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