, I opened the front door to see Mum frantically phoning the school, friends, anyone who could go out and get me, while Dad looked on saying “they wouldn’t have closed school in my day for this!” 

We had more snow that day, and it ended up going up to my knees and leading to several days off school!

Is it Truly Winter?

After months of mild, wet weather, last week I was caught by surprise when the temperatures suddenly plummeted.

Of course I`m used to the cold and to be honest, I don`t mind it at all, but I`m afraid I`ve started to become a bit slack with my layers and last Thursday I was very underdressed for my three hours of hacking!

Luckily a friend gave me a, ahem highly attractive, hat cover for Christmas which is fleecy and drops down to cover your nape and Velcros up to cover your chin. It`s a great idea, but I hadn`t yet gathered the courage to use it as it is a multi coloured check pattern!

On Thursday I decided it was better to be a warm idiot than cold, and out it came!

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I have to say, it does the job and I stayed lovely and warm – well my face did! However by lunchtime I had stuffed two handwarmers into my boots to try to thaw out the ice blocks there – these little one use bags of magic always amaze me as they don`t feel hot yet make a big impression on your overall body temperature. I also have microwaveable handwarmers which are really useful for when you get home, like today, and need to warm your hands. I have a strange finger too on my right hand which goes icy cold and numb far quicker than the rest of my digits, and takes far longer to warm back up. I think it goes back to when I popped the tendons in that hand doing up a girth a few years ago (don`t ask …)

After Thursday`s chilly hacks – which were picturesque and very enjoyable – here`s a little clip – I dug out my thermal leggings for Friday and stuck a long sleeved top under my polo shirt, and found a couple of thinner jumpers to layer under my gilet and coat. My snoods have been called up for service too – I love feeling that my face is half warm, I could almost still be snuggled under the duvet. But, as I noticed today when someone passed me on a hack, they can`t see me smile in acknowledgement or hear me talk! So I either have to risk my nose and chin getting chilly or gesticulate wildly. First world problems, eh?

Moving swiftly on.

This weekend saw a smattering of snow. Just enough for the cat and I to get excited, but not enough to disrupt life. It reminded me of a debate I`d seen online about whether it`s safe to ride in the snow. For me, snow is such a rarity that it means we should go sledging, or snowball fighting, or build a snowman. Mundane tasks, and things that can be done every day are cast aside.

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Above are three photos from 2010, when college was closed for two weeks; baby Otis played in the snow; instead of riding we sledged down the bank field; we skated with our horses to the indoor arena to lunge or ride quickly before going sledging again; I had to drive my brother`s Series II Landrover which had to have a miners lamp left burning underneath it each night so the engine didn`t freeze (it was also covered with an old woollen blanket); and my friend`s brother pushed my car up the hill from her house so I could negotiate the downhill home (then we realised that my friend was still in the car with me, but that`s another story).

So you see, snow to me means a quick holiday from riding, and has many happy memories associated with it. And not so happy ones, such as the time my Dad dropped four year old me off at school in six inches of snow and by the time I`d got halfway along the driveway and realised it was closed, he`d sped off! I think my Mum has just about forgiven him for that.

But for so many countries snow is a fact of life. They can`t afford to close schools and offices for six months of the year, or for the country to grind to a complete stop – like we do under two inches of snow!

Which brings me back to my original question – is it safe to ride in snow? Well, yes it is if you know how to do it correctly. But like so many other aspects of life, it is dangerous if you do not take the correct precautions. Snow balls up in hooves, particularly shod hooves, so I`m sure that in countries with a lot of snow forecast they will remove shoes or put special snow shoes on. We advocate greasing the soles of the foot, which definitely helps to a certain extent. Knowing your routes and what is underfoot is important, as the world changes when it becomes white, and then of course having a nimble horse who is used to working in snow, and is steady and surefooted helps. I saw an article about a polo match on a frozen lake in St Moritz, Switzerland, which looks absolutely breathtaking whilst also proving that you can ride in the snow!

