When winter blows in, many riders store their saddles and give their horse a few months off. But if you live in a climate with a long winter, you may want to keep riding, if only to get out of the house and enjoy the snowy scenery.
Technology has given us some helpful ways to stay warm during winter riding, and we want to share these tips with you. Clothing for winter sports is better than ever, and riders are benefiting from advances in outerwear. Check out what is available to skiers, snowmobilers and hunters. Like you, they spend hours outdoors in the elements. As long as clothing is not too slippery, "scrunchy," noisy or bulky, it can be used in the saddle.
Toasty Toes and Flexible Fingers
You can buy toe and hand warmers by the handful or the case wherever camping supplies are sold. Simply snap them to activate the warming ingredient and stick them in the toes of your boots or the ends of your mittens.
If you spend hours standing in the elements, or in an unheated indoor arena, you may want to go high-tech for your feet. Skiers are investing in battery-powered toe warmers, which are flat and slip into an insole. The battery pack clips to the top of your boots. This product guarantees toasty toes as long as you remember to recharge it.
Hands are tougher to keep warm. Mittens do a better job than gloves and work for instructors. But if you are riding, handling or grooming your horse, you may need more flexible fingers. Gloves that are thin, well-fitted and have an insulating lining are best for winter riding. Anything bulky, hard to remove or slippery is not safe.
Some riders swear by cotton roping gloves, which provide some warmth but give you feel through the reins. When the temperatures are brutal, try Thinsulate-lined leather gloves under wool "flip back" mittens. You can pull back the mittens and use the gloves when you need more dexterity.
For runny noses, many riders carry tissue or swipe their nose on a sleeve. Instead, safety pin a handkerchief to your coat sleeve and wipe as needed. Or try tying a bandana around one wrist. At least this way you won't have to halt your horse, remove your gloves and hunt for tissues.
Synthetic fabrics and materials have changed the way that we deal with the elements. Invest in a good all-weather coat that is waterproof, wind resistant and rip-stop with vents and a hood, and which comes with a fleece liner that can be removed. This will give you many options depending on the temperature and how warm you get while riding, lungeing or grooming your horse.
Some jackets have hook-and-loop fasteners at the wrist, fitted waists and neck shields. When you're riding into a strong wind at five above zero, these features could really make a difference. Outerwear made for equestrians usually has a double-vented back that allows the coat to separate when you sit in the saddle. If you ride often or for long, this is more comfortable than a coat that rides up or pulls on your hips.
Quilt-lined duck or canvas overalls and coveralls keep you cozy while doing barn chores, and you can ride in them too, as long as you feel secure in the saddle. Ski pants are warm, but are not safe to ride in because they're so slick and make "swishing" noises.
English riders debate whether leather chaps or full-seat fleece-lined britches are warmer. What's most important is making sure your feet are in warm boots with a thick, insulated sole. If your feet get cold, you'll feel chilled all over. Look for boots with a temperature rating and quality insulation. A removable wool liner will really keep your feet warm. Buy boots big enough for you to be able to wear two pairs of socks, and make the outer pair merino wool.
"Double-Duty" Winter Clothes
- Thinsulate-lined leather gloves with "flip-back" mittens keep you warm but give you flexibility for riding.
- All-weather coats with a removable lining are a good option for changeable weather.
- Boots with a removable wool liner will keep your feet warm.
- A fleece-line cap with fold-down ear flaps adds extra protection.
Also check out the boot's bottom. A lugged sole or heavy tread is unsafe for riding because it can trap the foot in the stirrup during an accident. If you must ride in work or snow boots, put bigger stirrups on your saddle during the winter months.
When layering clothing, think about fabrics. The best materials are lightweight, shed water and wick perspiration away from the skin. Silk long underwear is ideal because it's whispery thin and yet warm, but you can buy long johns of synthetic materials that are just as good. One-piece long underwear (a union suit) is ideal because it won't come untucked.
Down, flannel or quilt lined clothing makes a good middle layer. Wool is warm and breathable, but bulky. Anything made of fleece will feel cozy and shed water easily. In fact, water initially rolls off fleece, and if saturated it dries quickly. For the outer layer, go with a windproof and waterproof jacket or coat. Remove layers before you break a sweat, and add layers before you get chilled.
Don't Forget the Details
When the mercury dips low, attention to detail rises in importance. Exposed skin can quickly chap, so cover as much as you can and use petroleum jelly or lotion on the rest. If riding outdoors, especially in snow, remember sunscreen and lip balm.
Fleece ear warmers are useful, but a better bet is a fleece-lined cap with fold-down earflaps. If the weather is inclement, you can always pull your waterproof coat hood over your cap. If you ride in a helmet, look for a thin fleece balaclava (closer-fitting hood). Or buy a helmet cover and face-mask combination that fits onto your helmet and covers your head, ears and neck.
Invest in a full neck warmer. It can be temporarily pulled up over your chin, mouth or nose for a quick warm-up. Blow some warm breaths into it to restore feeling to your face, or ride with it that way. In really nasty weather, go with a face mask - only your eyes will be exposed.
Cold Weather Checklist
Don't forget to:
- Check the weather forecast
- Wear multiple layers
- Buy quality, outdoor fabrics
- Wear a water- and windproof coat
- Cover your head and neck
- Avoid exposed skin
- Apply lotion or ointment on your face
- Buy boots that are temp-rated
- Layer your socks
- Keep hand and toe warmers handy
- Add or remove clothes as needed
- Drink hot beverages
- Keep moving
Stow extra jackets, hats, gloves and other essentials in your vehicle and tack room. Also keep a blanket or sleeping bag, flashlight, drinking water, energy bars and flares in your car or truck. Come winter, you're more likely to get stuck in a broken-down car than on a broken-down horse, so being prepared could save your life.
Try on your "extreme winter wear" before you head to the barn. Can you bend at the waist and knees to lift up a hoof or swing into the saddle? If you feel like a stuffed turkey or look like a snowman, your outfit is going to hinder you. The key is balancing mobility, comfort and warmth.
If all else fails, hop off your horse, tie him and do some jumping jacks. Go into the tack room and warm up. Borrow some body heat from your horse by riding bareback. Take a thermos of hot water and enjoy some coffee or cocoa after your ride.
Your horse will appreciate a warm bit and saddle pad much more than those stiff with cold. Fiberglass saddle trees can actually snap in very low temperatures, ruining the saddle.
Your backside will also fare better in warmed tack. The fact is, our backsides get cold easily and are the last part of the body to warm up after being outside. Cold saddles and car seats don't help. If you drive to and from the barn, the next time you buy a new car, you might consider getting one with seat warmers.
If you're stuck with the old pickup, try the poor man's version: a hot water bottle. Fill it with hot water from that thermos. Your derriere won't know the difference, and you can drive home from the barn in a toasty seat, remembering the pleasure of riding in the crisp, cold air with a willing partner.