Keep Warm Working with Horses in Winter
by Becky Parker
It’s not easy to keep warm working with horses; there is definitely an art to not getting frozen toes, chilblains and a weather-beaten face by age 30 when you work in the equine industry. Fellow blogger Kelly Wallace Horne has already discussed a basic guide to rugging horses, but what about ourselves? Wrapping up properly and staying dry (ish) can make the difference between a truly miserable winter and a busy one enjoying crisp winter mornings and long days out galloping around the countryside following the hunt. The trick lies in not just one method but successfully taking care of all the details. Let’s apply the same level of thorough, exemplary care we give to the horses, to ourselves. Certainly many a good groom’s downfall but hey, we can make sure you at least know what you should be doing!
Rugging Yourself Up
Many thin layers are most effective in keeping you cosy by trapping pockets of warm air between the fabric. They are also easier to slip on and off when going in and out of the sheltered barn or schooling horses. It is important to try not to allow yourself to overheat and sweat as you will quickly become cold in damp clothes once you stop.
Merino wool, synthetic or bamboo base layers are widely considered the best in all outdoor sports. While they are undeniably pricier than cotton clothing they are proven to be much better at retaining heat and wicking moisture away from the body. Cotton absorbs moisture and takes a long time to dry, therefore it is not an ideal layer worn next to the skin.
For some reason, while we are quick to shove extra layers on the torso and cover our hands and feet, we often neglect the legs. Thermal insulated leggings, Long Johns and/or full-length chaps can be a lifesaver if you suffer from chill blains, which are most commonly found on the thighs. When out hacking a long, knee-length waterproof coat can help keep the legs dry. My personal favourite is to get under the horse’s exercise rug with them, that way you benefit from their body heat too!
Mountain Warehouse currently have a great sale on Merino Baselayers.
Which brand and thickness of glove you go for is down to personal preference. A popular method is to keep a thicker hard wearing pair for all yard work and a separate thin glove for riding. It goes without saying that in an outdoor job where there will be regular contact with water buckets, drinkers and sweaty horses having both pairs waterproof is a necessity. For those who really suffer in the cold, you can buy silk or merino liners for extra toasty hands. Sealskinz gloves are particularly good on the waterproof front, whilst Ariat is probably the most popular brand of riding glove.
According to outdoor survival experts, the best way of keeping feet warm is to wear a thin silk or polypropylene layer followed by a tightly woven thicker wool sock. Neoprene lined wellies are without doubt much warmer than their cheaper, purely rubber counterparts. However, if you are unlucky enough to own a pair of these leaky failures I can recommend the ‘foot in a plastic bag’ technique as a temporary fix. The true difficulty lies in keeping warm toes whilst out riding. Buying boots that allow a little extra room to wiggle the toes maintaining circulation will help with this. I recently saw a great hack on a popular cycling website suggesting wearing one thin layer of good quality socks then wrapping your foot in aluminium foil before putting your shoe/boot on. They likened this to the ‘Jacket potato’ effect. Whilst I can’t claim to have tested this method it sounds worth a try to me.
When we put this question to our Facebook community Bev Frampton reminded us that Sealskinz also make ‘miracle’ socks that keep your toes dry and toasty. Here is a link to their whole range of equestrian products.
Philippa Delahaye recommended wearing a thin pair of tights over the top of your socks while Ashton LeClair suggested using heated socks.
The age-old belief that a person loses up to 70% of their body heat through the head has now been scientifically proven wrong. That said, this doesn’t mean a cosy beanie can’t do wonders for your comfort levels on a chilly day. I personally hate removing my hat after riding and not immediately replacing it with a woolly one! As another option Headbands are a great way of keeping warm ears but still allowing some heat to escape. I am a huge lover of snoods rather than scarves. I find them to be much more practical as they are neater, less bulky and great for pulling right up to your eyes on a truly vile day out hacking. They also easily double up as a hat, headband or sweatband for your wrist. Buff has a wide range of good quality snoods with some great colour and pattern options. Most popular with the racing crowd for bracing early mornings whizzing up the gallops are fleece lined ear muffs that attach to your riding helmet securely without affecting the fit.
Keeping Yourself Fed and Watered
During cold weather, the body has to work much harder to maintain a comfortable core temperature. Shivering is proven to double and sometimes even triple the metabolic output. A body that is given an insufficient calorie intake for the work will function less efficiently. The immune system will be weakened and we will struggle with a lack of energy feeling sluggish, moving slower and not keeping ourselves warm through movement.
It is a little-known fact that we also need to drink more in cold weather. Breathing in cold air causes water loss through the need to warm and humidify the air as it comes in, which is then immediately lost as we breathe out. The wearing of such bulky clothing also ends up causing us to sweat when working hard if we don’t manage our temperature properly.
There is little evidence to prove that drinking hot drinks actually warms you up physically. The fact we feel a benefit has been put down to the placebo effect – I am drinking something warm, therefore I am warmer. Nonetheless, if you find it helps, it’s still worth doing.
Tricks and Tips
A few extra bonus tips……
- Chemical hand and foot warmers are a great buy for shoving down wellies and gloves on really chilly days. They may only work for a short amount of time but they help get you out the door until your warmed up from working.
- Pre-warming clothes on a radiator in the morning while you eat breakfast makes for a small little win before you get started. Also remember to put damp hats, gloves and outer layers over a radiator while you stop for lunch to get the chill out of them.
- Damp and cold weather is murder for chapped hands. This is an extra important time of year to remember to moisturise regularly. Hard hands may be a necessity but cracked hands are a step too far!
- Similarly, dry and chapped lips from the freezing wind is another perk of the job. I can highly recommend Carmex as a particularly good lip balm. After the initial sting it almost feels like its warming your lips!
At the risk of sounding too ‘preachy’ your own health really should be of paramount importance. It might feel like you’re being a better worker battling on when you’re freezing, just finishing this one last thing but it’s not ‘being tough’ it’s being silly. If you’re cold, stop and grab an extra layer, if you’re soaked after a soggy ride or bathing a horse, go get changed. Invest in good waterproofs and decent hole free footwear, prioritise your health and if you really can’t afford it speak to your boss about it, maybe they can help. A sick and miserable groom is no good to anybody, not the horses, not their fellow workers, not the boss. So, take care of yourself and there is plenty about winter that can be enjoyed. We choose to work outdoors because we see that, get wise, wrap up and you will find yourself able to enjoy the beauty of outdoors all the more.