Our first winter back north was a brutal one. By October we had experienced our first snowfall of the season, and it just kept coming. February turned out to be one of the coldest on record with average temperatures hovering around 11 degrees Fahrenheit. This was a huge shock to my wimpy Texan system which had become accustomed to only short bursts of cold weather. Prior to the onset of winter, my daughter and I had talked excitedly over the prospect of riding through fields covered with powdery snow. Once the snow did start falling so did our expectations of riding in it. In short, we were constantly frozen like two Popsicles snatched from the ice box. I thought I knew how to dress for exercising in the cold, having been a runner for 35 plus years. What I soon discovered was that dressing for winter riding was quite different from dressing for a run, and my usual layering technique left me feeling chilled to the bone. The main reason for this? Most winter running gear is designed to trap the heat that is quickly generated through running, much like a wet suit traps cold water that warms on contact with the body. Depending on the intensity of your ride, you may not generate enough heat to stay warm if dressed in such heat-trapping gear. Even if you are doing a good deal of posting and cantering, the process of bringing a horse in from a field and tacking up may leave you feeling cold and stiff before you even get in the saddle. It is no fun riding when your legs and hands feel as though rigor mortis is setting in. You also don’t want to put on so many layers that you cannot have effective use of your hands and legs.
So how do you stay warm in the cold?
- Avoid base layers made from cotton, and pick clothing made from synthetic fabrics. While cotton is perfect for keeping you cool in the heat of summer, it is not a wise fabric choice for winter. Cotton absorbs moisture, leaving you chilled and increasing the likelihood of hypothermia. Instead choose fabrics that wick moisture away from the skin, such as polypropylene or wool. For outer layers, choose fabrics that are built to withstand wind and water, such as nylon or polyester. Down can be a great light weight material for an outer layer if you are riding inside and out of the elements. However, when down gets wet it absorbs water thus cancelling out its insulating properties.
- Dress in layers. Choose layers that provide ultimate warmth without bulk. Trust me, it’s very difficult to ride when you feel like the Stay Puff Marshmallow Man.
Wear a fitted, but not tight, base layer made from a moisture wicking fabric. Clothing that is too tight can leave you feeling cold, and will restrict your movement in the saddle. Next, wear a middle layer that also has moisture wicking properties, such as wool or fleece. Finally, choose an outer garment suitable for the conditions you are riding in. If you are outside, choose a jacket that is waterproof and wind resistant. If you are riding inside, an insulating down jacket will keep you feeling toasty warm. The great thing about dressing in layers is that you can always remove one if you get too warm.
3. Wear insulating gloves designed for equestrians. There are a number of winter gloves on the market made for riding, with varying levels of Thinsulate for warmth. If you primarily ride outside, look for gloves that have a waterproof outer shell and a good grip. If riding indoors, leather or synthetic leather gloves with a Thinsulate lining are a great option. On really cold days, slip on a pair of silk glove liners, made by SCG, underneath your regular winter riding gloves. For the ultimate in winter riding protection, Heritage Extreme Winter Gloves offer 70 grams of Thinsulate insulation bonded to a polar fleece liner. In addition, they contain a wind and waterproof membrane to keep hands warm and dry. To top it off, these state-of-the-art winter riding gloves come with a little pouch to hold a hand warmer. Maybe Santa will bring me a pair…
4. Choose winter riding boots designed to keep feet warm and dry. Snow, mud, and rain will take a toll on delicate leather boots. Instead, look for water resistant boots lined with fleece or Thinsulate. Some winter riding boots are bulky, so try them on to make sure they don’t interfere with your stirrups. Choosing wool riding socks will also help to keep your tootsies warm and dry.
5. Protect your head from the elements. When the temperature creeps south of 40, I find a hat does wonders for keeping away the chill while tacking up. Some days it is tempting to keep the hat on and leave the helmet in the locker…But this is never a safe decision. While the helmet does keep my head warm, very frigid temperatures leave my ears feeling numb. Purchasing a winter helmet cover will save you from having to choose between the hat or the helmet. These covers may not not be the most fashionable part of your wardrobe, but they will certainly protect your ears from frostbite.
Stores intended for outdoor enthusiasts, such as REI and Sierra Trading Post, are great places to find deals on moisture wicking base and middle layers. Look to equestrian sites, such as SmartPak and Dover Saddlery, for winter riding jackets and gloves. Over the next few weeks I’ll be reviewing some of my favorite winter gear. Do you have a favorite pair of winter gloves or boots? Send me your product review and I’ll post it.
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