Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Last Ride of the Year

For some reason, I got it in my head that I wanted to go for a trail ride on the last day of the year.  In this area, New Year's Day is a big riding day.  Lots of groups plan rides formally and informally, although the weather is always iffy on the first day of the year.  Sometimes it is beautiful and other years, not so much.  I have yet to make it to any of them, although I did go for a ride with a friend on New Year's Day this year. 

There was an informal one being planned for tomorrow that I thought I might try to attend, but all the cold weather we've been getting for the past week kind of shut it down.  But that was OK, because I was planning my New Year's Eve Day ride instead.  The friend who had agreed to ride with me remarked that Saturday (yesterday) might be the best day of this weekend in terms of temperature, but the forecast called for light snow.  I'm not super crazy about driving in snow in this area because there tend to be a lot of people on the road who are not comfortable driving in bad weather, and it always seems worse earlier in the season.  Either people start remembering how to drive or the realize it's not for them and get off the road.  I'm even less crazy about driving with a loaded trailer in snow, even if it isn't that much, just because I don't have the maneuverability of a vehicle not towing a trailer and one of the beings I love most is in the trailer.

So, I convinced my friend that Sunday (today) would be better.  When I checked the forecast, it said it would be sunny and 27 degrees, so I suggested we meet at noon to take full advantage of the "heat."  We would be riding at Sky Meadows State Park, which is a fairly easy drive for both of us, so if there was any leftover snow, we would be on roads much more likely to have been treated and/or plowed.

The day dawned cold and not really sunny.  But that was OK, I told myself.  I will get warmer and sunny as the day goes on.  By the time I left the house at 10 am, my truck thermometer read 18 degrees.

That's OK, I told myself.  By the time I get to Sky Meadows, it will be almost 10 degrees warmer.  It will feel lovely!

As I drove out to the barn, the temperature rose all the way up to 21 degrees.  See! I told myself.  It's already getting warmer.

I hooked up the trailer and loaded my saddle before heading out to collect Nimo from his field.  He'd seen me pull up to the barn with the trailer and he was watching me from the middle of the field with skepticism.  I walked toward him and I could almost see his thoughts.  He was convinced that I was up to some kind of shenanigans that he wanted no part of (it's too cold to ride!), but he knew I had the good treats in my pocket.  He was torn.  Walk away to try to convince me that we should not do whatever it is that I thought I wanted to do or come get the treats, which he knew were awesome.  In the end, he opted for the treats, although I could tell he was retaining his skepticism as we walked toward the trailer.

I loaded him without incident and then we were off.  I was imagining how great it would be to ride today and then spend tomorrow making chili and sugar cookies instead of freezing with whatever idiots were out riding.  Invading my happy thoughts, however, was the ever decreasing number on my truck's thermometer.  When we'd left the barn, it read 21 degrees.  Yet, somehow it was 20, and then 19, and then 18, and then (gasp!) 17 degrees!

But, the forecast said 27 and sunny, I thought.  And I really truly believed that somehow, the temperature would rise to 27 by the time I got to Sky Meadows.  But, alas, it did not.  That became abundantly clear to me the second I set foot outside my truck and was nearly blown away by the icy wind that could only have come all the way from North Dakota.  My friends and family there had kept me up-to-date on the tortuous winter they are having.  "It's -25 degrees!  And that's WITHOUT the wind chill!" they said.  Because everyone who lives in North Dakota knows that the temperature is only part of the story.  The wind blows constantly and often strongly in North Dakota and it very much affects the "feels like" temperature.

In Virginia, on the other hand, we rarely talk about wind chill unless there is a winter storm, because it just isn't that windy very often here.  Regrettably, today was not a normal day.  I didn't remember much wind when I was at the barn, but the parking lot of Sky Meadows felt like a wind tunnel.  The wind was strong and cold enough to take my breath away.

But did that stop me?  No.  No, it did not.  Because I was going for a ride.  I smiled at my friend who was making the "you are crazy" gesture at me and we both piled on layers and unloaded our horses.  I don't think I've ever saddled Nimo so fast.  I had put a blanket on him at the barn because I worry that even though he is fine without a blanket in colder temperatures, the wind blowing through my stock trailer when we're on the highway is too much.  I hadn't brushed the dirt of of him before throwing the blanket on, thinking that I would do it at Sky Meadows.  But with that wind coming at us, I decided the dirt could stay where it was, and somehow managed to get a saddle on.

Before we got on the trail, I realized I needed to do something for head protection.  I briefly contemplated riding without a helmet so I could keep my warm hat on, but thankfully I found another hat in the truck that was a little thinner and had the pieces that drop down over my ears.  A friend got it for me years ago, and it is really a goofy looking hat that I don't wear much, but it was perfect for today.  It was thin enough that I could remove one of the filler pieces from my helmet and put the helmet on over the hat.  Seriously, that spur of the moment invention is the Best Ever.  I will never ride in the winter any other way.  My ears were warm, my head was warm, and my neck was warm.

So with one section of my body not feeling the wind, we headed out on the trail.  One great thing about Sky Meadows is the diversity of the trails.  There are some in the woods that involve climbing a mountain and others out in fields that are more open.  We headed straight for the ones in the woods, hoping that being out of the wind would help ease the cold.  And it did.  Quite a bit actually.  I'm not going to say that I was toasty (except for my head and ears - seriously, you have got to try the hat with ear pieces under the helmet!), but I wasn't uncomfortable either.

