Sunday, February 15, 2015

Conditioning during the winter

There are worse places to live in the winter than northern Virginia.  In general winters here are quite manageable.  I think our average snowfall is 5 inches and temperatures rarely go below 20 at night.  During the day, temperatures are in the 40s and 50s for much of December through February and we usually have a few nicer days each month.  Occasionally, we do have winters with massive amounts of snowfall, like 20 plus inches at a time, but they are rare and they are countered with winters like the one we are having this year, where we really haven't gotten any snow at all.  We also do have a few really cold days that would count as winter in almost any climate, and today is one of those days.

Yesterday's high was 45 degrees, which was perfectly respectable, but as evening fell, the wind picked up and we got a Blitzkrieg of winter with a 30 minute blizzard and than gusts of wind up to 50 mph.  Apparently the winds were blowing from North Dakota (I'm being sarcastic - I don't know where they came from - maybe hell?, but my memories of winter in North Dakota basically scarred me for life and I compare all winters to those memories), and they brought single digit temperatures overnight.

I was left with quite the conundrum.  You may remember that I've been keeping Nimo out almost 24/7.  He just comes in to the barn to eat in the morning and the evening, but is otherwise in a 3-plus acre paddock with a 24x36 run-in shed.  During the day, he has 4 pasture-mates, but at night he is by himself.  This system has been working out pretty well all winter.  Until yesterday. 

Yesterday I rode out at Phelps Wildlife Management Area.  My original intent was to ride about 10 miles in as close to 2 hours as we could manage.  But, I realized pretty quickly into the ride that Nimo was going to work up quite a sweat at that pace.  I haven't clipped him because I discovered that he was totally fine without a blanket at all, even during the crappiest, wettest, coldest weather we've had, and I have to admit that the freedom I feel about not having to worry about which blanket to use is intoxicating.  Nimo can just be a horse and I don't have to spend several hundred dollars on a new wardrobe for him because he trashed all his sheets and blankets.

The problem comes into play when he works up a sweat and the temperature is cold.  For the most part, the work we've been doing has been slow enough this winter that he hasn't sweated much.  What little sweat he does generate is dry by the time we get back to the barn from wherever we've been riding (I put a fleece cooler on for the trailer trip home to wick the moisture and keep him warm).  But last weekend, when I rode with Saiph, Nimo was damp all over and absolutely not dry by the time we got back to the barn, despite almost 2 hours in the trailer.  I think I made a mistake by putting his regular sheet on instead of a fleece cooler and the sheet either didn't allow for enough evaporation or it made him too hot, so he kept sweating.  So I ended up spending all this time getting him dry once we got back to the barn.

But back to yesterday.  I knew we were expecting some kind of Arctic blast overnight, so I absolutely did not want Nimo to get very sweaty.  Even if I could get him dry, I've found that it can take a couple of days for the hair to "fluff" back up and regain its full insulation properties, even with lots of brushing.  Because we were expecting the coldest weather of the winter, I wanted to make sure he would be able to stay warm.

After my ride, Nimo was dry everywhere except under the saddle pad.  I put his cooler on him, but after the 25 minute ride back to the barn, he was still wet.  So, I left the cooler on while I chatted with people and unloaded the trailer and parked it.  But I felt like Nimo's back was still damp as was the girth area.  The temperature was at 45 degrees, and I had sworn to my husband that I would be home for the special Valentine's Day dinner he was going through a lot of trouble to make, so I decided to go ahead and turn Nimo out, go home for dinner, and then come back later that night after the temperature had cooled to reassess the blanketing and turnout situation.