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I tend to think that when snow comes, riding can go by the way side a bit because, after all it is a rarity in Britain and we shouldn’t`t let the child in us be suffocated by not rolling around making snow angels. If we were to expect a winter like Sweden`s then perhaps we do best by taking a lesson from them and preparing our horses, as well as the rest of our lives, for the impact that snow has.

 

How Does Bending Improve Straightness?

Recently I`ve been working a lot on flexion and improving my rider`s awareness of the straightness of their horse`s body.

Yesterday there was a scattering of snow on the ground so I took the opportunity to focus her attention on her walk work. After stretching her horse on a long rein and moving the walk on, and bringing it back with her seat she picked up the contact and started riding a twenty metre circle.

On the circle I asked her to think about where her horse`s legs were. The hind legs and the forelegs, in relation to his spine and head and neck. Initially I wanted her to assess if the inside hind leg was following the track of the inside foreleg, and not to the inside or outside. I then asked her to think about the relationship between his head and his forelegs/shoulder. The head should be central, and not to one side or the other.

Now I talked to my client about the bend in her horse`s body. When you teach someone the basics they very often have to be able to see their results in order to learn the aids and theory. This can lead to horses bending too much in front of the saddle, which is what the rider can see. I explained to my client that she needs to think about the bend her horse has on the circle in terms of the horse`s whole body. The bend of the horse`s body starts at the inside hindleg and curves up through the rib cage and through the shoulders, neck and poll. The bend should be uniform through the body, which meant that she needed to think about having less neck bend and feeling her horse`s barrel flex slightly more.

Once my client had established this feeling and the correct degree of bend I asked her to ride counter flexion for half of the circle, before straightening up and riding with correct flexion around the circle. Now, counter flexion is often achieved by people opening the outside rein and bending their horse`s neck to the outside, whilst the rest of the body continues bending to the inside. However, I asked my rider to think about the counter bend coming from the outside hind leg, curving up to the poll, and to think about her body position and weight distribution. Then, the horse started to flex to the outside and his walk slowed as he concentrated on keeping his balance.

Upon returning to correct flexion my rider had to adjust her seat, and allow her outside hip to release forwards, thus allowing the horse to flex through his rib cage and create a uniform bend through his body. After riding a few transitions from counter to true flexion my rider started to feel that she could position her horse`s body, and influence every element of it so that he was straight. Now, I don`t mean straight as a ruler, but I mean straight on the curve of the circle – moving on two tracks with a uniform bend, rather than with an over bend in the neck, and the outside shoulder falling out, causing the ribs to be inflexible and the hindlegs to trail behind the front legs.

Once my rider had practised this on both reins she found she had a very consistent and even contact and the walk was very balanced and correct. The tracks made in the snowy arena showed that her circle was incredibly round. We rode the same exercise in trot, and the first trot was very nice – the horse was taking the contact forwards, working over his back, and stepping under with his inside hind leg to create a uniform bend through his body. Soon the counter flexion was ridden in the same rhythm as the true flexion, with a smooth transition between the two.

With the feeling that she could position her horse easily I asked my rider to try alternating between shoulder-in and travers on the circle. In shoulder in, the hind legs should continue around the original circle, and the forehand come into the inner track. With her heightened awareness of his limb distribution this was easily achieved. In the travers, it is the forelegs which stay on the original circle and the hindquarters come onto the inner track. Again, this was ridden in walk and trot before finishing off with some lovely, straight work from both horse and rider.

The snow gave us the opportunity to focus on the slow work, which often gets overlooked, and when my rider thought about uniformly bending and suppling her horse in both directions on the same rein his muscles stretched and warmed up evenly, which produced a straight horse.

