Wet Weather Riding – Winter Shouldn’t Keep You Off the Trails
As published in the October 2013, issue of West Coast Horsemen Magazine
I like winter riding and you should too. Sure it’s the rainy season and summer’s bluebird skies and bright sunshine have given way to lead gray clouds and rain, lots of it. The upside is that often we’ll have the trails to ourselves and fewer concerns about potential encounters with other trail users. Besides having the trail to yourself, riding in inclement weather helps strengthen the bound between you and your horse. A rainy day ride presents additional challenges to your mount as it learns to deal with the scary puddles, reduced vision and hearing, and the wind blowing the slicker against him. Add to this the slickness of the mud and reduced traction that the horse must address as he carries you both down the trail. Dealing with these challenges forces your horse to look to you for guidance, leadership and trust that you will help him get home safely. The multiple benefits of wet weather make the idea of riding during the long winter months not only more pleasant but also create excellent learning opportunities for you and your horse.
Some of the key points to consider when preparing for a wet weather ride can be found by looking to trail riders in the Pacific Northwest. Some of these rain forest riders deal with nearly 10 feet of annual rainfall. Western Washington riders know how to deal with rain! If they didn’t they’d never ride.
A large part of staying on the trail during the upcoming season will be finding the appropriate gear to both shed the rain and keep us toasty on these fabulous long and introspective winter rides. Let’s see what equipment works well for riders in western Washington where winter temperatures hover in the 40’s and over 9 inches of rain fall each month.
Your key to continued, and comfortable, riding through the unpredictable weather of fall, winter and spring is effective rain gear and knowing how to use it. This set of protective equipment needs to reliably shed the wet while being comfortable enough to wear for long periods and also easy to take off and store when the sun does peak through on your ride. Features to look for include quality construction, breathability, and pack ability. With those thoughts in mind let’s start at the top and work our way down as we explore several breathable, waterproof, and light layers.
The traditional cowboy hat is hard to beat for rain and sun protection. The wide brim does an excellent job of keeping bone chilling water from funneling down your neck. Unfortunately, the felt construction does a lousy job of absorbing the concussion of a fall. For that reason I’ve switched over to a dedicated riding helmet with a removable rain cover and brim in the rainy season. I won’t make the claim that it’s pretty but it’ll do the job of keeping your noggin intact while also keeping hypothermia at bay.
It may be heresy to say, but it’s a pretty sure bet that you and I did not appear in the movie “A Man from Snowy River”. As such we shouldn’t feel obligated to wear an overly large, heavy, hot, and generally unworkable garment, despite how fashionable it looks. The oilskin fabric of a traditional drover’s coat is wonderful for rain chaps but is just too restrictive for use in a garment where freedom of movement is essential for comfort. Instead, go for a top layer go with a lightweight, breathable, material that allows you to move, while staying dry and comfortable. There are a wide variety of options to choose from that fit this category; form high tech Gore-Tex materials to, my favorite, low tech coated cotton “Fish Slickers” that have been around for over a hundred years. Not only is the coat’s material important, so is the length. Unless you enjoy a wet derriere make sure that the coat will extend past the cantle of your saddle while also not being so long that you can’t walk in it. There’s not much I hate worse than stepping on the tails of a coat while I’m on the ground adjusting tack.
Now that we’ve managed to keep our tops dry let’s consider our hands. If your hands are cold and wet you’re going to head home in short order; therefore a good pair of waterproof gloves is a must. For riding we want a good feel of the reins as well as ample dexterity in the fingers if we’re to unbuckle a bridle, or tie up without taking the gloves off. Those reasons are why leather gloves are so popular for summer riding. For winter riding try a lightweight pair of waterproof gloves with a thin layer of insulation within. Your hands will stay dry and you’ll still have good rein contact and even be able to operate the buttons on your camera.
Let’s keep moving down, with the rain that we’re trying to avoid, and talk about keeping our legs dry. Chaps were originally designed to protect working cowboy’s legs from the elements as well as errant cows. Trail riders may not be battling bovines but we are certainly fighting to stay warm and waterless. I’ve found that shotgun, or stovepipe, style chaps that wrap completely around the rider’s legs work best to retain heat and as an added benefit they don’t flap in windy conditions. Serious wet weather riders don’t use leather. The vast majority of riders in the Evergreen State (remember that 10 feet of rain?) use oilskin chaps. Heavy duty oilskin fabric is soaked in wax and will keep a rider dry through the worst downpour you can imagine. Chaps made of a heavier material also stand up wonderfully to trail hugging brush and briars that would quickly eat through lesser material. The best wet weather chaps that I’ve been able to find are made for upland bird hunters; I think they’ve found a better purpose in the equine world.
The last place that wayward rain drop is going to visit before it turns into mud is your feet. Just as cold hands will have you heading for home in a hurry, so will cold feet. Even though I wear waterproof riding boots throughout the year an extra bit of rain protection is quite welcome and for that I turn to Devonshire Boots. Also known as tapderos, these popular stirrup coverings are most frequently used to prevent injuries by keeping a rider’s foot from sliding through the stirrup. The stirrup cover also does a wonderful job of diverting the rain running off your leg from settling in your instep. Tapaderos that enclose the bottom of the stirrup will keep your feet warmer and prevent brush from poking through. You can find these handy devices in a variety of materials. I’ve found that heavy leather lasts much longer than nylon options.
Dress warm, stay dry, say goodbye to the umbrella, and saddle up and take advantage of a good ride in the rain. As always for more trail riding Tips visit www.TrailMeister.com not only can you find Reviews on all of these types of wet weather gear, we’re the largest directory of equine trails and camping areas in California and North America. We’re also the official trails directory of the North American Trail Ride Conference and the Back Country Horsemen of Washington.