After a lovely steak dinner with green beans, mashed potatoes, dinner rolls, and apple pie, I grumpily headed back out to the barn to figure out what to do with my horse.  (I should note that my husband was remarkably understanding about the whole thing - I'm not sure how many husbands would appreciate an eat-and-run approach to a special dinner.)  Meanwhile, I debated various options in my head:
  1. Bring Nimo in for the night.  Pro:  He would be warm enough without a blanket no matter how cold it got because the barn would stay at least 10 degrees warmer than the outside temperature.  Con:  Nimo would be unhappy being cooped up all night.
  2. Put a blanket on Nimo for the night.  Pro:  He could stay outside and be happy.  Con:  I wasn't sure what weight of blanket to use.  Having not needed to blanket this winter, I hadn't developed a feel for how much of a blanket he would need.  Nimo has historically sweated under blankets, even sheets, and I worried that if I put a heavy blanket on, he would sweat, get chilled, and die of hypothermia by morning.  On the other hand, if I used too light of a blanket, and it suppressed his ability to use piloerection to warm himself, he could get chilled, and die of hypothermia by morning.
  3. Do nothing.  Pro:  Nimo could stay outside and be happy.  Con:  If Nimo didn't use the run-in shed, the wind combined with the predicted snow could cause him to get chilled and die of hypothermia by morning.  (If you haven't noticed, dying of hypothermia is something I worry about - this is because I grew up in North Dakota, where your skin can literally freeze in seconds if not covered and dying from exposure is not out of the question if you get stranded or dress inappropriately.)
As it turned out, when I got to the barn, I saw my beloved (and smart) horse happily munching on hay in the run-in shed.  At first, I thought I might just bring more hay to the run-in shed so he could stay in there all night to eat (there are round bales out in the paddock for the horses to eat, but nothing to eat in the run-in shed).  But the wind...It wasn't just windy outside.  It was dangerously windy outside.  While 20 mph winds can make the temperature feel much colder than it is, gusts up to 50 mph bring a whole new dimension.  Just FYI, if the temperature is 10 degrees and the wind is 50 mph, the "feels like" temperature is -17.  And negative temperatures are well out of the range of normal for any winter here.

So, I ended up bringing Nimo into the barn for the night.  He was seriously unhappy, but I couldn't blanket at that point, because his back was wet from the brief blizzard we'd already gotten (he apparently didn't go into the run-in shed right away) and I was still struggling with which blanket to use anyway.  The actual temperature was still 30 degrees at that point, but projected to drop at least 20 degrees overnight.  That meant that a blanket that would be warm enough for 10 degrees might be too much at 30 degrees (see the sweating, getting chilled, dying of hypothermia problem above).  My head kind of hurt, and I admit to being completely exhausted, so feeling a little guilty, I dumped a bunch of hay in Nimo's stall, made sure the heated water bucket was working, and headed home.

This morning, I got up at 6:30 to go out into the death trap Mother Nature had set to check on Nimo.  Typically, the barn staff doesn't come out until 8 am on Sunday mornings, and in my opinion, that is too late for horses that have been in since 5 the day before.  It starts getting light at 6:30, so I wanted to be out at the barn shortly after 7 to re-assess the blanketing/turnout situation.  So, I fished my real winter parka out of the back of the closet and headed out to the barn.  (I don't think I've worn it since Snowmageddon 4 or 5 years ago, when we once had 36 inches of snow on the ground, low temperatures, and 60-70 mph winds.  I felt compelled to check on Nimo that day and had to hike in the last half-mile to the barn because the barn crew couldn't keep up with plowing the driveway with the wind constantly blowing.  My truck is pretty good in snow, but I would rather walk a bit than get stuck.  I remember having our dog, a German Shepherd who considers 40 degrees too warm, with me, and at one point, she crawled into a snow drift and wouldn't budge - it was too miserable even for her.  That is the only day in the 14 years I've lived in northern Virginia that I decided Nimo didn't need to be turned out...)

Nimo was looking fit and healthy (and definitely not hypothermic!), but he clearly was unhappy being in.  I had brought his mid-weight Rambo blanket (amazing how getting sleep improved my decision-making abilities) and put it on him after he finished his breakfast.  He was thrilled to get outside even when he discovered the crazy wind and seemed perfectly happy being out.

I decided to clean his stall because it looked like 16 horses had spent the night in it, and I felt bad inflicting that on the barn staff when they were going to have to be out in terrible weather all day (expected high 23 degrees with continuation of crazy wind).  Plus, that would give Nimo time to be out in his blanket for a bit, so I could check to see if he was getting too hot or shivering before I left.  I had other blankets out at the barn that I could use if I needed to.

So about the time that my legs felt like they were going to freeze right off my body, I had the stall cleaned and had determined that the blanket seemed like it would work.  Nimo was happily eating hay out in the paddock and the wind didn't seem to bother him at all.  I left just as the barn staff were getting there and I wished them luck staying warm because even working in the barn with all the doors and windows closed was challenging.

