I've rarely had to battle the elements in order to ride during the winter. For the first 22 years of my life, both my horses and I called Houston, Texas, home. There, our idea of a polar vortex was a few weeks of daytime temperatures in the 40s. And since I've lived in Kentucky, winters have either been mild or my horses have been in Florida.

So this year's uncharacteristically brutal season has opened my eyes to some of the challenges of winter riding. Here's what I've learned (and you probably already know):

A well-maintained indoor arena has been a riding must-have this winter.

Photo: Alexandra Beckstett

An Indoor Arena is Essential

I can't imagine any other way to keep a sport horse in form over a long, icy winter than having access to a good indoor arena. My barn's indoor allows us to ride long past sunset and regardless of the temperature. We did, however, encounter some footing hiccups. When temps first dipped below freezing for days on end, watering and dragging risked turning the riding ring into an ice rink. So the place was a bit of a dust bowl until the owner added magnesium chloride--the same compound applied to roads for ice control--to the footing. Don't worry, it's safe for use around horses, unlike another road salt--caustic calcium chloride. (One pony mom thought this was what had been added to the footing and sent a panicked barnwide email that had to be quickly dispelled!)

Not All Horses Grow Thick Coats

Of course, the one horse whose coat I wouldn't mind being woolly is the one whose hair doesn't grow. Maybe it's a byproduct of being born and raised in Texas like me, but Hannah has yet to figure out her own insulating abilities. She's lived in Kentucky for three winters now, but what starts each season as au natural quickly turns into a rush to find her a lightweight, and then a medium-weight, blanket. I think Dr. Carey Williams (PhD, extension special in equine management at New Jersey's Rutgers University) summed this phenomenon up well in our December issue:

"The biggest determining factor with the hair coat production is where the horse is accustomed to being housed. For example, take a horse from Northern Wisconsin and put him in Florida for the winter and he will still grow a long heavy coat for a few years. This also holds true going from South to North. Those horses will have to be treated with care because they will not produce a heavy hair coat in the first year."

Lily handles the arctic conditions better than I do!

Photo: Alexandra Beckstett

Snow Makes Turnout Challenging

The first time I turned Lily out in the snow, we both nearly took a few nosedives. I quickly learned that not all snow is fluffy and soft--especially after it's been packed on the ground for a week. I had to choose my path to the paddock wisely, avoiding any areas that looked icy and compressed from horses walking the same route every day.

On days when the footing has been particularly treacherous, the horses have forgone turnout altogether. Instead, hoards of boarders flocked to the facility to help hand walk all 40 horses so they wouldn't go stir-crazy in their stalls.

Winter is Not Kind to Hooves

I thought this past wet Kentucky summer was brutal on the horses' hooves, but winter has been no kinder. The constant moisture is still wreaking havoc on hoof walls and hindering my battle against thrush. And the first time I brought Hannah and Lily in from the pasture, I learned why we run articles about snow traction devices on TheHorse.com. I spent several minutes hacking away at the giant ice balls that had formed on the soles of their feet.

So there you have it--my first impressions of trying to ride and care for horses during my first "real" winter. Lily and I are supposed to start the year off with a horse show (indoors, thank goodness) in two weeks, at which point I'll find out just how close to competition form we've remained this winter.

What winter riding challenges do you face?