It’s a beautiful morning, and you’re eager to get out on the trails. The weather forecast calls for a chance of moderate afternoon winds and a slight chance of rain. But you’re not worried. When you set out, the skies are clear, and you plan to be home by lunchtime. Besides, a little rain never kept you home – and you’ve packed a jacket, just in case.
By midmorning, however, the weather suddenly deteriorates. You’re miles from home, and the wind is gusting up to 60 miles per hour. Dark thunderclouds boil up. Heavy rain pounds down. Then the hard rain becomes punishing hail. Your horse tries to swing his rump to the storm. As you try to keep him on track, he stumbles and falls to his knees. Visibility is almost nil.
Now, you’re truly scared. What should you do? Dismount and seek shelter, or quickly head for home – if you can find your way? How could you have better prepared for such a storm?
Here, we’ll tell you how you can prepare for six types of extreme weather conditions that might hit singly or together – high wind, drenching rain/thunderstorms, lightning, hail, snowstorms/blizzard, and extreme cold. Then we’ll tell you the course of action you should take in each case to help keep you and your horse safe, tell you what not to do, and provide expert tips. We’ll also give you six additional survival tactics and a list of resources for extreme-weather gear.
Extreme Condition #1: High Wind
High-wind dangers: Strong winds can make riding difficult, because horses hate to face into the wind. Your horse will likely try to turn his tail to the wind, which can cause him to lose his footing and fall. He may spook at debris blowing around him. He might even buck if he becomes alarmed by a flapping slicker or saddle strings bouncing on his rump. If you’re in timber, trees may blow down on top of you, or a falling tree may spook your horse. The wind may blow dirt and sand into your eyes, impeding your vision. The wind might also blow off your hat, leaving your head with no protection from the elements.
How to prepare at home: Desensitize your horse to objects in motion, such as flapping cloth, waving slickers, etc. (For help, look into books and videos produced by such trail-riding-oriented clinicians as John Lyons, Linda Tellington-Jones, and Pat Parelli.) Wear a riding helmet rather than a hat, and secure the chin strap. If you wear a hat, secure it with a stampede string or scarf.
What to do on the trail: If your horse won’t face into the wind, try to find a place to wait out the harder gusts, or try to find a route that enables you to go with the wind “pushing” you, even if it’s not the most direct one. If you’re on a mountain, let him choose his own path down, with his tail to the wind, so he’ll be more likely to keep his footing. If you encounter blowing dirt or sand, hole up in any kind of secure windbreak (such as a brush patch) to protect your and your horse’s eyes.
What not to do: Don’t try to force your horse to head into the wind. If you go against his instinct, he might lose his footing. He also might try to back up, off the trail. Don’t take shelter in timber, where branches or even whole trees may crash down. Avoid burn areas and insect-infested trees; dead trees are much more apt to blow down than live ones are.
Expert tip: You’re usually better off to keep moving, unless your visibility is impaired. But if you become disoriented, stay put until the dust settles to avoid becoming hopelessly lost.
Extreme Condition #2: Drenching Rain/thunderstorm
Rain/thunderstorm dangers: Thunderstorms can brew quickly; if you’re riding in timber or a canyon, you may not see a storm coming until it’s suddenly upon you. If you’re not prepared for rain, you’ll likely become soaked and chilled (putting you at risk for hypothermia). If you get cold, your fingers will become stiff preventing you from holding the reins properly. Trails and hillsides may turn to mud, making footing dangerous. A downpour may create a flash flood; that small creek you crossed earlier may become a raging river, preventing you from returning home.
How to prepare at home: Pack a large plastic slicker – one with an extra panel in the front and back to fit over your saddle and keep water from running under your seat. Look for a slicker that snaps around your legs to keep them dry. An oil-treated canvas duster sheds water well and can help keep you warm, but keep in mind that it’s also heavier and takes up more space on your saddle. Another good option: Gore-Tex waterproof jacket and rain pants, which will keep out rain, but allow your skin to breathe. (A buildup of moisture under waterproof gear is uncomfortable and can lead to a chill.)