On the way to the woods, we had to cross a small stream (like 10 feet across, maybe).  It was frozen in one section, but I could see the ice was really thin in another, so I knew Nimo's feet would easily go through the ice.  Nimo did not see things that way and was quite reluctant.  My friend's horse tends to be the braver of the two, so she asked him to cross.  He made it part way and then turned around and came back.  So my friend asked him again and this time he crossed.  Nimo followed but I could basically hear him saying, "I knew I should have just walked away.  No treats are worth this nonsense!"

My friend was a bit concerned about how the horses would do on the mountain.  There was maybe a half inch to an inch of snow still on the trail, but it was cold snow.  The kind that can squeak and scrunch when you step on it, plus there were rocks and leaves to help with traction.  I figured it would be OK, but if the horses slipped around too much, we could always ride on different trails.

The horses didn't really seem to have much of an issue with snow, although both seemed to be moving a bit more slowly and placing their feet more carefully (never a bad thing!).  And Nimo actually led most of the way up and down the mountain.  Normally my friend's horse likes to lead, but today he wanted to follow.  Normally Nimo prefers to follow, but he actually did a good job leading the way and wasn't balky or too slow.

View from the ridge trail
After coming down the mountain, we rode along a ridge trail and then we got to the fields.  Initially I had thought that we might do the mountain loop twice just to stay out of the wind, but my friend's horse did not seem that excited to be out and about (and Nimo wasn't as energetic as I would have expected either), so we decided to do a loop around the fields and call it a day.

And riding in the fields meant riding in the wind.  There is no way to sugar coat it.  It was really miserable.  And it was kind of funny because I was looking at the ever-darkening sky (sun? what sun?) and thought to myself that it looked like a snow sky.  And a minute or two later, little flurries started coming down, or rather blowing straight sideways.  The snow never got too thick.  It was more of the tiny, anemic snowflakes that happen when the air is so dry and cold that the flakes can't seem to get very big.  A North Dakota snow, if you will.

Soon we turned and the wind was coming from the side, which was marginally better than when we were riding straight into it.  And then we had to cross another creek.  Nimo was in the lead and he stopped in front of the creek (which he has crossed dozens of times without incident) and clearly believed it was the Gateway to Hell.  I urged him forward and explained that this one wasn't even frozen.  He remained unconvinced. Finally he consented to putting one foot in the water.  "Oh, OK.  It's not frozen.  But it could still be the Gateway to Hell."  I signed and encouraged him a little more and bit by bit, he picked his way across a creek that was maybe 6-8 feed across and about 2-3 inches deep.  (Spoiler alert, we did not end up in Hell.)

After the creek crossing, the horses perked up a bit, knowing that we were less than a mile from the trailers.  We asked if they wanted to trot, and Nimo was happy to, but my friend's horse just really didn't want to, so we didn't push it and walked back to the trailers with the wind at our backs for the last bit.  (In hindsight, I kind of wonder it it wasn't the cold air.  I had expected the horses to act a little fresh because of the cold, but they never did, and I'm thinking it might be because they didn't want to breathe in cold air.  I know there is debate about whether horses should be ridden in colder temperatures, and I have maintained that as long as you are careful and don't push them into really exerting themselves for long periods that it should be fine.  After all, they are outside in it all the time and walk and run and play without a problem.  But, maybe there is something to the idea that the cold air bothers their lungs.  It's definitely something I am going to pay attention to and I'm glad that all we did was walk.)

When we got to the trailers, it seemed like the wind was even worse, so we untacked and got blankets back on the horses as quickly as we could, which was kind of an exercise in futility for me.  I kept trying to throw the blanket over Nimo's back and it kept blowing back over me.  And once I got it on, the wind literally billowed under the blanket and puffed it out.  It was crazy!

Normally, my friend and I would have lunch after our ride and enjoy the view from a picnic table, but that was not happening today.  I had brought some soup in a thermos that I was anxious to sip while driving back to the barn, but before I could leave, I had to pick up some poop that Nimo had deposited as we were headed out on our ride.  No big deal, right?  I'll just use my handy-dandy manure fork to scoop it up and put it in the manure bucket I keep in the trailer for just such occurrences.  Yeah, well remember I said the temperature was 17 degrees?  It turns out that manure freezes to pavement in that temperature.  We'd been riding for about an hour and 45 minutes, so this stuff was STUCK to the ground.  I finally ended up kicking at it with my boots to dislodge the major chunks and at least get those cleaned up.  (I'm hoping the park rangers will understand that I did the best I could...)

Finally, I was able to settle my now frozen body into the truck and get the heater going.  I really had felt reasonably warm until we rode in the wind, but by the time I got in the truck, I had lost feeling in both feet, most of my thighs, and part of my fingers.  And I was chilled.  It took the hour back to the barn for me to have complete feeling in my fingers and thighs and it took another half hour to get from the barn to my house for my feet to feel normal again.  And that was with the heater running full blast and aimed at my feet and hands.

Anyway, I got my ride in on the last day of the year.  The weather definitely was not optimal, but it did allow me to test out my cold-weather riding gear and determine that down to 17 degrees (out of the wind), it is probably doing OK, but I could use a serious ramp up for higher winds/colder temps.  (I do have a little purchase coming next week that I think will be extremely useful for improving my cold weather riding happiness, so I'll share after I've had a chance to check it out...)  And now I need feel no guilt whatsoever about staying home tomorrow:)

Happy New Year everyone!


  1. I saw this and thought of you - hope you can view it:

    1. There is nothing like a Friesian trotting!:)

  2. I would have been FROZEN at the start! Yikes!
    I lived 20 years in Luray and never rode at Sky Meadows. In fact I didn’t know it existed until a friend of mine posted a hiking trek there after I moved to California.
    I miss the Virginia trails!
    You are crazy riding in that weather! True endurance!