In the horses that I school I have also been working on counter flexion whilst warming them up to help loosen them up evenly and creating a more symmetrical horse. I read an article a couple of weeks ago which described how a horse`s stiffness may not be due to muscle stiffness on the “stiff side” but rather the difficulty in lengthening the muscles on the opposing side have. This makes perfect sense, so I have been taking this on board when I feel a horse is stiffer on one rein. Riding counter flexion on the good rein helps to stretch the stiffer muscles more gently than struggling to maintain correct bend on the stiffer rein. Once the horse has warmed up with counter flexion they will find the stiff rein much easier.

Counter flexion is also very beneficial for improving the canter, but I`ll explain how I`ve been using that for another horse, another time.

Winter’s Coming!

Today felt like the first day of winter. Which means that I need to turn my attention to the Christmas Countdown to get me through until the shortest day and then once Christmas memories have faded into the background the increasing evening lights will keep me going until Easter and spring.

But enough about my motivational techniques. I dread the first time you feel the damp drizzle and dark of the mornings. It was like that this morning, and I stumbled down the field in half light to find two damp horses looking at me reproachfully. Otis is clipped and has had a thin stable rug and lightweight turnout with a neck on for the last couple of days, but I decided to put his thicker turnout on with the integral neck piece so that his neck isn’t colder than his body – this is for my peace of mind as much as anything. Plus I don’t want a horse with a hairier neck than body! Llani is currently unclipped but has a lightweight rug on for cosmetic reasons mainly – he is clean and dry for when I want to ride and I don’t need to worry about him getting a chill if he’s still damp when I’ve brushed him off. He doesn’t have a neck on this rug though.

I had to steel myself and remember that horses are waterproof. A little bit of rain on their thick coat won’t hurt them, and they won’t get too cold. It doesn’t help when you’re wet and cold, you assume the horse is freezing as well as yourself so you put an extra rug on. My aim is to keep Llani in the lightweight until he is clipped (when I psych myself up to have him sedated) and then he can wear a thicker rug with a neck. But only then!

Let’s face it though, if the dreary drizzle continues I will pity his neck and swap rugs! Hopefully the rain will ease for the next couple of weeks and let us acclimatise to the cold without the wet!

I read a really interesting article not long ago which described how unrugged horses keep warm by letting their hair stand on end and pockets of air getting trapped close to the skin and maintaining their body temperature. For this reason, putting a lightweight rug on inhibits this natural reaction so does not allow the horse to keep warm as efficiently. This article promoted horse owners letting the thick winter coat grow and not rugging horses during the colder months.

This is all very well if you don’t intend to ride very often during the winter, as you can guarantee the horse will come in filthy dirty each day! The breed and hardiness of the horse will also come into play, as well as their age and condition. You should also consider how long the horse has been rugged and stabled during his life, as a horse who is used to being well rugged and stabled will find it harder to adjust to wintering out than a young horse who has never been rugged. The article I read had thoroughbreds wintering out in the arctic temperatures of America, which proves that horses can adapt well.

During the winter you should still monitor the horse to make sure he’s coping with the climate and has grown enough coat. They will probably also eat more as they are trying to keep warm.

I think the article I read was useful in reminding us that horses are animals and we shouldn’t humanise them too much; having said that I probably won’t be leaving my working horses unrugged! I would definitely turn a youngster out naked and encourage him to be a real horse until he grows up and has to work, and an older horse wintering out would probably have a rug on standby. I don’t mind the cold, and am happy to see naked horses playing in the snow, but as soon as the rain comes I pity them and want to Molly coddle them so that they get rid of the drowned rat look. Which is highly fashionable at the moment, I may add.

So yes, I will endeavour to be tough and keep Llani’s rug off until he has a hair cut, and then I will make sure they are warm and dry under their rugs whilst not being too warm.

Which brings me onto an important factor in rugging horses – horses find it easier to warm themselves up than to cool themselves down, which means that whilst we may be frozen to the bone and wearing four coats after having stood in the arena teaching all day, our horses won’t really appreciate the same treatment!