It is January in northern California and we are experiencing the worst drought in a hundred years. This is good and bad for riders like me who like to take their horses out on the trail. We do not have to wait until the mud on the trail dries up after a rain storm. There is no time out as in years with normal weather patterns when the skies pour tons of the wet stuff down onto our fields. But there are down sides. For one, hay prices are climbing, and anyone who didn’t stack up the hay last fall pays a little more for the bails every week. But there are other consequences.
The ground is hard like rock because the heat has baked the dirt for all those summer, fall, and winter months. When I don’t go on a trail, I ride my horse in the fields behind my house and do not want to canter or even trot her on the hardened surface for fear that it will hurt her joints. Northern Californians often take the horse shoes off during the winter because the wet mud pulls them off easily, so if they have already come off at the scheduled time, the impact of the hard ground is even worse. We have tried boots, and they are a good solution for some horses; mine has uneven hoofs, so finding a good fit is hard, and she tends to collect little rocks in them. When I lunge my mare in the round pen where the dirt is a bit looser from heavy use, we create enormous dust clouds that make us both cough. A well ridden trail or a sandy arena work best these days while we wait for the rain to come. Moreover, we may be able to ride in a t-shirt in mid winter, but we still get high winds that irritate our horses. People often say “Don’t even bother to saddle up the horse,” when the wind starts picking up and sends leaves and debris through the air. And once the rain does come, the flood like conditions bring a host of other limitations
California summers create other challenges. It gets so hot in some places that the only time to ride is in the early morning. We get up at dawn and meet at the staging area before other people have their breakfast because once the sun hits the trail the temperatures quickly rise into the hundreds. Heat exhaustion can drain every ounce of energy from the rider’s or the horse’s body. I have experienced it firsthand. I barely had the time to dismount when I felt a fainting sensation. Laying on the ground and drinking lots of water brought me back to life in a few minutes, but I never ever go on any ride anymore without many bottles of water, and I keep the ride short when I know it will be over one hundred degrees.
I am sure that East Coast riders have their own weather stories to tell, especially in this year’s record year of snow storms and icy conditions. They may even think that we have it pretty good in California because we can still go on trail rides throughout the winter after all, while they would be freezing their noses off if they dared to go out riding. But here is one thing that is probably true for all of us. With so much life spent outside with our horses, we have a keen sense of the elements. Looking into the sky to see if rain clouds gather or the wind moves tree crowns, feeling the rain on our face when we get surprised by a shower on the trail or kicking up the dust in the desert like fields connects us to the natural world. Not to speak of the occasional ride into the most spectacular sunsets. The range of emotions we get from being exposed to the elements while in the saddle is immensely enriching.