Also pack a waterproof hat cover, a silk scarf or two (for an extra layer of warmth), and two pairs of gloves (in case one pair gets wet). Consider waterproof gloves, such as those sold for waterskiing. Seal non-waterproof items in a plastic bag or waterproof saddlebag. Pack or wear lightweight chaps or chinks (ankle length, if you have just a short raincoat).
Wear water-resistant footwear that will also wick away sweat and allow your feet to breathe (such as oiled or waxed leather boots). Avoid footwear with an abundance of stitching and lace holes, which let in water. Consider packing rubber pullovers, which are made to fit over any kind of riding boots. Or, pack lightweight rubber boots (and warm socks) in your saddlebag to change into in case it rains.
What to do on the trail: Don raingear before it starts raining to avoid a drenching. Once your clothing gets wet, it’s hard to stay warm if the rain continues. If rain is pounding down, seek shelter – for instance, behind a bit of brush or with a canyon wall at your back – and wait out the storm. Seek high ground to avoid flash floods.
What not to do: Don’t try to hurry home; the footing may be treacherously wet and muddy. Don’t try to cross rushing water – the current can easily carry you and your horse away.
Expert tip: Most slickers fit in a nylon zip-close bag designed to tie or snap to your saddle, so there’s no excuse not to pack one.
A lightning storm is one of the most dangerous weather conditions you and your horse might face. A single lightning flash can carry 100 million volts and reach 55,000 degrees Fahrenheit. A bolt is usually three to four miles long and travels at speeds up to 100,000 miles per second. A direct strike can electrocute you and your horse instantly, leading to severe fourth-degree burns and possibly death. Even part of a charge can melt metal fillings in your teeth and cause burns, especially around metal (such as zippers).
A thunderstorm can seem to be a long distance away, but lightning often precedes it. If a storm is brewing, you can determine its speed and direction by the closeness of the strikes. (Since light travels faster than sound, you’ll see the lightning before you hear the thunder, unless the strike is close; then it’ll be simultaneous.) Count the seconds from the time you see the lightning until you hear the thunder. Sound travels about one mile every five seconds. If you count 10 seconds before you hear the thunder, the strike was about two miles away.
Extreme Condition #3: Lightning
Lightning dangers: The electrical charge from a nearby strike can be carried through the ground to your horse’s feet, then conducted through his body to yours, electrocuting you both; it can also knock your horse down, leading to further injury. Electrical charges can shoot through water, damp soil, rocks, wire fences, and metal and horseshoes. You may survive, but your horse may be killed. Also, if you’re close to a struck object, such as a tree, the electricity may “bounce” onto you. (For more on lightning, see “Deadly Strikes,” below.)
How to prepare: Know the risks and dangers. Don’t plan a ride during a high-risk time. Listen for lightning warnings on a weather radio, watch the weather forecast on television, and/or look up your local forecast online. Be especially cautious in summer, when sudden storms occur frequently. If you’re riding on government property, ask the ranger overseeing the trails whether he or she thinks it’s safe to ride.
What to do on the trail: Be alert. If lightning is heading toward you, take immediate action. If you’re riding with a group, spread out – if you’re clustered, an electrical current can pass through everyone in the group. Make your way down off ridges; you’re safer in a canyon or draw than on a mountaintop. (Lightning tends to hit high spots.) On flat land, stay away from anything that stands higher than the surrounding terrain. If you can’t get to a relatively safe place, dismount, so you’re not the tallest object around.
If lightning is striking the ground around you, crouch down in a low spot. As you do, keep your feet close together and your hands off the ground to minimize the extent your body is “grounded.” Try to keep a firm grip on your horse; he may panic.
