You’ll need: An abundant supply of absorbent cotton towels (new ones are best, as they’ll contain more absorbent fibers than will old, worn ones); a stiff bristle brush; a hoof pick; a breathable horse blanket made from natural fibers (such as fleece); blow dryer (optional).
Towel dry. After a ride, your horse’s coat may be wet from falling snow, his own sweat, or both. When snow falls on your working horse, his body heat melts it, allowing it to soak his coat through to the skin. Even on a clear day, the sweat he generates stepping through snow can drench his coat. To prevent a chill, your first job is to towel him dry. Holding a towel in each hand, rub vigorously over his haircoat in a circular motion, absorbing as much moisture as you can. As you go, rough up his hairs to allow air to flow through his undercoat.
Brush off snow. If you’re trailering home after your ride, use a stiff bristle brush to remove snow from his legs and hooves before loading. (If he tracks it inside, the resulting snowmelt can make for slippery footing.) If you can load in an area clear of snow, pick out his feet, as well. As some snow will certainly make it into your trailer, keep a layer of wood shavings on your trailer floor. Bare mats can be treacherous when wet.
Blanket him for the trailer. Throw a blanket on your horse for the trip home to prevent a chill from drafts. Be sure to use one that allows water vapor to pass through (see above). Non-breathable blankets will actually prevent your horse from drying, leaving him cold and miserable.
Dry him completely. Once you arrive home, make sure you horse is thoroughly dry. You may do this by leaving on the breathable blanket (if it’s cold), removing the blanket (if it’s sunny), or by using a blow dryer. Before you leave, make sure he’s 100 percent dry, especially if you’ll be putting a winter blanket on him. Brush or curry him again to separate the hairs. If he’s unclipped and doesn’t wear a blanket, fluff up his coat. (His body heat warms the air between his coat and skin, so the more air he can trap there, the better.)
Provide feed and water. Once your horse has sufficiently cooled down, toss him a large flake of hay. The process of digesting high-fiber feed will help keep him warm. (I recommend grass hay, which is higher in fiber than alfalfa hay.) Allow him free access to water; check it to make sure it’s not frozen. (For winter watering tips, see “Winter Break,” Horse & Rider, December 2001.)
If your winter ride soaked your tack, store it in a warm, dry area. Avoid heat and sunlight, which will curl the leather. Choose a place with good ventilation. Tack takes longer to dry in a cold place, but lingering dampness is its worst enemy. Make sure all leather straps are hanging straight or laid flat, so they won’t dry bent out of shape. After your tack dries completely, apply leather cleaner/conditioner to keep it moist and supple, which will extend its life.
A competitive trail rider for more than 16 years, Judy Wise-Mason conditions her Arabian horses from her Cedar Mesa Ranch in Cedaredge, Colo. Her top competition horse, Brown-R Dawud, has carried her to North American Trail Ride Conference national championships 8 of the last 10 years.
For winter trail riding tips, see “Horseman’s Handbook” in the February 2002 issue of Horse & Rider magazine.