With temperatures plummeting and the nights drawing in, Andrea Oakes asks grooms how they make winter work — and keep motivation levels up
Oscar Mayhew-Sanders, showjumper Tim Stockdale‘s show groom
“We try to organise things so that every job is easier,” says Oscar. “There’s nothing worse than waking up in the morning and knowing you’ll be cold, but if you keep yourself well-insulated and well-fed you’ll be better able to look after the horses.
“We also make the atmosphere as positive as we can,” adds Oscar, referring to the mid-winter slump that many of us experience. “Motivational levels can soon drop. Good lighting really helps so we make the indoor school as bright as possible, and we turn up the radio.
“Our fields are on a hill and drain well, so some of the horses can go out. However, those competing internationally tend not to. They’re on the horse-walker in the morning, before being ridden at midday and coming out again to hand-graze in the afternoon.
“When we finish at 5.30pm, we leave the horses well rugged-up and with plenty of hay,” he adds, revealing that some have stable toys to beat any boredom.
Tim’s horseshoe-shaped yard is sheltered, with brick stables that stay relatively warm in winter. Waterers are automatic, pipes are lagged and there’s a heated washroom with a solarium. If it sounds a bit cushy, remember that winter coats don’t clip themselves.
“With 20 horses we’re clipping at least one a day – if not more,” says Oscar, who claims that this itchy task is the mainstay of winter management.
Claire Hinton, groom for Olympic dressage rider Spencer Wilton
“When I worked with eventers, on an outdoor yard, it was impossible to keep everything tidy in winter,” recalls Claire. “I hate a messy yard, so sweeping over snow was my worst nightmare.”
With the luxury of indoor stabling, Claire only has to venture outside now to visit the muckheap.
“I am a very lucky groom,” she laughs. “It’s tempting to shut all the doors and windows to make it really warm and cosy, but I’m a big believer in ventilation so I’d sooner put an extra rug on a horse.”
A dryer makes easy work of one winter bugbear: wet horses.
“They love standing under the dryer for 20 minutes,” says Claire. “If I put Super Nova [Spencer’s Olympic horse] under there too often, though, it makes his skin dry. He’s very sensitive, so I often let him dry naturally.
“Hot towelling is good for a sweaty horse,” she adds. “I add a capful of Dettol to a bucket of hand-warm water, before using a face towel or a flannel to rub the horse all over. He’ll need a cooler rug on to dry, but it’s easier to brush him off later – especially around the head.”
Anna Mildner, head girl for eventer Izzy Taylor
Winter is especially hands-on for Anna. The event horses may be out on their holidays, but she oversees a yardful of hunters.
“I look like the Michelin man,” says Anna, who piles on the layers. “I buy cheap and cheerful woolly gloves, as they always go missing or get holes, and wear a hat and ear-warmers. I love my Woof Wear boots, which are really warm.”
With no horsewalker, there’s a lot of hacking — a winter activity that many owners find hair-raising.
“We vary the horses’ routines so that they’re not too fresh,” says Claire, who avoids busy times on the road such as rush hours and school runs. “We work them in the field as well as the school, and try not to hack around the same route each time.
“My other trick is to do all the clipping in one go, before heading indoors for a shower. I keep a ‘clipping coat’ and wear a scarf to stop stray hairs going down my neck.”
Anna finds that rugs with damp outers dry better if left on the horses, rather than hanging up in the yard. She also uses pig oil on the hunters’ legs in the field, to stop mud sticking.
“Plain, cold water is best for washing muddy legs, rather than any shampoo,” she says. “It’s important not to kill off the natural defences in the skin.”
Debbie Carpenter, professional freelance groom
The best defence against the cold is to keep busy, according to professional freelance groom Debbie Carpenter.
“Cups of tea and proper footwear help,” she says. “My Le Chameau boots are my pride and joy.”
Debbie enjoys mucking out – it’s a chance to stand on the warm muckheap for five minutes – but wears gloves to stop her hands freezing to the pitchfork. She also has some top turn-out tips.
“Horses can go crazy in a cold frost and lose a shoe,” she says. “Putting hay in the field before you turn them out, or taking their breakfast down with you, can ease them into the field routine.
“I’m careful not to over-rug, as a hot horse can sometimes roll and get cast in his stable,” adds Debbie, who checks the forecast every day. “You can always add a layer, or put a hood on if the horse is cold.
“The darkness is difficult, but I also hate smashing ice on the field trough. When we had eventers, in the Cotswolds, we had to whip off our gloves and plunge our hands into the freezing water to remove chunks of ice.”
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Kate Hort, who grooms for eventer Alex Hua Tian
Kate says: “The worst thing is the mud – it gets everywhere. You can’t put boots on muddy legs. We give them a thorough wash with hot water and use plenty of towels to dry them afterwards.
“We also use petroleum jelly on the horses’ heels,” she adds. “You can buy lotions and potions, but this creates a really good barrier.”
The yard solarium doubles up as a rug drier, as Kate hangs wet turnouts there for five minutes once a horse has vacated the heat lamps. She’s also resourceful with her footwear.
“Cold, wet feet are the worst, so my vital piece of winter equipment is a plastic shopping bag on each foot as a boot liner,” she explains. “Fingerless gloves are another essential, as I’m always taking gloves off to undo something and losing them. Maybe I need mittens on a string.
“We have a hot lunch in our kitchenette, which has a plug-in radiator, but if it’s too nice and warm it’s hard to get going again,” adds Kate. “I think the best way to beat winter is just to get on with it. The next season comes along so quickly.”