Trail Savvy: Winter Riding Goals

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Tips for Staying Motivated in the Off-Season

Don’t let snow and cold temperatures deter you from pursuing your riding goals. When the wind is howling, the snow is knee-deep, and you can no longer feel your face while gathering your horses from the other side of the pasture, it’s easy to think about moving to Arizona. If you struggle to stay motivated during the short, cold days of winter, check out these strategies I’ve developed to deal with frigid weather.

Set Realistic Winter Riding Goals

Whether you’re aiming for a bucket list ride or special events, have a goal in mind for where you’d like to be with your horse in the spring and summer. Take stock of your horse’s current training level to determine the steps needed to achieve your goal.

The high country, where I spend my summers, is blanketed under many feet of snow from November through June. So, winter is the perfect time to focus on fundamentals and basics when I can’t get out on the trail. I consider both short- and long-term goals for each of my animals. In the short term, I set smaller objectives that lead to long-term success, such as ensuring mental and physical readiness for lengthy trail rides.

Be Flexible

No goal is achieved without challenges along the way. Horses don’t realize the grand plans we have in mind. As riders, we must work and adapt to their needs, which constantly change no matter the time of year. My go-to pack mule, Ellie, comes with her fair share of baggage. While she’s taught me more about packing than most of my human mentors, she’s a bundle of stress and tension whenever she’s away from her herd. 

My primary winter goal for Ellie involves achieving relaxation and confidence away from her equine family. I continually assess her mental state to prevent stress and tension during our rides. With less pressure to accomplish specific tasks, I find it easier to reward even the most minor improvements. Not every ride will be perfect, and I’m content to take my time.

Mix Things Up

The off-season lets you alter your horse’s routine while working towards your riding goals. Constantly working on a single aspect of riding can wear out both horses and riders. Introducing new exercises to your horse’s routine keeps their mind engaged and works different muscles.

For mules like Ellie, engaging in activities on the lighter side keeps her from growing bored or sour. Although we try to saddle up every day, there are days when we don’t ride. Instead, we might focus on leading and pivoting on the hinds, an exercise that Ellie enjoys. To prevent boredom, we incorporate various forms of groundwork, which transfers directly to riding.

Understanding and Overcoming External Obstacles

Winter introduces factors beyond our control that make riding a challenge, such as fewer daylight hours, harsh weather, and extreme temperatures. Instead of giving into defeat, consider ways to work around winter weather frustrations.

With darkness lingering longer through the day, this is an excellent time to watch training videos and consider fresh ideas for use later in the year. Meanwhile, when the weather accommodates, work in the barn earlier in the day to take advantage of the light. 

When the weather doesn’t cooperate, battling the cold is as simple as dressing in layers (we swear by our heated gloves). Other options for include thermals, winter riding gloves, lined trousers, and lap robes. Some riders won’t leave home without toe or hand warmers stuffed into their boots and gloves. Remember, there’s no such thing as bad weather, just poor clothing choices.

You Are the Company You Keep

It can be a struggle to hold yourself accountable during the winter. Riding with motivated friends is a fun way to stay on track. It’s easier to maintain energy and avoid falling into a slump with other riders who share similar goals or experiences. Having a friend by your side can offer a fresh perspective and help troubleshoot issues. Surrounding yourself with driven peers is a valuable step toward reaching your goals.

Enjoy the Journey

As you work toward your winter goals, remember to enjoy the journey. The warmth of summer may be gone for now but learning to adapt and appreciate your time with horses away from the trail will benefit you in the long run. There’s no reason winter should dampen your spirits or hinder you from setting goals for you and your horse. Making the most of the resources available will help you overcome the challenges that are out of your control. Enjoy the ride, no matter the season.

For more thoughts on training for the trail as well as the world’s largest and most accurate guide to horse trails and camps, visit us at While you’re there, check out the new shop where you can find my book, The ABCs of Trail Riding and Horse Camping.

See this article in the January 2024 online edition:

January 2024

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