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January 24, 2013

Beating The Winter Riding Blues

Staying motivated to ride when snow covers the ground and temperatures drop can be challenging.

Like many amateurs with full-time jobs, I struggle with finding the time and motivation to ride during the winter months. Here in Virginia, we have fairly mild winters compared to the Northern and Mid-Western states, but I still find myself rushing home most nights to try and get a ride in before the arena freezes for the night.

I’ve been blessed with a wonderful off-the-track Thoroughbred who’s as intense about his work as I am, but if he has any more than two days off in a row, he starts to try to find new ways of injuring himself during turnout, so regular work is a must.

As an eventer, I consider myself quite tough (it helps that I’m not bothered by the cold as much as I am by extreme heat). If I’m properly prepared with enough layers, winter breeches and warm gloves, I’ll ride if it’s freezing, raining, snowing or windy. But if you add one of those plus darkness, that’s where my enthusiasm starts to wane.

My commute home takes an hour, but luckily home is where my horses live. It’s tough to drive home in the dark and stay motivated, so I find the best thing to do is to try to clear my mind and start visualizing what I want to work on or what I hope to accomplish during my ride for the night as I unwind on my drive. If I’ve decided to jump that night, I make sure I’ve set things up the night before. If I’m planning on riding through a dressage test, I have the ring cleared and ready to go.

When I get home, I immediately put on my riding clothes, grab a quick snack and head down to the barn. Luckily, we have arena lights, but nothing sucks my motivation more than riding in the ring, 100 feet from the house, and seeing my family keeping warm and eating dinner while I can barely feel my toes.

I find though, that once I’m in the barn, with the familiar sounds and smells, I’m usually ready to go. Once I’m on, looking between my horse’s ears is enough to make me happy, even if we just walk and work on some lateral work.

My OTTB, Oh So, seems to have accepted that things will not jump out of the dark at him, although we do usually ride with various woodland creatures watching, including a certain neighborhood skunk, who makes his presence known, whether I can see him or not. He has no problem grazing next to the arena while I work on my 10-meter circles.

If I’m not too tired or hungry, I’ll ride a second horse, Sam, my 19-year-old semi-retired event horse. He’s not offended if he doesn’t get ridden everyday, so I usually try to ride him about three nights a week. He also happens to be quite spooky, so our ride under the lights usually begins with his heart pounding in his chest while he looks for things that go bump in the night while I get ready to mount. Once I’m on, it takes a few trot laps around the arena in both directions before his head comes out of the rafters and we can focus on the some work. But wait, there’s also that barrel in the corner, and that set of jumps standards on the other side of the ring to go by, and sometimes a herd of about eight deer grazing in the paddock. It’s a character-building experience, but it keeps things interesting, and I just have to try to laugh it off.

I’ve found that with both horses, having a goal in mind is the biggest motivation for me to get on every night during the winter, even in the freezing cold. I recently attended a U.S. Dressage Federation ‘L’ judge seminar as a demo rider. As part of my duties, I had to ride first level, test 1, with Oh So, and I wanted to be able to show a solid test, but since I hadn’t ridden one since early November, I knew I was rusty. I practiced diligently at home, and we made it through, earning some nice compliments from the ‘L’ candidates and the moderator in the process. It was nice to hear some feedback that I can apply to my riding, and it gave me a mental boost.

Northern Virginia has a steady stream of schooling shows as well, so keeping those in mind has helped me keep my skills sharp and kept me focused on my goals for 2013—a stronger season at preliminary and solidifying our work at second level.

While riding in the winter often takes a lot of motivation, I’ve found that my horses come out stronger and fresher, and I’m more determined than ever come spring.