What not to do: Don’t take shelter under a tree or in a stand of tall timber. If you can’t get out of the trees, stay low, and stay away from the area’s taller trees, large tree trunks, and roots. Avoid wire fencing, especially fencing that runs up a ridge; it can carry the charge right down to you.
Expert tips: During lightning season, ride early in the morning. Most storms start after the weather heats up in the afternoon. Mid-afternoon through evening is the riskiest time of day for lightning strikes.
Extreme Condition #4: Hail
Hail dangers: Pounding hail can alarm your horse and is often accompanied by lightning. Hailstorms can hit almost without warning; stones may quickly grow from pea- to golf-ball size. A serious hailstorm can injure you and/or your horse. A several-inch buildup of hailstones makes for treacherous footing. As with thunderstorms, there’s also a danger of flash floods; small streams and dry gullies may become roaring torrents.
How to prepare at home: Pack a heavy jacket or a waterproof slicker to help cushion your body. Pack or wear chaps to protect your legs. Wear a riding helmet, and take a waterproof helmet cover. If you wear a hat, pack a plastic hat cover to ward off moisture and to provide an extra layer of head protection.
What to do on the trail: If the wind is at your back and your horse seems willing, head home to safety. But if hail is pounding your horse in the face, he’ll likely try to turn his tail to it, impeding your progress. He might even buck, if he associates the pain from the hailstones with you, his rider. If he becomes fractious and panicky for any reason, dismount, and seek shelter. Stay there until the storm wanes and your horse becomes safe to ride.
What not to do: Don’t take shelter next to tall trees that might blow down if hail is accompanied by strong wind. Don’t tie your horse – he might panic and pull back. Firmly hold onto the reins or lead rope, and try to calm him with soothing words and touch.
Expert tips: Hailstorms are generally short-lasting; chances are, you’ll be better off waiting it out than to continue home.
6 Survival Tactics
Rely on pockets. Keep your most important survival gear on your body and in your pockets; it won’t do you much good in a saddlebag if your horse takes off. Wear a shirt with pockets for matches, lip balm, a bit of toilet paper, etc. Carry a flashlight in your jacket pocket.
Phone home. Carry a satellite cell phone, which will work in locations where a regular cell phone will not. Charge up the phone before you go.
Light a fire. If you become too cold to carry on, stop and build a fire. Pack matches in a waterproof container, or pack a waterproof lighter. Also pack fire starters, such as fuel tablets, steel wool (which burns even if it gets wet), a candle stub, or dryer lint in a sealable plastic bag. Note that you can also use your notepad/journal paper for kindling.
Pack a knife. A good pocket knife or multipurpose tool is vital in emergency situations. For instance, you can whittle shavings off a branch for kindling, repair tack, cut your horse free in an emergency, and even cut branches to fashion an emergency shelter.
Think wool. A wool saddle blanket can double as insulation to warm you in a crisis – wool will keep you fairly warm and dry even if it gets wet. Tip: Buy a wool blanket at an Army-surplus store, and fold it U.S. Cavalry style (six folds) to make a saddle blanket.
Enhance your visibility. If you get stranded or injured, get out in the open (weather permitting) where searchers – especially those in search planes – can find you. Attach reflective gear/glow sticks onto you, your horse, and tall branches.
Extreme Condition #5: Snowstorm/blizzard
Snowstorm/blizzard dangers: In high altitudes, a thunderstorm can change to snow even during summer, leaving you unprepared. A snowstorm can leave you wet and cold, and obscure your visibility to the point where it’d be dangerous to keep riding. In such conditions, you can accidentally veer off the trail into treacherous footing. You can also easily become lost. In addition, snow is slippery and may ball up under your horse’s feet, reducing his traction. Decreased traction can lead to a slip or fall, which can result in injury to both you and your horse. Your slipping horse will also be at risk for strained joints and pulled muscles/tendons.
