It would be lovely if every day were perfect riding weather – calm, sunny and with just a cooling breeze. Unfortunately, such days are rare. You often have to ride in adverse conditions, and sometimes the weather changes dramatically while you are out.
Although horses naturally live out in the open, they are not immune to extreme weather and like to shelter from it. They stand with their tails to the wind and whatever it brings with it – rain, sleet or hail. They detest having their heads to the weather and can become difficult if forced to go into it.
Caught in the rain
Do not set out in very heavy rain: your pony will dislike it and might become difficult. If you get caught in a shower, try to find shelter and/or let your pony stand with his tail to the rain – unless it’s coming straight down!
When you set off for a long ride in cold weather and there’s a chance it might rain or sleet heavily, fit a waterproof exercise sheet to your pony and roll up a waterproof mac along with some suitable quick-dry leggings (my current goto) for yourself. You could tie it to the D-rings of your saddle, but dismount or put it on and take it off, unless there is someone with you to hold your pony. Or, you could wear a long mac to keep you – and your pony’s back dry.
Like people, some ponies are frightened of thunder and lightning. Never set out for a ride in a storm. If you are out, and a storm blows up, make sure you get home as quickly as you reasonably can. If you are too far from home, try to seek shelter, perhaps at a farm, or in a half-empty hay barn.
Lightning is attracted to the tallest object in an area, so it’s best to find safe shelter near small trees, a shrubbery, or an orchard. If you are on a hill, go to the bottom of it.
Keep out of water: water is a good conductor of electricity and the current will go through you too.
If you are in a flat area with no trees, you are the tallest object – and lightning may be attracted to you. It’s best to dismount. If lightning and thunder occur at the same moment, it means that the storm is overhead. Crouch down and stay low until the worst of the weather has moved on.
Coping with the sun
Just like people, ponies can suffer from sunstroke. If they have had too much sun, they will be weak, start to stagger, and may pant dog-like breaths as they try to cool down.
But provided the work is not long and hard, horses come to no harm. It is when the weather is humid and ‘muggy’ that trouble begins: a pony cannot evaporate away his excess body heat because the surrounding air is too damp. You can help your pony by putting an absorbent quilted cotton numnah under the saddle to soak up excess sweat. An absorbent girth made from material such as lamp-wick (thick woven webbing) is also more comfortable. Don’t attempt long or fast work in such conditions.
The main problem with riding in hot conditions is dehydration: the pony sweats much more and needs water to replace what he has lost. Plan your route so you can get him to drinking places: make sure the water at these points is good. Let your pony have one short drink each time (about four or five swallows). You can count by watching the underside of his neck.
Stand the pony still for a moment, or at least go no faster than a walk, for about five minutes afterwards. When you get home, give your pony a similar drink, but do not allow him his fill until he is cool. Offer him short drinks every 15 minutes until he has had enough. Leave him a supply of water.
Battling with the wind
Horses and ponies hate wind. They naturally stand with their backs to it to shield their sensitive heads. If the wind is very strong, it’s best not to ride. If the wind doesn’t amount to an actual gale, find sheltered routes and don’t interfere too much with your pony’s head – he’ll want to lower it against the wind to protect himself.
If the weather is cold as well as windy, a clipped, finely bred horse needs an exercise sheet, and you should wear a windproof jacket yourself.
Snow and ice
Most ponies enjoy fresh snow. If you are going to ride in it, pack your pony’s hooves with grease – old cooking fat, soft soap or melted candle wax to stop the snow balling up in his feet. Ask your farrier whether he thinks road studs, or frost nails (which give a good grip on ice), would be advisable.
Any snow disguises the ground, so pick an area which you know is even with no sudden pit holes or dips. Avoid deep snow as, like deep water, it unbalances your pony and makes the going strenuous for him. If you suddenly find yourself in deep snow, let him go at his own pace. You should also avoid frozen, crusty snow, which can cut a pony’s legs.
In icy conditions, lay down exercise tracks and rings around the stable yard and ride on those. Used bedding, ashes, sand and grit are all suitable and stop the pony falling over and hurting himself or you!
Do not deliberately set out on roads you know to be icy. If you come upon an unexpected patch, quit (take your feet out of) your stirrups, so you can leap off quickly if the pony slips. Let the pony pick his own way, and stay quite still in the saddle. Give the pony his head so he can balance.
Never go out in fog or mist. If it comes down while you are out, turn for home using the best-lit route. In autumn and winter, clip a strong stirrup light to your right iron. If fog does come down, you can switch it on while you are getting home. Wear reflective clothing so motorists can see you better. While a stirrup light helps in an emergency, it’s much better to avoid problems and ride at home on an exercise track.