As autumn turns to winter a naturally hazardous hobby can quickly become especially dangerous if the rider fails to take a few steps to stay safe. According to the BHS, there are more than eight horse-related traffic accidents every day and more than half of these occur on minor roads.
Most safety rules apply whether it is winter or summer: always wear protective headgear to the required standard, familiarise yourself with the Highway Code, be polite and acknowledge careful motorists, only take your horse on the road if you can control it, and ensure that you can ride to a certain standard before you venture out in traffic. If possible ride with a companion, and always take a mobile phone with you.
However, winter days are short and you should take extra precautions: horses can be difficult to spot by a passing motorist or the horse, in turn, can be spooked by a vehicle’s lights — so avoid riding early in the morning or as dusk approaches and always ensure that you are home well before dark.
A bay or a black horse in particular can blend in with the surrounding hedgerows, so if you have no option but to ride on the roads in winter you should never go out without fluorescent clothing. There are myriad luminous items on the market today, from gilets to full jackets for the rider to rugs and boots and bandages for the horse, and one or more of them is an essential bit of kit — it could save your life. Wearing hi-viz actually gives a driver travelling at 30mph up to three seconds more time to react.
Ensure that your horse is wearing a good set of well fitting shoes before you set out — winter roads, not to mention certain types of tarmac, can be particularly slippery. If your mount has a tendency to slip ask your farrier about road studs or nails. These can make a huge difference. Some horses may be able to go barefoot, but this is a major decision to make and one that you should always discuss with your farrier or trainer first.
If you plan to ride ‘off road’ during the winter, bear in mind that after rain fields and tracks can be particularly slippery, so adjust your speed accordingly.
Riding fast in very deep going puts considerable strain on your horse’s legs too — just as much, in fact, as riding on hard or rutted going during the summer — and so beware of tendon injuries. Ride carefully and cut your speed, too, if you have to go out on frozen fields. If possible delay your ride until the temperatures have risen.
You should never ride on snow-covered roads, because a thin covering of snow can conceal sheet ice underneath, which will cause both your horse and oncoming cars to slip. However, some riders love riding across snow-covered fields — it can seem like a magical winter wonderland and there is no reason not to do this as long as you exercise caution.
Bear in mind that trot is probably a fast enough pace and be aware that being exercised in snow is harder work for your horse than being ridden over normal ground.
In snow always stick to fields and paths that you are familiar with, so that you don’t end up riding over dangerous ground containing potholes or worse.
If your horse is shod, the snow can ‘ball up’ within his foot, which can be dangerous. Some riders apply Vaseline or lard to the underneath of the hoof, but this doesn’t always work. Ensure that you take a hoof pick with you and dismount and clean out his feet if the snow does collect. If your horse is already barefoot then you won’t encounter this problem.
Provided you wrap up warm — several layers of clothing are best — winter riding can be fantastic fun, but always think safe to stay safe.