Since the holidays have passed us by, we’ve officially transitioned from the most wonderful time of the year into those couple of months when many of us wish we could hibernate during the deep freeze. I always like to think of January and February as being the “lost months” — the time of year when the weather is crappy, the footing is crappy and it’s dark by 5 p.m. And quite a few of us have been facing the infamous polar vortex over the past few days. When it’s cold enough outside that you feel like your eyeballs are going to freeze and your fingers are going to fall off, I give up. I don’t really do the whole freezing in the saddle thing. Just cue my riding withdraw.
With the recent decline in my own time spent in the saddle, I’ve challenged myself to get creative. Since I feel like I’ve relocated to some sort of frozen tundra, my main equine related activity has been in the form of barn work. The pathetic amount of in-the-saddle time that I’ve logged has been spent going out for hacks — which, I’ll admit, is a nice mental break for both myself and for the horses. But since I’ve caught a premature case of spring fever, I’ve been feeling jittery. Relocating further south for a few months just isn’t in the cards for me. But surely I shouldn’t just be taking a vacation from training over the next couple of months; there just has to be some way to get myself ready for training once the warmer weather (finally) arrives. Since the barn work never stops, I think I can work with that. I feel an idea coming on …
Sure, I’m no fan of setting my alarm for 5 a.m., so that I can get up to do barn chores in the pitch dark, but maybe just a simple paradigm shift is in order. I’m going to (try to) stop looking at my chores as work. Instead, they are going to be part of my own newly devised Barn Chores Boot CampL Winter Edition. I’ve assembled a list of skills that I need to keep well-honed during the winter months so that I am ready to get back to business in the saddle when favorable conditions return. Here’s the training plan that I devised for myself:
1. Strength Training
Not all of us have automatic waterers at our barns. Or heated buckets. I have neither. So one of my daily chores is swapping out frozen buckets for fresh ones — filling water buckets and carrying them to hang in each stall. Optimal training conditions include carrying two buckets at once. The goal? Don’t let the water slosh out onto your legs and feet. The number of reps really depends on how many horses you have. Difficulty may be increased by filling the bucket more or by walking across difficult footing without falling. I also have opted to use six-gallon buckets as opposed to the normal five-gallon ones. After you are used to the six-gallon buckets, anything smaller feels like child’s play.
By the time I’m done the mucking, feeding and watering, I’m understandably feeling frozen. But the good news is I’m coming down the homestretch. So what’s left? Changing (or layering) blankets and wrapping legs. Well, since everything is going slightly numb at this point, time is of the essence. The faster I can throw on or pull off blankets and wrap, the sooner I’ll be able to get inside and have the feeling return to my fingers. Personally, I’ve started to time myself. You could even use your eventer watch if you want — betcha didn’t think you’d have an off-season use for it. The main idea though is to “go speed racer go” to get chores finished up — and when is a talent for speed ever a bad thing?
While outside in the cold, I’ve got layers upon layers on (of everything, and I mean everything), and I find that I have trouble moving with any sort of finesse. Moving bales of hay and bags of bedding can be a little difficult. It is especially awkward to try to climb up stacks of hay to toss down some bales when I feel like my range of movement is limited, what with all of the extra clothing. Never fear, here’s just another opportunity to improve! Climbing up and down hay stacks requires me to be nimble and light of foot; if I can master flitting up and down while I feel like a marshmallow, I can only imagine how my agility will improve!
Step, slosh, slip. Step, slosh, slip. Step — you get the picture. Trudging through all weather conditions? Feeling a little blue about it? Well, pip pip! I’ve turned my sloshing into practicing my rhythm. You can never be too on the beat, and here is your chance to practice (your dressage score down the road might thank you). If you need to count in your head when starting out, that’s totally fine! You can even increase your level of difficulty by trying to keep your rhythm while crossing surfaces of mud or ice. Though often necessary in the course of my barn work, it’s not a recommended activity.
5. Hand-Eye Coordination
When I can’t feel my hands and am trying to scoop frozen manure out of the stalls to fling into the muck cart, a certain finesse is needed. When I’m outside and bundled up for work in the cold (remember the layers upon layers we talked about?), I feel a little cumbersome. Not to mention the fact that when my hat slips down, I have a bit of trouble actually seeing. No matter … a true Barn Warrior will not hesitate and will fling that manure right over the cart into the cart each and every time.
6. Mental and Physical Prowess
Is it cold? You betcha. Are you going to complain or try to shirk your barn duties because of it? No way! Having the will power to keep chugging along even when the wind chill is well into the negatives and your eyeballs feel like they are going to freeze in their sockets is really helping to strengthen your mental resolve. Plus, actually being able to run to a heated tack room keep moving and get the barn work done when you feel like your fingers want to freeze and break off? Well, when you’ve accomplished this, you can officially (well … unofficially) call yourself a Barn Warrior.
Cheesy? You bet you #@& butt it is! Does it actually work? Who knows. What I do know is this — you can make anything fun if you want to. Since I’ll be outside freezing my butt off while doing my barn chores every single day no matter what, it definitely helps to picture myself as working to stay sharp so that when I hop back up in the saddle for real, I don’t miss a beat! Whatever it takes to help get out of bed every morning and stay motivated to face the cold and dark, right? Hearing excited nickers helps too (though I wonder if my horses are happier to see me or the grain buckets I’m carrying). Am I the only one who has to try to entertain myself while doing barn chores in the winter? Did I miss listing any activities that should be included in my Barn Work Boot Camp regimen?
Go Barn Work Boot Camp. Go Winter Warriors. Go Eventing.