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February 3, 2014

Walkin' In An Equine Wonderland

There’s nothing like the joy of wrestling a frozen halter in the pre-dawn hours of a frigid January morning or the simple pleasure of icy mud splashing over the top of your aging rubber boots. These are only small insights into the magical, elite world of winter horse care. Don’t take this the wrong way—I love what I do. I would not trade early morning, cave-man-style ice breaking for a cozy desk job any day.

As a horse person, I have a love/hate relationship with winter. I loathe the stone-bruise inducing frozen mud that seems to line every gate in every field, but I love the slower pace between show seasons and having the time to really focus on the details with my horses. Winter gives me time to think, time to problem solve and plan when I'm not balancing the hunter/jumper show schedule with the horse trials throughout the rest of the year.

I could tell you about all the wonderful, cymbal-clanging, epiphany moments I’ve had this winter, but one is tantamount to the rest. Winter sucks. I’m cold. My horses are cold. I’m not sure if my toes will ever not look like purple mini-hot dogs. I’ve wiped out on the ice walking down to do night check at 10 p.m. more times than I care to admit (you eventually learn to just go with it, hurts less if you don’t try to stop the inevitable).

And yet, at the end of the day, there still is nothing I would rather be doing. Now I realize that this could be accounted for by my lack of other marketable talents or generalized insanity, but I like to think it’s because I’ve made a choice. I decided not to just be a rider, but to be a horsewoman. It’s a pretty safe bet that I’ll never go to the Olympics, Badminton or Burghley as anything other than a spectator, but that’s not the sort of thing that motivates me to chisel the ice off my truck and head to the barn every morning. If it was, I would stay in bed.

For me it’s not about the ribbons, it’s about the horses. If and when you come to that point in your riding career, walking in the snow uphill both ways to the barn doesn’t seem so bad. But don’t get me wrong, winter still totally sucks. (Unless you’re in Florida…then I’m thinking winter is pretty rad.)

So as I recently removed the par-frozen squirrel carcass (think Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic) from the water trough on my day off, I thought to myself with more than a little sarcasm, "I really am living the dream."

I think every young rider who aspires to ride professionally should have to scrub a water trough in sub-freezing temperatures, after sumo-wrestling 7-inch thick chunks of ice off the sides (complete with our frozen friend, may he rest in peace). Because riding professionally is about problem solving. Even when the problems are really un-fun and sometimes a little icky, as a pro you’ve got to be the one to buckle down and get things done. Yes, there are those triumphant clear rounds on perfect spring show mornings, birds chirping and so forth, but they merely punctuate a calendar full of daily problem solving and horsemanship.

And the crazy part is—I love it. I mean, I feel clever when I devise a “wildlife escape ramp” (aka plank of wood found in the hay loft) to prevent future squirrel drownings. So despite frozen toes and my ever-increasing desire to hibernate until May, I’ll keep defrosting halters and chipping away at water troughs until the northern Virginia permafrost thaws.

Chronicle blogger and hunter/jumper trainer Paige Cade works at Tebogo Sport Horses, a facility in Delaplane, Va., devoted to the re-training and sales of off-the-track Thoroughbreds.

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