How to prepare at home: Pack a warm hat; you lose most of your body heat through your head. If you’re caught in a storm in a straw or felt Western hat, fold a handkerchief over the top of your head, under your hat for insulation. Tie a scarf around your neck, or wear a thin, lightweight head cover with face opening. Pack or wear chaps, chinks, or wool pants for warmth. (You can put wool pants over jeans.) Follow the tips in the other sections for keeping warm and dry.
Consult your farrier for winter-shoeing options for greater traction and to ward off ice accumulation. Options include rim shoes, hard facing material (such as Borium), full pads, bubble pads, mud nails, plugs, and studs.
What to do on the trail: Keep an eye on the footing, and stick to wide, groomed, flat trails. If you’re caught on a mountainside, get down any way you can, avoiding the slickest spots. Aim your horse straight down the slickest areas; that way, he’ll likely slip and slide down the hill safely, even if he sits down on his rump. But if you take him down sideways, his feet are more likely to slip out from under him to the side – and if he falls, he’ll fall onto you.
What not to do: If you have to get off your horse and lead him, stand uphill and to the side in case he slips; he could slide or fall right into you. Note that if footing is tricky, you may be safer on your horse than leading him.
Expert tips: If it doesn’t look like the snow will let up – and you can see where you’re going – you’re better off to try to keep going toward home to safety. (You and your horse will also stay warmer, as you move.) But if visibility is poor and your familiar landmarks are obscured, stay put until you can see where you’re going to avoid becoming hopelessly lost.
Extreme Condition #6: Extreme Cold
Extreme-cold dangers: A cold front can come in unexpectedly, catching you unprepared. If you’re not ready for cold weather, you may get chilled and be at risk for hypothermia, or frostbitten fingers or toes. If your horse has been working hard and then gets chilled, his larger muscles (such as those over his rump) may “tie up” (cramp).
However, note that you’ll be more at risk for cold-weather complications than your horse – his body is better equipped to handle cold weather than yours is. You also may become dehydrated; in cold weather, you might not remember to drink enough water.
How to prepare: Carry a Thermos of water in an insulated saddlebag. Pack clothing designed to keep your body core, feet, hands, and head warm, including a warm hat and gloves. Wear socks that help retain body heat without making your feet sweat, such as wool socks. (Note: Wool socks can keep your feet warm even if they get a little wet; wear nylons or Thinsulate next to your skin to keep thick socks from bunching.) Take several layers of clothing that you can shed and don, depending on the temperature. Tie extra layers behind your saddle. Roll up a pair of wool pants, and stuff them in your saddlebag.
Sample layering strategy: A zip-neck long john that’s lightweight and stretchy (such as one made from silk or polypropylene); cotton riding shirt/pants; Polarfleece jacket (preferably lined with wind-blocking material, such as nylon); wool outer pants; windbreaker (if the Polarfleece is unlined); well-insulated coat or jacket that will zip over other layers.
What to do on the trail: Don all the clothing you have, and quickly head home. If the footing is decent, a good posting trot will increase your circulation and keep you warmer than a walk. (Make sure you cool your horse at ride’s end – for how to do so, see “Beat Winter Blues,” Safe & Sound, Nov./Dec. ’04.)
Keep your hands as warm as possible. If you don’t have gloves, keep one hand in a pocket and your rein hand under your horse’s mane, where his body heat accumulates, then switch off. Wiggle your toes to keep blood circulating in your feet.
What not to do: Avoid drinking an alcoholic beverage. It may make you feel warm temporarily, but it relaxes your blood vessels and lets precious heat escape from the small capillaries near the skin.
Expert tips: If you get cold, dismount, and walk to increase your circulation as you head your home. If you stop and huddle down somewhere, you’ll only get colder. If you become stranded or lost, stay put to wait for help and build a fire. (See “6 Survival Tactics” on page 84).
Heather Smith Thomas has raised and trained horses for more than 45 years, and has written about them for nearly that long. She’s published 18 books, including Care and Management of Horses. She and her husband raise cattle on their ranch in eastern Idaho.