I remember the scene as mostly white, the air fogged with fine snowflakes, the occasional grove of spruce furnishing just enough contrast to help us keep our bearings and stay on the trail. It was cold. We progressed steadily into the wind, climbing toward the pass and the high-altitude trailhead where we'd left our rig.
I looked back at the pack horses and at my friend Billy. Man and beast alike were covered with frost, and the horses' sweat had frozen into small icicles that clung to their coats.
We were pulling out of the wilderness area north of Yellowstone Park where we'd been for the early elk-bugling season, and though we'd seen no elk nor heard any bugle, we'd had a fine time in camp with five Tennessee Walking Horses.
But late September in Montana at 9,000 feet of elevation can quickly become winter. I dismounted to adjust the basket hitch on a pack that was hanging a little low on Skywalker, behind me. Then I remounted to face the wind and snow for our final ascent to the trailhead on the pass.
At the trailhead, we threaded our way among the parked vehicles and trailers that seemed surreal after our wilderness adventure. Then, leaning against the wind that blew clouds of snow sideways, we tied the tired horses to our trailer and commenced unloading our packs and gear.
The parking lot was covered with glare ice too thick for the gravel to poke through, the surface slick as a skating rink. We could scarcely stand while we wrestled the packs off the horses and unsaddled. Fearing a disastrous slide down the icy road, we put chains on the rear wheels of the pickup and (finally) enjoyed the thawing warmth of its heater.
A miserable experience? Hardly! Billy and I recall it as one of the most beautiful horseback rides we've ever enjoyed. The white mountains, garnished with strips of evergreen and copses of aspen with leaves frozen but still colorful, are indelible in our minds.
Images of our gutsy horses, led by my old reliable Little Mack (still tough as nails at age 15), blinking the snow out of his eyes as he powered up the trail, will remain forever, cementing our appreciation for these wonderful animals that so willingly take us places we'd never see otherwise.
The chilled fingers and the icy wind in our faces are minor memories, eclipsed completely by recollection of the great beauty that surrounded us and of the sense of freedom and accomplishment. We crossed an alpine pass in a snowstorm and not only survived it, but enjoyed it!
The trail rider who parks his or her horse for the winter misses much. The physical conditioning of both horse and rider suffer, and the rider misses an entire sphere of trail-riding experiences. Here are some random thoughts on horses, riders, and winter riding conditions.
Basic winter needs of your trail horse are food, water, and shelter. Calories keep a horse warm, so more are required in winter if your horse is to stay in good condition.
Water is too easily neglected in winter, yet ultra important. For instance, cold conditions in our dry western mountains quickly dehydrate animals (and people). In our part of the West, many horses drink their water from naturally occurring springs and streams. Experienced stockmen gravitate whenever possible to what they call open water, water from springs that tends not to freeze because it emerges from the ground considerably warmer than the water that flows in streams or rivers.
The advantages of water warmed either by Mother Earth or with electric heating elements in frost-free waterers are obvious. Your horse will warm the water to his own body temperature, and considerably fewer calories are expended if the water is 50 degrees Fahrenheit rather than 35 degrees.
The warmer water will make for a warmer horse and for one that consumes less feed in order to stay in condition. It's quite true that horses will manage in range conditions by eating snow rather than drinking water, but precious calories are consumed warming the snow to body temperature.
Shelter need not be elaborate. Many western horses do perfectly well with only a cottonwood grove for shelter. Dry cold is easier on horses (and people) than humid cold. A fence or tree line that breaks the wind helps tremendously, and any sort of roof or canopy overhead impedes heat loss by radiation from the horse's body to the clear night sky.
It's hard to beat the three-sided shelter shed, also called a run-in shed. In northern climates, where the sun arcs low in the southern sky during the short days of winter, the open side of the shed should face south if your property allows it. Situated in this fashion, the shed is warmed by the winter sun, but when summer comes and the sun arcs directly overhead, the same shed furnishes shade all day.
I've noticed that this simple principle of passive solar heating seems ignored by many of our newer Montana residents who come from southern climates, where the change in solar angle from winter to summer is less dramatic. I also notice that on cold winter mornings, their horses stand on the south side of the shelter sheds rather than in them!
I don't blanket my horses during Montana winters. Blanketing is used by those who show their horses during winter and wish to keep their horses' coats slick. If you don't show, blanketing is counterproductive. The blanket prevents a growth of winter hair that's far more efficient than any artificial insulation at keeping your horse warm.
A natural winter coat on a horse is also safer in the pasture; even the best-fitting blanket can snag and catch on fences or tree branches.
If you don't show, let it grow.
There is, however, one condition under which I make liberal use of full body blankets. If you ride vigorously in cold conditions, your sweaty horse can easily become chilled when he quits exercising. It's good to blanket him while his sweat gradually dries so that his body doesn't cool too rapidly from evaporation.
If you don't have a blanket handy when returning from such a ride, consider just loosening your horse's cinch and leaving him saddled for a bit. The saddle and blanket will prevent some heat loss.
Obviously, the colder the temperature, the warmer our riding apparel must be, but bulky clothes make mounting and riding difficult. If you don heavy pants and shirt, long underwear, and a heavy coat, you might swear that your horse has grown a couple of inches when it's time to mount him.
Fortunately, lots of light synthetics exist, though wool, with its natural ability to stay warm wet, is still hard to beat. A layer system works well and allows removal of outer clothing during late morning when the sun melts the frost on the fence posts.
