By Rosa Meehan
On a cold, winter’s day it can be hard to work up the enthusiasm to head out to the barn. The thought of cold fingers managing stiff buckles, winter coats full of static electricity (sending some into orbit), saddling up, warming bits, and the time it will take for horse and rider to warm up stiff and cold muscles doesn’t help. But ultimately, we do it and finally, a nice ride – followed by a careful cool down and then drying, before replacing the blanket (liner and hood for really cold days) and putting your horse away. Or, perhaps, the ride did not go as planned (spooks when ice slides off a roof; rider and/or horse too stiff to perform simple movements). What could be a couple hour event in the summer becomes much longer in the cold – or a much shorter ride. Why do we do this? It’s simple – the shared passion for our sport and love of our horses. And what is the reward – a lovely floating ride that is relaxed, round, and forward, or perhaps a light hack on the trails in the soft evening light following a rewarding schooling session. After all, it is not winter all year long.
When you get right down to it, dressage aspirations in Alaska are no different than anywhere else – we all seek improvement in our riding, connection with our horses, and the comradery of our barn buddies. As elsewhere, Alaska has a mix of riders – young and old – that span the expression of dressage as a discipline. Some ride and train with discipline and dedication, advancing through the levels and hoping for medals. Many adult amateurs seek improved riding skills and may or may not show – after all, what better way to improve partnership with our horses than to focus on action and reaction between horse and rider while striving for harmony in movements. Others have celebrated their longevity and persistence – our Century riders (with a significant nod to the talented senior horse partner.) Junior riders, in addition to bringing youthful enthusiasm and dedication, represent the future of our sport. I am reminded of a group of young riders sitting on their perfectly behaved ponies watching an upper level ride in a windy drizzle; they were completely oblivious to the rain and their ponies just stood with their tails to the wind. Such an example for all of us. We are also fortunate in having a cadre of talented trainers working with horses and riders, and pony clubs that include a focus on dressage. Anchorage has a lovely horse park with a number of arenas used by all disciplines and an equine assistance program while fairgrounds provide group venues in other communities.
Many aspects of our northern dressage community resonate with programs across the country, however, there are specific challenges related to long cold winters. Alaska is certainly not the only place with cold snowy winters – but the winter season is longer. Spring in Alaska is snow covered! Not surprisingly, we have a well-developed cadre of cold-coping strategies for both horse and rider. Long, shaggy coats mean sweaty horses that take forever to cool out and dry; a process enhanced by hair dryers and blowers. Body clips are another approach – everything from a trace clip to a complete shave – which then brings the challenges of blanketing (and we have all seen the extensive discussion threads on when to and how much to blanket). Side note, our barn has an extensive “unkindness” of avens that perch on the horses picking at and pulling filling out of blankets! Of course, if avens don’t modify the blanket, the neighboring horse may. Static electricity (common when cold and dry) can cause giant sparks (and jumpy horses) when blankets are pulled off – addressed through use of dryer sheets or grooming (coat conditioning) sprays. Keeping warm while riding and doing chores at the barn is certainly aided by the wide variety of hand and toe warmers, electric gloves and socks, and insulated winter wear. Heated tack rooms help too.
Alaska is also remote, with Canada separating us from the rest of the country (and Region 6.) While distance and mystic of the far north provide a certain cachet, it brings its own set of challenges. We all work with existing conditions, be that a neighborhood moose, ice falling off the roof, or uncertain footing. Everyone has a moose story ranging from spectacular spook and bolts to pictures of horses and moose side by side in a pasture. Footing is not as much of an issue for those fortunate to have access to indoor arenas but can be limiting for those riding outside. Hats off to our resilient riders who ride despite conditions – “I worked on straightness and tempo at the walk” exclaimed a junior rider during some particularly snowy weather. While there are talented trainers here, it is a limited number. Seeking outside help or alternate perspectives can be a significant undertaking. It is a big deal to organize and host visiting clinicians, cover their travel expenses and then there is never enough time for all who want to participate. Fortunately, online resources have blossomed and a tremendous variety of approaches are accessible. This approach does come with the requirement for self-analysis (change the “get Charlie to Grand Prix” to “get Charlie to be the best he can be”) and then the self-discipline to experiment and implement the new strategy. As always, watching national and global competitions provide insight and inspiration.
Getting back to motivation – friends are key. Planning to meet and ride together gets both of you out and laughing about the current situation (be it cold, icy or whatever) and a partner to ride with. Sometimes your horse is the friend and motivator and the desire to make your partnership the best it can be. Finally, it is not always winter in the north. Long winter nights are balanced by endless summer days with the joy of riding in golden sunlight into the late evening hours.