I always think that January and February are by far the hardest months to survive for us horse riders, both mentally and physically. The rush of the end-of-season competitions and the holidays and time spent with family get us through November and December with surprising speed, and before you know it, the new year is upon you.
For those of us who don’t live in artic climates (Vermonters, you know what you signed up for!), the weather takes a certain turn in January from tolerable to downright rude. There’s the regular winter cold, and then there’s holy-crap-I’m-wearing-so-many-layers-I-feel-like-the-Michelin-man cold, and the latter usually shows up right after New Year’s.
Not only that, but unless you’re lucky enough to migrate south, it can be pretty hard to a) not be consumed by jealousy of T-shirt pictures on Facebook or b) keep your mental motivation to persevere with your seemingly monotonous and competition-less schedule.
Well, dear readers, I’m not going south this year either, and so I’ve come up with some essential survival skills for the next two months until I can see competition daylight at the end of the tunnel.
Make Your Own Motivation
The worst part of the winter doldrums is coming up with the motivation to go ride around in miserable weather pursuing some sort of post-holiday fitness and competency for both you and your horse. Unless you have some pretty big and obvious obstacles to work on, it can get pretty monotonous.
A great way to motivate yourself is to get a pen and paper and plan out your goals for each month. If you’e competing, write down the events you want to aim for and what level you’re doing. If you’re working toward competing, write down accomplishment goals pertaining to your weaknesses or troubles. Find some early schooling shows or even a clinic to help you set concrete dates.
By March 1, I want to be able to canter courses at Training height on Leo consistently, without feeling like I might rocket into space by overjumping an oxer. How do I get there? This leads me to my next point …
Break It Into Bite-Size Pieces
If all you do is plan for something nebulous in three months, its hard to get there without feeling like time is going really slow and then suddenly really fast. Work backward from a goal several months in advance and break it into week by week achievable feats.
Sometimes, I find it useful to do fitness goals for my horses like you would a rehab case: by the numbers. This week, I want to do two days of 10-minute trot sets followed by one 5-minute canter. Next week, I add two minutes to the trot, one to the canter. Bring a stopwatch on your rides; log your minutes on a calendar.
If you want to improve one thing in particular, don’t say, “I’m going to do this one thing until I either die or master it!” This will result in your insanity and probably make your horse hate you. Be reasonable! Allow for hack days and free choice days while incorporating your goals.
Invest In Lightweight Yet Effective Outdoor Outfits
Yes, only Lainey can pull off the face mask and still look good, but we can all aspire to be so fashionable! I have a very particular layering technique in the winter that allows me to go all day without experiencing discomfort or cold, no matter how the temps fluctuate. Chief among this technique is: Under Armour (AKA winter’s enemy). This stuff is my savior, and I would live in it year round because of the stretchy comfort factor. P.S. Lainey, where did you get that face mask? I want one so bad right now.
Work On Your Own Fitness
As much as we think about our horses’ strength, fitness, diet and daily regime, we probably neglect our own. Horse people are notorious for obsessing over the smallest cut on our equine partner’s leg, but walking around with an undiagnosed fractured ankle held together by vet wrap and popsicle sticks. This theme does not go astray when it comes to our fitness.
Riding a million horses doesn’t make you as fit or strong or healthy as you’d imagine. That’s why most upper-level riders combine their equine efforts with cross training of some sort. You don’t have to go all Michael Pollard with it (sorry, Team Pollard!) and do CrossFit four days a week and run monthly marathons, but you can add a little something in there. Use those extra dark hours of winter doldrums to hit the gym or do some yoga in your bedroom!
Bake A Cake
Don’t let Floridian jealousy get the better of you! Instead, think of your riding as baking a cake. You know what you want in the end, but the way to get there is to single-mindedly focus on the ingredients and the process. Find a recipe from a trusted friend. Combine the ingredients together in the correct order (aways cream the butter and sugar and add eggs one at a time). Bake at the right temperature for the right amount of time. At the end, even if isn’t perfect, it’s still cake!
OK, metaphor over. But seriously, appreciate the process and find ways to have little winning moments along the way. And if all else fails, bake an actual cake and invite your friends over to commiserate in front of the fire.