The big freeze

Stay­ing com­pet­i­tive when tem­per­a­tures plum­met in Bri­tain is a chal­lenge. But what about if you live some­where where -20°C is the norm? Lucy El­der meets the riders fac­ing the big freeze


How riders across the globe cope when tem­per­a­tures plum­met

ACLICHÉ maybe, but how of­ten has half an inch of snow brought much of Bri­tain to a stand­still? While it takes more than the odd frozen wa­ter trough and a few chilblains to put off the ded­i­cated rider — af­ter all, horses do not hi­ber­nate — even the most hardy eques­trian has the odd moment where they find it hard to find mo­ti­va­tion on a dark win­ter’s night.

But for parts of the world where win­ter means tem­per­a­tures of -20°C and feet of snow, how do riders keep go­ing?

Win­ter in Canada is a se­ri­ous busi­ness and in­door fa­cil­i­ties are a must for eques­tri­ans who stay there year-round.

Maddy Rid­dle is based in Sher­wood Park, Al­berta, and has two horses cur­rently jump­ing at grand prix as well as a hand­ful of young­sters.

Win­ters here are typ­i­cally cold — around -15°C to -30°C with a lot of snow — but the mer­cury has dipped as low as -57°C and wind chill is also a ma­jor fac­tor. How­ever bad the weather, the horses need ex­er­cise and Maddy still man­ages to ride six days a week.

“They jump typ­i­cally three days per week, in­clud­ing one gym­nas­tic day, one course day, and the third de­pends on what they need to work on,” she ex­plains.

An in­door horse walker and tread­mill are also key to keep­ing her horses fit and well.

“The big­gest chal­lenge I find in the win­ter is bore­dom — for me and the horses,” she adds. “It’s hard to mix things up and when the horses get bored, they get play­ful and naughty and cre­ate their own fun. I like to make sure they are turned loose in the arena ideally once per week, so they can let the bucks out on good, non-frozen foot­ing.

“Turnout can be tricky — I leave the young horses bare­foot dur­ing the win­ter so they can go out more read­ily as there is less risk of them slip­ping, but the grand prix horses are fully shod through­out win­ter so if it’s icy out, they don’t get turned out much.

“I also don’t turn out [when it’s] be­low -20°C — be­ing in full work year-round means they are all fully clipped and once it gets be­low -20°C it’s a lit­tle too chilly even with blan­kets on.”

Maddy says keep­ing a jour­nal is a use­ful way to keep mo­ti­vated and plan from week to week to help in­clude some va­ri­ety. She rec­om­mends clin­ics early on in the win­ter so you know what to work on — and how to work on it — at home.

“On the rare beau­ti­ful day that’s not too cold with soft fresh snow, tak­ing them for a hack out­side is a great work­out,” she adds. “There are some in­door shows that we can at­tend: Spruce Mead­ows has an Oc­to­ber and March se­ries, as well as the Royal West in Calgary late Oc­to­ber. Lots of Cana­di­ans head south down to Cal­i­for­nia or Florida for the win­ter cir­cuit, so there are def­i­nitely op­tions to get out and keep the horses com­pet­ing.

“I per­son­ally like to let the horses have a rest in the late fall; my sea­son is typ­i­cally over by mid-Septem­ber/early Oc­to­ber. Then as the show sea­son ap­proaches, I re­fo­cus on the jump­ing, get­ting the horses jump­ing-fit.

“The big­gest thing they are lack­ing come spring is car­dio­vas­cu­lar fit­ness. I try to do 20-minute can­ter ses­sions weekly, but it’s pretty repet­i­tive and gets bor­ing quickly, so as soon as the ground thaws, it’s im­por­tant to get them out and gal­lop­ing to re­gain that car­dio.”

OLYMPIC dres­sage rider Belinda Trus­sell is head­ing into her first win­ter at home in Canada for a num­ber years fol­low­ing sev­eral stints in Florida seek­ing qual­i­fi­ca­tions for ma­jor cham­pi­onships.

“I only go to Florida if I have a pur­pose, such as I need to qual­ify for some­thing or get points for the up­com­ing sea­son — I base my de­ci­sion around that,” she ex­plains. “For many, many years I re­mained in Canada through the win­ter. If you are able to go to some­where warmer, it is just more pleas­ant. A lot of peo­ple don’t have those op­tions and so you just deal with what you have in front of you and make the best of it what­ever the sit­u­a­tion.”

