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January 6, 2017 Winter Trail Riding, Lessons Learned

On January 2, Pete, (husband) our friend Cath (another Synergist Saddle owner), and I rode the Grizzly Camp Loop, an eight-mile trail that winds its way through the nearby Alaska Matanuska Moose Range. I’m now writing about our ride in hindsight, in hopes that other winter trail riders might better prepare themselves for the unforeseen.

We’d planned on leaving our place at noon and doing the entire loop. Beforehand, I did agility with our three Icelandic mares. Cath arrived at 12:30. We then mulled over our ride options. We considered going for a shorter ride, but because it was on Cath’s way home, we opted to do the lengthier loop ride. We set out at 1:00 p.m. The temperature at our place was

5°F. Our total ride time, with a break for tea at Cath’s was 4 hours.

I rode Raudi, age 13, Pete rode Tinni, age 27, and Cath rode Amigo, age 15. We don’t ride the Grizzly Loop Trail in the summer anymore because it’s swampy and has been trashed by ATVers. However, we do to ride the frozen winter trail. Pete and I had ridden this loop a week before, and found it to be rutted and punchy. We’d gotten a four-inch snowfall two days previously, and presumed that the snowmobilers had packed it down.

We were in some ways prepared. Our horses have ice shoes, which enable them to walk on icy surfaces, as well as rim pads, which keep snow from building up in their soles. We attach lead ropes to the D-rings on our saddles, so if need be, we can tie the horses to trees. I carry a hoof pick and Pete has a knife holder on his saddle, which (you never know) could come in handy. In addition, I was carrying a headlight, should we be on the trail or road home after dark.

We moved out at a fast clip. Cath rode out front on her long-strided Rocky Mountain horse and Pete and I followed on our short-strided Icelandics. We came to an ice-covered pond that was coved with overflow, and a mile up trail, crossed an icy creek. Five miles into it and we arrived at the area that I call the Forest Primeval. I kept a close eye on Ryder, our border collie because trapping is allowed in this area. The trail winds through this dark, low lying area - lichen hangs in strands on the trees, giving it an ominous feeling. I estimated the temperature in this area was -5°F.

The ride through the adjacent Moose Meadows was breathtaking – we crossed open fields, fields ringed by both the nearby Talkeetna and the Chugach Ranges. The snowcapped peaks were pink and orange in color. We picked up the pace for the trail, now flatter, was less punchy.

Two hours after starting out, we arrived at Cath’s place. We untacked our horses and put them in Cath’s spare corral, of course making sure that they had access to hay and water. We removed our own gear in her heated garage, went upstairs and drank tea and ate cookies. An hour later, Pete and I saddled up our horses and headed in the direction of home.

We took a nearby cutoff to trail to the residential road that leads back to our place. Pete and I were three miles distant from home. The sun sets around 3:30 and is light until around 5 p.m. in the first part of January. The spruce and birch trees were backlit by the setting sun. We urged our horses into a trot, with Raudi and I doing trot/canter transitions.

We arrived home and immediately tended to the horses. Pete blanketed Tinni and put him in the three-sided shelter. I gave him three flakes of hay and a five-gallon bucket of warm water. I left Raudi unblanketed and turned her out with our two younger Icelandics. I gave all the ponies additional hay at 7 and 11 p.m. Neither were shivering. Tinni was dry all over, Raudi was a little damp in front.

I noted at 7:00 a.m. the following morning (feeding time) that Raudi was coughing. It wasn’t a heavy, constant cough, but rather a soft, dry, every-so-often cough. I removed Tinni’s blanket, put a dry blanket on Raudi, and swapped both horses out. Raudi entered the shelter area and dove into Tinni’s remaining hay. Tinni joined the mares who were in the paddock, eating what he thought was their share of his early morning breakfast.

Raudi was fine by 10 a.m. However, her cough, as slight as it was, was a wake-up call, that prompted me to run the previous day’s events through my mind. The above story (minus certain details) is the one that I’ll tell friends. What follows are the additional details that I’ll pass on to other winter horseback riders. These, on my part, are lessons learned.

Pete, Cath, and I left our place later than we should have. Had we talked the night before about our plans, we would have started out earlier and/or done a shorter route. We instead did a route that required a bit more foresight and preparation.

Also, I wasn’t dressed for a long ride. Beforehand, I’d taken off my heavy duty one-piece Refrigerware suit and donned a down coat and nylon overalls. For this reason, I began feeling chilled a short way from home. My directional judgement (which has always been suspect) remained unaffected. The trail was clearly marked and I was riding behind Cath and Pete. But early on, my common sense judgement made me physically and mentally inflexible. I dismounted Raudi and walked her across the pond overflow. Cath warned me – and she was right-- walking through overflow is a bad idea if you are, as I was, wearing moose hide Mukluks. I remounted on the far side of the creek. My rationalization for continuing on was that my feet weren’t wet, just damp. And I continued to downplay the fact that after a bit my toes felt like ice cubes.

My fingers didn’t fare so well, either. I was wearing fingerless gloves with polypropylene liners. This set-up is great when dealing with halter buckles and lead line snaps. And the combo also enables one to maintain a light contact on the reins. However, as I realized way out on the trail, the best gloves to have on hand are thick, leather, wool-lined Smartwool gloves. I’d forgotten that I had a pair stashed in my saddle bags. I’d also forgotten to put my head liner under my helmet. Add to all this -- heavy snow fell off the spruce boughs and trickled down my back. Brrrr.

I was carrying treats, and every so often rewarded Raudi, for instance, for moving in a slow, deliberate, and sure-footed manner across a narrow icy creek bridge. But I did not (as I should have) brought energy bars along or a thermos of hot tea along for me. But we could and should have done more on their behalf. We weren’t carrying blankets. Tinni has a fleece rump rug that he won in a Competitive Trail Ride (he got the senior horse award) and Raudi has a nifty Cordura/fleece-lined blanket. Both can easily be tied on the back of our saddles.

The horses frosted up on the home stretch. We asked them to move out because the temperature was dropping and it was getting dark. Had we left Cath’s sooner, we could have walked the final three miles home. We did right by Tinni by putting a blanket on him, giving him his own space in the three- sided shelter, and giving him a lot of hay. But we didn’t do right by Raudi. We should also have put a blanket on her, and given her a shelter space. A wet coat is analogous to our wearing a pair of wet wool mittens. Wet wool horsehair also retains cold.

I’ve considered clipping Raudi and Tinni’s chests but after much deliberation decided against this. They would dry off faster after a ride. However, blankets mat down hair, which when it stands up retains warmer air. I also fear that our horses, which are all out together, might get tangled up in a strap. This did happen once at our place. I came home late one night and discovered that Mr. Siggi had gotten his leg over Tinni’s rear leg strap. Both remained standing in place until I got home and unbuckled the strap.

I’m going to do all the above before, during, and after a ride. I am fortunate that it was a simple cough and not a full-blown case of pneumonia that brought all this to mind.

Next: 7. 1/7/17: The Writing Life: The Kerry Dancer

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