By Lora Goerlich
There is nothing more magical than dashing through powdery snow-covered trails while curtains of snow crystals descend slowly amidst the crisp, calm air. The hallmarks of an enchanting winter aesthetic also create hazards for horses and riders not only on the trail and at parking areas but also traveling to the trail
Trail riders who board at facilities with direct access to bridle trails and those living within riding distance to bridle trails are the fortunate ones, because not having to trailer means fewer things to worry about. Trailering horses in winter comes with inherent risks. Not to mention the elevated chances of corrosion from road salt eating away at steel trailers and chassis components. Let us examine a few major preparation considerations for winter riding.
Are the roads passable with a truck and trailer? State routes, and city roads are usually the priority followed by county and township roads. Planning travel routes carefully is critical because even plowed roads might attract drifting snow, black ice and slush laced with salt. Four-wheel drive vehicles have limitations while towing a trailer; it is not recommended because it can damage the towing vehicle’s drivetrain. 4WD should be reserved for assisting on undesirable short stretches of mud, sand, or snow at low speeds.
Is the trailer accessible or is it snowed in with frozen chains, coupler, and jack stand? If winter riding is on your radar, maintain a trailer parking place close to a plowed or shoveled area and in an area that is protected by prevailing winds to prevent it from being buried in snowdrifts. On stock trailers be sure all trailer ties are removed before winter to avoid having to thaw the snaps before loading horses. Do not forget to grease all movable parts such as safety chains and jack stands. Also, keeping the box interior clean prevents urine saturated bedding and manure from freezing, both of which are difficult for horses to balance on while traveling; remember to add fresh bedding before each trip.
Is the park open? Some parks close seasonally to help prevent trail widening during freeze/thaw cycles and some close throughout all or parts of hunting season. In addition to that, in extreme winter weather events it has become common for counties to impose driving restrictions. If roads are closed, parks will be closed. Riders who live adjacent to trails should never enter public land/parks that are closed during snow/weather emergencies.
Is the parking area plowed and ready for riders? Keep in mind, plowed parking areas will typically have a reduced number of spaces available. They may also generate icy conditions as smoothed out snow thaws then re-freezes. And in the spring, the area may hold water and ice as the snow mounds from the plow accumulations melt.
On the Trail – Throughout the season, wintery weather can generate excessive amounts of freezing rain, followed by large accumulations of snow that masterfully conceal hazards such as downed trees, tree limbs, bodies of water and ice. In mountainous areas, tree well entrapment and avalanches can be added to the list of life-threatening expectations of winter trail use. The importance of always staying on designated trails cannot be emphasized enough.
Black Ice - Just like roadways, paved trails are prone to harboring hard to see icy stretches especially if the trail is plowed regularly. Compounding icy trails issue is the position of the earth’s axis during the winter months making the sun’s melting ability less effective in forested areas. Sections of asphalt or concrete that are maintained by plowing should be traveled with extreme caution; the potential for ice is ever looming. Paved surfaces without snow accumulation can also attract ice, especially after snow has melted or after rain.
More things to consider.
Trudging through deep snow can be hard on a horse especially when breaking trail. Be mindful of your horse’s condition throughout the ride and blanket a sweaty horse for the trip home. Has your horse been blanketed since the beginning of freezing weather? If so, it might be too cold for a ride outside of arena walls. Cross country skiing and snowshoeing are also popular snowy trail activities. The presence of either can be startling to horses who are unfamiliar with their shape, movement, and the noise from whooshing skis. Proper attire and layering with natural fibers such as wool, silk and RDS down, can make riding in wintry weather more comfortable with less bulk. Snow accumulation on the bottom of metal shod hooves can produce large, hard, ice balls making a horse prone to slipping, tripping, sole bruises, and abscessing.
The opportunities for a peaceful winter ride might be rare but with detailed pre-planning and safety awareness, it is possible to enjoy the solitude and magic of an impromptu ride on snow covered trails.
A horse trailer parking
area with exposed ice
Ice hidden under snow at parking areas is particularly dangerous while unloading or loading. A horse that has fallen on ice will have an exceedingly challenging time trying to get up and could suffer soft tissue, tendon, ligament damage and/or broken bones from crashing down on the ice, splaying out and thrashing while attempting to get up.
Muddy trail conditions are often worse in the winter especially during sporadic freeze thaw cycles. Mud poses two problems. First, riding muddy trails causes trail widening when riders navigate around the mucky tread. Second, and not so obvious - riding through mud creates craters that when frozen produce bone breaking depressions on the trail tread that are difficult to traverse.
An east-west rail trail harboring black ice.
A paved rail trail with ice under the snow.
Road Crossings – Wherever bridle trails intersect plowed streets, snow mounds will build up. Like mud, stepping into the heap of hard crusted snow can have unexpected consequences. A whole slew of unknowns could be hidden in snow mounds, from vehicle parts to frozen animal carcasses. Stepping down from a frozen mound to pavement can be tricky too, especially if the pavement is wet or icy.
Thick, hard snow blocking a horse trail crossing.