Do you have what it takes to compete through the winter without heading South?

 

Do you have what it takes to compete through the winter without heading South?

As the holiday season approaches, and with oncoming cold weather, the northern eventing population reaches a divide:  Those who go south, and those who stay north.

Generally, it is the professionals and high-level competitors who pack up the barn and make the trip south seeking warmer weather and the early-bird show season.  If your goal is a spring CCI, it’s pretty much mandatory that you begin your preparation in February or March, with a choice of qualifying competitions ranging from South Carolina, to Georgia, to Florida.  Eventers with the time and financial ability base themselves out of Aiken or Ocala to maximize the winter training and competition season.

But what if you can’t go south?  What if your job– that pays your horse bills– demands that you stay home?  What if you are in school, at college, and can’t just disappear for three months of the spring semester?  Is a spring CCI still achievable for those not in Florida or South Carolina?

If you are willing to make sacrifices and have some flexibility, yes, it is possible.  My senior year in college, I competed at the Ocala CCI2*.  And after college, I still managed to compete at Intermediate despite residing full-time in Kentucky with a job in the Thoroughbred business.

What does it take?

A moderate climate definitely helps.  I was in school at the University of Kentucky, in Lexington.  Kentucky winters have their share of snow and ice, but the good thing about that region is that it rarely lasts.  There are definitely cold spells, but you could count on a good number of days above freezing, even in January and February.  If you are based in Canada, Minnesota, or Michigan, where snow falls in November that won’t melt until April…well, that might be too much of a challenge.

You must be dedicated.  When preparing for a CCI, you can’t skip many days and still have a fit, ready horse.  Even when it’s below freezing or blowing snow, you still have to ride.  Bundle up, put on a quarter sheet (or two), and go do something even if you can only hack down the driveway for an hour.

Watch the weather and be flexible.  I had no indoor arena; just a sand outdoor and hundreds of acres of open land.  Usually, the arena was thawed by the afternoon sun on fair days, and I would plan my jump schools around that.  If it got too bad, I would haul to an indoor with jumps.  On flat days if the arena was frozen, I would do my work out in the field or hit the hills.  I did plenty of trot work on frozen hillsides, and occasionally galloped in the snow; I know it’s not ideal and many would be horrified, but foxhunters were out there in the same conditions having a good old time on their iron horses.  Try to build in some extra days so that if you see some really bad weather on the forecast, flex your training schedule to make it your horse’s day off.

 

 

Ride out as much as possible.  Even if you have access to an indoor, I cannot stress how important it is to get your horse outside.  It is tough to maintain fitness inside, it gets incredibly boring going around in circles.  So long as you are working, you and your horse will stay warm despite the windchill.  I used to ride out every Saturday in bitter cold Chicago winters….it can be done!  When it was too wet (muddy) to ride the fields, I hacked the roads or the driveway.  Riding in the open won’t just help your horse’s physical fitness, it will keep him mentally prepared as well.

What about cross-country schooling?  If you’re lucky, you may have a local cross-country schooling facility available, and make an opportunity when the weather cooperates.  If not, plan to ride your first horse trial at a very comfortable level and use it to knock the rust off you and your horse.

You will still have to compete through the winter.  You can’t just stay home and expect to be in tip-top CCI form: you will have to travel south for some weekend horse trials leading up to your three-day event.  Plan your competition season well in advance, and talk to your boss or teachers very early with your goals and what days off you will need.  Make your competitions count: with the added expense and stress from traveling a long distance, you probably won’t get to have many “extra” events in your calendar.  Try to have a backup plan and schedule one more event than you think you’ll need.  I think I was able to fit four horse trials in from February to April, but it involved a lot of traveling back and forth to Georgia.  Hopefully, your horse is a good shipper!

Body clip your horse.  This is pretty much non-negotiable.  With as much riding as you will have to do, your horse will work up a sweat.  Besides, when you travel south to compete, he won’t need all that hair.  Horses who aren’t in heavy work can get away with a trace clip or something minimal, but if you’re planning to be at the FEI levels, he will have to have most of his hair shaved off.  Use a quarter sheet to keep him warm on light rides, and bundle him up in heavy blankets as needed in the barn and outside.  My mare lived out 24/7, through winter and summer.  When she was clipped, on the coldest nights she could be wearing a fleece liner, a heavyweight Rambo turnout, plus a heavyweight Weatherbeeta combo neck blanket.  She was happiest to be outside, though, despite the cold.

Hints and tips for cold-weather riding:

  • I always felt warmest when I could keep my neck warm.  I hate cold air blasting down my jacket and shirt!  If I didn’t wear a turtleneck as an underlayer, I had a fleece neckwarmer beneath my winter coat (a little less bulky than a scarf) that I could pull up over my nose and mouth if needed.
  • A headband or earmuffs is also a must-have.  Choose something thin that fits easily beneath your helmet and won’t give you a headache.
  • I’ve used a lot of different gloves, but my favourite for cold weather are SSG Windstoppers.  Made of thin fleece on top and grippy ultra-suede on the palms, they keep your hands warm but aren’t at all bulky– I can easily buckle bridle straps wearing them.
  • Dress in layers.  Unless you’re just walking, you will probably start to sweat and need to remove your outer jacket.
  • Invest in full chaps.  Growing up in hunter jumper land, full chaps were the “in” thing to wear.  When I discovered half chaps, my full chaps were wadded up in the corner of a tack box.  However, nothing beats full chaps in the winter time: they block the wind and precipitation and are easy to fit on over top of jeans or thicker pants.  I also layered thin breeches under my “winter jeans” too.
  • Buy some cheap, light-tinted sunglasses for riding outside.  Sunglasses will keep cold air from stinging your eyes; I hated when my eyes watered while I was trotting or galloping.  Choose a wrap-around style to keep more of your face warm.

Luckily, now I get to spend my winters in sunny Florida.  However, I have not forgotten my cold-weather riding days, and I believe that enduring those winters while still maintaining my upper-level aspirations has made me a better horsewoman.

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