Anyway, I'm writing this post because I wanted to document my frustration with trying to condition Nimo through the winter to prepare for an April ride (Foxcatcher 25 in Fair Hill, Maryland on April 11).  I feel torn between body clipping so that we can condition at a faster pace without having all the sweat to deal with and letting Nimo keep his coat so he doesn't have to wear a blanket.  In the past, when I've body clipped him for the winter, I did enjoy Nimo not being covered in mud all the time and the shorter cool-down times.  But, I haven't found a brand of blanket yet that doesn't start causing shoulder and mane rubs about 6 weeks into the process.  One compromise that I've tried is body-clipping at the beginning of February.  By then, we usually don't have too much real winter left, and I can expect to spend about 2 months worrying about blanketing before spring arrives and we often have nice warm days, especially in March.

This winter seems different, though.  We just aren't getting the warmer days and the forecast for the next 10 days shows even the high temperatures not getting above freezing for almost all the days.  Nimo hasn't started shedding at all yet, even though he frequently starts in January, which leads me to believe he senses that he needs his winter coat for a little longer.

And this year is different because I'm not normally trying to condition for a 25-30 mile ride.  I feel like I need to start ramping up our ride miles and pace, but I worry about all the sweating if I don't clip.  I'm curious to know what other people do for the winter in terms of keeping their horses fit as well as blanketing, clipping, and turnout.  So, please feel free to leave a comment with how you handle conditioning in the winter:)

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Riding with Saiph, part deux

You may remember that I first rode with Saiph last February at the Manassas Battlefield (and if you do, you are way ahead of me, because when Saiph told me that's when it was, I couldn't believe it had been almost a year!).  We had been meaning to get together for a ride in December out in her neck of the woods, i.e. Maryland, but then there was a bit of excitement going on in Saiph's life, with a barbed wire cut for Lily, a concussion for Saiph, and some neurological testing for Gracie.  We decided to postpone our ride until Saiph and Lily were both healed.  We were finally able to get together this past Saturday out at the Rachel Carson Conservation Park.

The weather has been generally crappy this winter.  Nothing like what New England is getting, of course, but it's been dreary and gray and wet and chilly for weeks and weeks and weeks, without the usual 2-3 day bursts of warm, sunny weather that we usually get each month.  Which is why I got pretty excited when I saw the temperature was supposed to hit 50 on Saturday.  I imagined warm sunshine and spring crocuses (crocusi?) blooming and a general feeling of spring in the air.  Apparently the entire state of Maryland did not get the same forecast I did, because it was still dreary and chilly when I pulled into the parking lot at 11 am.  Also, I would like to note that while my trip involved traveling on I-66, which typically backs up at some point or other due to poor design and just too many damn people, and the Beltway (I-95 bypass that goes around Washington, DC), the most challenging part of the trip was the last two turns where there were no street signs to indicate the name of the road.  This irresponsible road signage is also common in Virginia where I live, so it didn't confuse me as much as it might have newcomer, but I did have to use the parking lot of a florist to turn around at one point:)

I texted Saiph to let her know I was at the parking lot, so she and Charles (her husband) could ride over from where Lily and Gracie are kept a short distance away.  Meanwhile, I made sure Nimo got something to eat after his hour and 50 minute trailer ride and then got him saddled up.  The logistics worked well because just as I was getting ready to get on Nimo, Saiph and Charles were in sight.  You can just see my rig with Nimo next to it in the picture below.  (Note: Almost all the pictures in this post were taken by Charles and Saiph who were kind enough to share them with me because I truly suck at taking pictures on rides.  The only picture I did take was somehow accidentally a one-second video of Saiph talking about something completely random.)

Photo by Saiph
We quickly greeted each other and got under way.  I have to admit that I was pretty excited about the ride because Saiph and Lily have done a couple of 50-mile endurance rides, and I know they condition at a pretty good pace.  Nimo and I tend to lack a little discipline on the pace front, so having someone push us a bit was a great way to start ramping up our conditioning work for the season.