Belinda has lived and rid­den across the world and has rep­re­sented Canada at nu­mer­ous cham­pi­onships, in­clud­ing the Rio

2016 and Athens 2004 Olympics as well as three World Eques­trian Games.

She is based north of Toronto, On­tario, in a town called Stouf­fville, where the av­er­age win­ter tem­per­a­ture is around -10°C com­bined with heavy snow. But it is when the tem­per­a­ture warms up that it can cause the most prob­lems.

“We don’t like it to hover around zero be­cause that’s when we get ice — ice is the killer as you just re­ally can­not go out­side,” she warns.

While there are some in­door shows through the win­ter in Canada, much of Belinda’s work is train­ing. Ex­er­cise blan­kets, heat lamps in the sta­bles and tak­ing time to fo­cus on the warm-up and cool-down from school­ing ses­sions cor­rectly are among the ways she keeps horses train­ing safely through the colder months.

“I start slowly — don’t take them in the arena and go for a gal­lop — I lis­ten to the noise they make when they are breath­ing, it is a dif­fer­ent sound when you start work­ing them [in the cold air un­til they are warmed up] — and when I hear that go, I in­crease the work,” she says.

Clients still travel to her yard for les­sons, but Belinda stresses that they do not take any risks if the weather looks set to turn bad — be­ing in a real snow­storm is like be­ing inside a “shaken snow­globe”.

But snow­banks on the edges of the roads are the norm — it takes around five inches of snow com­ing down at a time to dis­rupt nor­mal busi­ness in the coun­try.

“The vets and the far­ri­ers are such tough peo­ple — I have never had a sit­u­a­tion where they have can­celled [be­cause of the weather],” she says.

MEAN­WHILE jet­ting off to Florida sounds like heaven when the al­ter­na­tive is -20°C and frozen sep­tic tanks — “it was back­ing up and there was noth­ing that could be done” — but it is far from a hol­i­day for most riders.

As well as pack­ing up a busi­ness, clients, a yard, horses and pre­par­ing for the mul­ti­tude of classes to make the trip worth­while; there are im­mi­gra­tion and visa laws to com­ply with and fluc­tu­a­tions in ex­change rates. Riders also have to take into ac­count the hold-ups weather and sim­ply trav­el­ling with horses can throw up when work­ing out how long to stay away.

For the first time in many years, top Cana­dian showjumper Ains­ley Vince will be re­main­ing in Canada over the win­ter.

“It will be an un­known ex­pe­ri­ence!” laughs Ains­ley, who is adding an in­door arena to her state-of-the-art base in South­ern On­tario ready for the win­ter months.

While it may not ex­pe­ri­ence weeks of -20°C, the north­ern­most tip of Scot­land’s main­land ex­pe­ri­ences its fair share of tough win­ter weather. In the dark­est depths of win­ter, mem­bers of the Caith­ness branch of the Pony Club can ex­pect to see just six hours of day­light. How­ever, dis­trict com­mis­sioner Linda Ram­soy re­veals it takes more than a bit of cold weather to put off its mem­bers.

“We are an ac­tive branch and es­pe­cially so in the win­ter when the show sea­son is over,” Linda says. “We al­ter­nate ev­ery sec­ond week with Caith­ness Rid­ing Club, so there is in­struc­tion or a com­pe­ti­tion most week­ends through­out the win­ter.”

In­struc­tors do fly up to teach the branch, but dur­ing the win­ter they mostly use train­ers within driv­ing dis­tance in case bad weather — or more com­monly, high winds — force can­cel­la­tions.

“We know Eng­land has its fair share of mud and rain,” Linda laughs. “Here on the east side of Scot­land it is drier than the west. We can get snowed in so we leave out cars at the end of the road.

“There is a big dis­tance from one side of the county to the other — we tend to meet at half­way points but the weather can be very dif­fer­ent, so we text each other and de­cide whether the rally or com­pe­ti­tion is go­ing to go ahead or not.”

‘I like to make sure they get turned loose in the arena ideally once per week, so they can let the

bucks out on good, non-frozen foot­ing’

Belinda Trus­sell’s Rio ride An­ton is turned out in a snowy pad­dock near Toronto, where the av­er­age tem­per­a­ture in win­ter is -10˚c, with heavy snow

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