Surviving the Dark

Sometimes we sit in the cross-ties and tell ghost stories.

In northern California, we are fortunate enough to have very mild winters. Sure there’s a lot of mud, but temperatures are in the 50s most days, and generally the snow stays in the mountains where it belongs. We don’t have to worry about de-icing water troughs or covering our outdoor arena footing to protect it from snow damage. It’s nice to be here. However, we do have to face the same nemesis that all equestrians dread most: the dark.

When the clocks changed, you could hear office-dwelling equestrians across the land cry out — raging against the dying of the light. Some of us are fortunate enough to have indoor arenas and lights, but many are not. Even without lights and an indoor, winter does not have to be a horrible, depressing time where you only see your beloved beastie on the weekend. Keep these tips in mind and you may find this winter easier than previous winters have been. Sure, you won’t get much “serious” work done, but you can still have fun and enjoy your horse.

Winter Survival Tip #1: Flashlights!

Flashlights and lanterns come in many different types, from giant hand cannons to cute little headlamps that clip right on to your hat. I’m on the hunt for a new headlamp, as holding a cold metal flashlight in my mouth or under my chin as I’m haltering my mare out in the pasture is getting less enjoyable as the temperature drops.

Be sure to have extra batteries for the flashlights you use most frequently. I have a pack of AA batteries that lives in the center console of my SUV. That pack may take up residence in my jacket pocket as it gets colder and darker since trudging back to the parking lot isn’t always an option.

While it is true that every smartphone on the market these days can be used as a flashlight in a pinch, it should be noted that it eats up your battery and has a woefully small range. Nothing sucks more than having whittled away the charge on your phone by using it as a light source and then needing to actually make a call. Plus, when you hold your phone in your mouth, the light gets in your eyes and you can’t really see much better than you would without it. Not that I know anyone that’s happened to recently.

Winter Survival Tip #2: Layers!

Baby, it’s cold outside! When heading out in to the cold and dark, it’s tempting to just throw on your warmest clothing and your most snuggly jacket. This is a common mistake that may have you heading for home sooner than planned. We’ve all been there before — bustling about the barn or trotting around the arena, cooking in a winter coat but unwilling to take it off because we’d freeze.

This is where smart layering comes in. Before I hop on, I plan my ride. If I’m going to do anything more than just go for a stroll, I strip off an extra layer or two. Sure I’m a bit on the chilly side for the first 10 minutes or so of my ride, but once I get moving, it’s perfect.

Also worth noting — sweatshirts and hoodies are a huge pain to get off once you’ve got your helmet on. Having my horse decide to wander while I am fighting to pull a sweatshirt off over my helmet is not anything that I am terribly fond of. Do yourself a favor and buy zip-up hoodies. This way you are less likely find yourself trotting along in the dark, head encased in a sweatshirt/helmet combo while yelling, “Whoa, dammit” in to a mouthful of cotton.

If you’re just planning on walking, nothing beats a quarter sheet. Snuggly, cozy and cute, they are my absolute favorite thing about winter. Also, a quarter sheet is way easier to handle once you’re mounted instead of swaddling yourself in an entire cooler.

Winter Survival Tip #3: Friends!

While the barn can be a place of solitude and retreat from the rest of the world, it can be a bit lonely in the winter. You’re far more likely to cut things short when you’re cold and alone. Having a pact with friends can make all the difference in the world in your motivation to keep getting out to the barn night after night. Even if it’s just to go for a moonlight stroll while gossiping about work and fantasizing about the first event of the season, the barn is more fun with friends.

Winter Survival Tip #4: Audiobooks!

If your schedule doesn’t line up with anyone else’s or you prefer to ride solo, audiobooks are fantastic. I spent the overwhelming majority of last winter walking around the arena in the moonlight, wrapped in a quarter sheet, listening to audiobooks. I made a personal rule that I was only allowed to listen while I was at the barn.

Admittedly, some audiobooks are junk because they either have a bad reader or the book itself is boring, but when you’ve got one that is worth listening, to you might find yourself lingering late in to the night for just one more chapter. (If you like horror movies and silliness and aren’t offended by coarse language, I highly recommend “John Dies At The En”d and the sequel “This Book Is Full Of Spiders, Seriously Dude, Don’t Touch It.”)

If you’ve got some winter survival tips, feel free to share them in the comments below!

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