With snow forecast for some parts of the UK later this week, Lottie Butler finds out how to get prepared and avoid a total lock-down
Snow on a crisp winter’s day can be beautiful and picturesque when it first falls, but all too quickly becomes hazardous and frustrating, and can make simple stable tasks a real chore.
However, with a bit of preparation, snow needn’t cause a total lock-down.
For event rider Louisa Milne Home, based in the hills above Milnathort in Scotland, dealing with snow is a regular occurrence in winter, but something that doesn’t impact on her training schedule too much. “We’re up at 690ft, so if it snows, it will be here,” she says.
“As such, I like to have the horses back in work earlier than most to account for lost days. It means that, when they do have days off due to snow, it’s quite a nice break for them.”
Louisa — and a few other riders based in colder climes — tell us how they keep going through the snow.
Don’t delay — clear, then grit
The biggest problem with snow is when it compacts and turns to ice. Ice is a serious slipping hazard for horse and human alike, and much harder to get rid of. Clearing the snow first thing isn’t a particularly appealing job, but it should be a priority.
“We always get the snow shovels out first thing to clear paths to the stables, the horse walker, the muck heap and the fields, and then we salt it immediately. You have to do it straight away because as soon as you walk on it, you compact it to ice,” says Louisa. “We use rock salt on the yard, but table salt on the horse walker to avoid damaging the rubber flooring. After we use the walker, we always sweep and salt it again so the muck doesn’t freeze to the surface. It’s a lot of work, but worth it.”
Similarly, be careful when there’s a thick frost — it can be just as dangerous as snow. “We always ensure we have plenty of grit — it keeps for years and it’s always better to have it in stock rather than have to chase around for it when you desperately need it,” says Jenny Levett, wife of eventer Bill.
Protect your water supply
Frozen water pipes can cause havoc with the stable routine — over the winter months, make sure you keep water pipes well insulated. Similarly, ensure that you drain hoses and put them away after use so they don’t freeze up over night. Filling up water containers the night before and storing them indoors is a good backup option.
Some stables are equipped with heaters: “We have automatic drinkers that have an electric heat cable placed up the pipes to stop the drinkers freezing,” explains Louisa. “Water from these is also generally tepid, which is better for the horses.”
However, in the absence of water heaters, make sure you break the ice on water troughs at least twice a day. You can save your hands by using a pitchfork or a strong plastic colander to scoop out the ice chunks. Alternatively, try leaving a football in the tank to stop it from re-freezing. For horses reluctant to drink icy water, you can top up their buckets with warm water to take the chill off.
Turn out when you can…
“Unless it’s blowing a blizzard, try to keep turning your horse out,” advises Dani Sussman, an eventer based in Colorado. “Horses are better off keeping to their routine, and often love a roll in some fresh snow.” While we may want to stay tucked up inside, horses used to turn-out will almost always prefer to be in the field. “Some of our younger or older horses get left out all year with a field shelter, and they’re as fat as butter with just hay!” says Louisa.
However, do note that the extra weight of snow can cause branches to fall into paddocks or damage fencing, as well as covering up hazardous icy patches. Be sure to check the field thoroughly, and make sure there is shelter available. In addition, make sure that, if your horses are turned out full-time, you can still reach them in the snow. “We always position a supply of hay and haylage near the fields before the snow comes,” advises Jenny.
…but if you can’t…
There will be occasions when you just can’t turn out safely. “About five years ago, we had snow about a foot deep,” says Grace Moran, an amateur eventer based in Scotland. “Our poor Shetland got so depressed going out that we kept him stabled for a few days. He couldn’t really move around in that depth of snow!”
If you can’t turn out, try to make sure the horses get a chance to stretch their legs — even just a walk in hand if it is safe to do so. “Nothing is worse than trying to turn horses out the after they have been locked inside for 24 hours and telling them to ‘gingerly’ walk across the snow and ice to the paddock. They are like kites!” says Dani.
Note that, if there is a hard frost, horses that suffer from laminitis shouldn’t be turned out. Frosted grass is high in fructans, which can cause laminitis in prone horses.
“Generally, fluffy, powdery snow is good for riding on, but if you can make a snowball from it, it will compact in the horses’ feet and they’ll be walking on platforms,” says Louisa. “When the snow is right, trotting and cantering through the fields is a great workout for the horses — it’s a bit like a water treadmill.” American eventer Sharon White agrees. “And the cold is great for their tendons and ligaments — just like icing after a tough workout!”
However, be cautious when riding in the snow. Make sure you know your path and what might be hiding underneath. You can help prevent snow balling up in your horse’s shoes by applying Vaseline to the hoof. Even so, have a hoof pick handy for when you get back to a hard surface — just in case.
If you are doing lots of riding in the snow, consider your horse’s footwear. “The horses that live outside full time at our facility have snow pads on for the winter,” says Dani. “These rubber pads fit under the shoe and have a raised rubber rim that lines the inside of the shoe. They prevent the snow from balling up and give the horse more traction.”
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Sometimes, it’s just not worth the risk of riding out. It’s not just you and the horse on the roads. “We avoid hacking unless the road is black and dry — we don’t want to risk injuries or bruised feet,” says Louisa. If you can’t ride out, stick to the sand school where possible. “We clear a track in our school and then work the horses there. We try to keep them moving and maintain a routine as much as possible,” adds Jenny.
“Good hay will keep horses warm and their stomachs happy,” says Sharon. The process of digesting forage produces a lot of heat.
And for humans a suitable winter wardrobe is essential to getting through the winter, and layers are key. “I never go anywhere without a nice padded gilet. I keep it on all day everyday and it is a great layer. I am also a big fan of woollen base layers,” says Louisa.
You can also buy polar breeches to add a layer to your legs, and don’t forget a good pair of gloves and boots.