I did have to laugh, though, because a short distance into our ride, we encountered a decent-sized creek that none of the horses wanted to cross, probably because there was a steep descent and some ice along the edge of the creek, but all three horses have plenty of experience crossing creeks.  After Lily refused to cross, Charles got off to break up the ice, but Gracie wouldn't cross.  So I tried to get Nimo to cross, and he clearly communicated that if 2 other horses wouldn't cross, who was he to argue with their logic?  So, I got off and eventually got him to go into the water on his own.  He still wouldn't cross under saddle, though, and the water was too deep for me to lead him through.  At this point, Lily had had enough of the delay and braved the icy creek, leading the other horses through.

We continued on our journey through mostly forest and Saiph did a great job leading us through the trails, which were not always marked well and barely visible in some places (I would have been food for wolves if I had been out there on my own).  We alternated which horse was leading every so often, with even Nimo leading a couple of times for short distances.

Photo by Charles

And we crossed a lot of water.

Photo by Saiph
Photo by Charles
Photo by Charles

And yes, that is a giant orange helmet cover on my helmet.  It looks ridiculous, but a friend got it for me for Christmas because I often ride in places where people might also be hunting and she didn't want me to get shoot.  I also don't want to get shot, so I wear it:)

Then we went through the Swamp of the Dead, or so Nimo thought it was called.  There was a large pond on one side and a swampy bog (yes, I get that swampy bog is redundant, but I couldn't commit to only one word) with a raised trail through the middle.  The picture below is just before we hit that point.  Nimo was in front and then totally freaked out because apparently he somehow watched the Lord of the Rings movies when I wasn't paying attention (doesn't he know he always gets nightmares?) and realized that dead bodies that come to life and grab you lay in wait under water like this.

Photo by Charles
Luckily Lily knew there were no dead bodies, so she took over the lead.  And she led us up steep hills at the canter (Nimo insisted cantering up hills is not necessary, and he possibly cried a couple of times, but the workout was great!) and even over some logs that Nimo may possibly have sort of jumped over at least a couple of times.

And 11 miles after we started, we were back at the parking lot.

Photo by either Saiph or Charles
I had such a wonderful time, and I know Nimo really benefited from having other horses with him to help motivate him.  But after we chatted for a few minutes, it was time for me to get Nimo his mash and then load him up for the trip home.  I was hoping to get back to the barn before dark partly because I hate unloading in the dark and also because I was STARVING!  I had brought a sandwich and cheese stick for after the ride, but apparently sitting on Nimo while he was doing all that work really made me hungry!:)

My trip back to the barn was remarkably uneventful, until we were on I-66 just outside of Centreville.  The traffic was fairly heavy, but moving well and then all of a sudden, the road in front of me was clear.  And a split second later I realized why.  There was a loveseat-sized package of something on the left-hand side of my lane.  I was boxed in by cars on both sides and going 60 miles an hour, so there weren't a lot of options for me.  I braked as suddenly and hard as I dared while praying we wouldn't get hit from behind and eased the truck as far over to the right of my lane as I could without hitting the car next to me.  My hope was that the package would ricochet off of the truck without seriously affecting our path forward, because if my rig went out of control on an eight lane highway (four lanes in each direction) in heavy traffic, bad things were going to happen to everybody.  Obviously, if the package moved though, it would likely be in someone else's way, so I couldn't see a happy ending to this situation.  And within 2 seconds of when I first saw it, we hit it. 

Road hazards are pretty common in this area as are deer, raccoons, foxes, and other assorted wildlife.  I count myself lucky (and am now knocking on wood and throwing salt over my shoulder) that I have never hit a deer or been in an accident because of the crazy crap that falls off of people's vehicles.  And I am still one of the lucky ones.  While the package was huge, on closer inspection it was full of what looked like sheets of pink foam insulation.  So, it bounced right off of the truck and miraculously skidded to the side of the road near the median without causing a problem.

After I took a breath, I picked up the phone to call 911 to report the hazard.  In the smaller town where I live, road hazards are taken pretty seriously, but in Fairfax County, they apparently do not constitute an emergency because when I explained the situation to the operator, she connected me to the non-emergency line and the police operator I talked to barely listened to me before half-heartedly promising to check it out.  I do get that in more metropolitan areas, things like burning buildings and dead bodies are more exciting, but I figure prevention is better than what could be a catastrophic accident.

Anyway, one close call was enough for the day and we made it back safe and sound.  And I felt so good about our fantastic ride and our survival on the highway that I managed to take this picture of a gorgeous sunset on my way home:)

UPDATE:  You can read Saiph's perspective on our ride here.