An old adage states that if your hands are cold you should put on a hat. There's much truth in that, because body heat escapes readily from the top of your head. Any hat helps, but some help a whole lot more than others.
This is a good time to forget about fashion. Yes, horse magazines frequently feature smiling riders in snowy conditions wearing stylish cowboy hats, but one suspects that the photos are often posed with warm pickup trucks idling nearby.
While it's true that a felt cowboy hat will impede heat loss reasonably well, and a pair of ear muffs can protect that vulnerable part of your anatomy, far better are insulated caps and hats designed for skiing, hunting, and other winter activities. I like a simple knit wool "watch cap," though I miss a sun visor when I wear one.
Of course, we should all be wearing helmets, but traditional helmets seem incompatible with cold weather. However, this seems to be changing. A friend recently purchased a Bern Brentwood sports helmet that features both summer and winter liners. The insulated winter liner is designed for extreme cold-weather sports.
The manufacturer hasn't sought equine certification for this helmet, but hopefully that will come. (It's currently certified for such rough-and-tumble sports as whitewater kayaking and snowboarding, and is available at outdoor-supply stores.)
Do you have trouble keeping your feet warm? Riding tends to cramp the feet in the stirrups without encouraging circulation. When your feet start feeling tingly, get off and lead your horse to prevent frostbite.
Traditional cowboy boots are great for riding, but poor for heat retention, not only because they're just uninsulated leather, but because their shape tends to cramp the toes. Insulated cowboy boots do exist and are worth checking out. I recently purchased an insulated pair of "packer boots" (Western-styled lace-ups) from Cabela's (800/237-4444; www.cabelas.com) and have found them extremely effective.
But my formula for warm feet on winter rides has two simple parts: Buy the warmest boots you can get, and install on your saddle a pair of tapaderos that contain oversized stirrups.
Do not ride with bulky, cold-weather boots thrust into your ordinary summer stirrups. To do so is asking for that worst kind of wreck, catching a foot in the stirrup and getting dragged.
Outfitter-supply catalogs/websites feature large tap/stirrup combinations; you'll find that they provide not only safety, but considerable extra warmth. They also tend to keep your feet dry when you're riding through tall wet grass or brush laden with wet snow.
Avoiding a Fall
Opinions vary widely on what sort of shoeing best handles the winter-traction problem. There's no pat answer. If I rode only in deep snow, I'd probably choose to keep my horse barefoot. His traction would be adequate, and his hooves would shed snow buildup readily.
But in Montana, winter also means bare, frozen ground and glare ice wherever snow has been packed by vehicles and animals. A freeze-thaw cycle each day also builds up ice as snow melts into water then freezes at night.
Shoeing for traction was extremely popular in the days when draft horses did much of America's work. The old blacksmith shop on our ranch contains draft-horse shoes with threaded holes for inserts - sharp-pointed, bolt-like attachments that could be screwed into the shoe when winter came.
Today, similar methods are popular. I've tried tungsten carbide inserts that install tightly in holes you drill into the shoe on a drill press. They were very effective.
Borium, a mixture of tungsten carbide crystals embedded in a carrier material, can be applied to horseshoes with a torch. Traction is improved tremendously. My own farrier prefers to weld a small bead of hard-surfacing material to each caulk (one on the toe and one on each heel) of a horseshoe to create a hard bead that penetrates into the ice just far enough to afford traction.
All of these methods work well, but a word of warning is in order. Whenever you create tremendous traction you also increase the likelihood your horse can be injured by the additional strain it puts on feet and legs.
I'm reminded of the football spikes we were forced to wear during my high school days many years ago. So effective were they at preventing slippage, sprained ankles (and worse) were commonplace whenever a player was blocked from the side. His foot stayed planted and couldn't move with his body. Far less aggressive lugs are used by players today.
Also, don't expect the extreme traction provided by borium or hard-surfacing to improve the gait of your Tennessee Walking Horse or Missouri Fox Trotter. And never use a high-traction system on an immature horse whose limbs are more vulnerable to damage.
There's one type of surface that will tend to keep me from riding at all. March often brings ground with an inch of mud overlaying frozen ground. There's no shoe in the world that will help this dangerous footing, and bare feet are no better. The shoe doesn't penetrate the mud, and the whole surface slides on top of the underlying frost. It's the worst surface you can ride on.
If you must ride anyway, consider going early in the morning when the night's cold has frozen the top layer. Then, be home by the time the early spring sun melts the surface.
For most of us, riding options diminish during winter. Mountains are pretty much out in my part of the country, because huge snowdrifts cover the high-altitude trails.
But don't stop riding. Talk to local ranchers or farmers. Some who wouldn't consider allowing an all-terrain vehicle or snowmobile on their property might be open to equestrians, especially if you're willing to sign a release, and pledge that you'll close gates properly and leave your dog at home.
Offer to spend some time helping with chores or building a fence. You just might acquire new friends, along with additional riding opportunities.
As a last resort, consider renting time in a covered arena. Any riding is better than none. Although confining for trail riders and their horses, arenas do allow polishing of various trail-riding skills. Create trail obstacles - tarps lying on the ground, artificial deadfall made from poles - and work on perfecting your horse's neck rein.
Riding during winter will keep you and your horse in trim and all the more ready for that spring day when the trees bud and the grass turns green.
Happy (snowy) trails!