Horses were galloping for fun in the snow

HARD weather and fit horses make a dicey mixture at best, and coping with them a challenge for all involved. It is not only the logistics of keeping them clean, fed and watered, but how to manage their exercise needs. Deep snow encourages them to romp about in their fields, and is a fairly soft landing for when they get it wrong.

However they cannot be out in snow for long because the very wet variety we get in UK makes ice balls inside their hooves and so puts them at risk of tendon damage.

Modern rugs are so much better than the ones we had in my youth, but even so they are capable of rubbing sores in delicate skin, and have to be removed and the horse underneath checked frequently, at least daily, to make sure that all is well.

Frost and ice make exercising an impossibility except for those fortunate enough to have covered arenas, and even those have been freezing solid this year.

In the old days we had the thickly-strawed rings to ride around, pure tension as bored and irritable horses thought up new ways of amusing themselves, and testing their riders.

There is little to choose from between having to sit on the airs above the ground, or dodging a flying hoof if you are on the horse next to them.

Of course there was the job of clearing the straw up when the thaw came, wet and heavy with icy water, and every likelihood of having to put another layer down when more hard weather followed.

In mud we can at least exercise, though it pulls at shoes and tendons alike, and it needs good stockmanship to avoid the miseries of mud fever in the horses, where our clinging clay causes weaknesses in the horses’ skin, and bacteria enter and flourish.

Of course the horses tend to let their hair down when the thaw comes, not giving mud the respect it deserves when ridden out in it, and can cause their riders unwanted excitement, while stressing their own delicate limbs as they slide and pull back at the mud.

Really wet conditions are safer, for sloppy mud releases legs more quickly. The grooms spend all day either wet and muddy or encased in hot waterproofs and muddy, while the horses do their work and then are dried and set fair, snug in their rugs again. It is work for the dedicated right enough.

Horses kept stabled because of rough weather react differently: some like being cosy and enjoy watching the bustle of a busy yard, while others threaten to go stir-crazy and find ways of relieving the boredom which range from annoying to downright dangerous.

Tough native ponies can be left out as long as they have plenty of food, water, and access to shelter, and some of our more delicate breeds include individuals that would much rather be out of doors than in.

I remember coming back from the Hunt Ball many years ago and in the wee small hours, to pass a field of Arabian horses fluffed up against the cold with no rugs but thick winter coats, galloping for fun in falling snow, with a deep layer already on the ground.

Emptying a kettleful of hot water into the ferrets’ frozen drinking bowls, I remember the days of trying to keep troughs open, when water buckets would freeze inside stables, and taps and hoses had no chance of functioning.

I recall many evenings of cleaning tack in bitter tackrooms, and pouring hot water into frozen sugar beet.

I don’t suppose much has changed in many yards even now. It is hard at the time, but it all passes, and there are the benefits of winter too: riding out under a clear sky with the air like needles in your lungs, the welcome huffing of cosy equines greeting you as you arrive, leaving them snug in their rugs and deep beds with a warm mash in the manger when you depart, birds coming down to peck at spilt grain and grateful for the water you have put out for them.

Modern coats and boots are better too, I think, as I scrape my own boots clean at the door and hear the teapot calling.