Thursday, February 26, 2015

TA&WFTJ Blog Hop: Winter Woes

This winter has been a tough one for equestrians. We have seen torrential rains, deep mud, unending snow, bitter winds and record lows. Words like The Pineapple Express, The Siberian Express, Polar Vortex and El Nino have meant less riding time and more time staring out the window at the weather. This winter has left barns devastated by collapsing roofs, trucks stranded in hub deep mud and frostbitten fingers and toes. All of this has led to our first blog hop. Thee Ashke and Wait for the Jump have teamed up to ask:
1.What is the worst (and/or best) of this winter?
2. What is the worst storm/winter you've ever experienced? Did you have to dig your way out of your house through feet of snow after an epic blizzard? Did you survive a tornado? Have you lived through a hurricane? Tell us!
3. What is the best winter you've ever had? What made it so special?
You don't necessarily have to talk about snow. This is a hop for equestrian bloggers to bitch about the weather as much as they want, and to help those that are tired of winter to not feel alone! "Winter" is not limited to amounts of snow or cold temperatures. In the West Coast, winter involves torrential rains and green things. In the South, it means ice storms. In Florida, it is synonymous with the most beautiful time of the year. In Australia and Argentina, winter is all about summer heat. Everyone is welcome to participate, regardless of climate!
This winter has been a mixed bag, as far as weather goes on the Front Range.

Winter in Colorado can stretch for six months. We can get storms as early as September and as late as May. I've seen it snow in the middle of July and have seen 60 degree days in December. Typically, our heaviest snow months are March and April, with little snow in the months leading up to that. Temps in the upper 30s and low 40s are normal, with overnight temps in the teens. Usually, there is a cold snap that can last up to a week, with temps in the subzero range. One common weather pattern is a heavy snow followed by a warming trend and Chinook winds, which can hit the upper 90 mph range. We don't have ice storms here, but we do get blizzard conditions, which are defined as a storm which contains large amounts of snow OR blowing snow, with winds in excess of 35 mph and visibilities of less than 1/4 mile for an extended period of time (at least 3 hours).

This winter, we started with snow and a cold snap; that tricksy Polar Vortex, which sent temps plummeting below zero overnight and in the single digits during the day. That was late in October, I believe. Since then we have alternated snow storms with warm days, where the snow melts away and the ground dries up. Most of those snow storms have brought between two and ten inches, but none have been severe enough  to close schools or roads. The Front Range is pretty good at snow removal and most of the tenants in this region are decent at negotiating snow covered roads. I travel about 25 miles to work five days a week and although the commute has been slow a couple of times, I've always made it in. And so far, I have managed to get to the barn every day to check on Ashke since we moved to SQA. 

I can't really complain about the weather. For our area, it's been a good combination of sun and snow, since lack of snow equals no water for the Front Range and that results in increased hay prices; I would rather have the snow and pay less in board. Our area averages 300 days of sun a year, and a good amount of those fall during the winter. The snow melts quickly and the grey doesn't usually hang around too long, which is great for those with seasonal depression. 

Our worst storms this winter have been the ones where the blowing snow and dropping temperatures have created ice on the roads. Schools don't close unless we get more than +12" of snow in less than 12 hours with wind overnight, otherwise, snowplows can clear the roads. In the ten years T has been in school I can count the number of snow days on one hand. That's right, ten years and fewer than five days off of school. Our most difficult storms happen when the snow is heavy and wet and falls faster than an inch an hour, with upslope winds bringing moisture from the Gulf of Mexico. Those are the storms that result in snow totals more than 30" along the Front Range. Fortunately, or unfortunately, these storms always manage to pick the weekend to happen, resulting in normal school attendance by Monday. It makes T very sad.

The biggest level of stress for me this winter has been moving Ashke from a heated barn to a non-heated barn where he can come and go in his run at any time. In December. For the first time as a horse owner, I have had to deal with blankets (which I didn't have) and worrying about Ashke having enough to eat to stay warm (which is always an issue in the back of my mind). I'm hoping by next winter, Ashke will have the time to grow a winter coat so blanketing will be less necessary. He seems pretty happy to be able to come and go and has made friends with the horses on both sides of him. I wondered when we first came into the barn if he would self-select to stay in the stall, like Playboy next to him. The answer is a resounding no. He prefers to stay outside. I have opted not to blanket his neck, since he's not clipped, feeling that if his core stays warm, his neck and head can get wet. He seems to be thriving in this environment, considering he looks better right now then he has since I got him. He has found a delightful game of bringing snow in on the top of his blanket and shaking it all over his stall, resulting in heavy, wet shavings when I am there in the evening. Either that or he is peeing a river. Overall, he seems to be handling the temps and the blanketing without issue, which is a huge relief for me considering he has shown signs of colic when too warm in the past. That doesn't seem to be an issue any more.

I think the worst travel conditions I've seen this winter, although the snow totals were right around 12", have been the storms in February. The trend has been warm, dry days where the roads and ground absorb heat, then a storm rolls in. The temperature drops 25 to 30 degrees in a matter of minutes as it starts to snow heavy, thick, wet flakes. Typically, this area is known for it's dry snow and it usually takes at least 8" of snow to equal an inch of water (champagne powder is widely sought by skiers) and more commonly it takes 10 - 12" of snow to equal an inch of precip. However, this February the temp changes have been dramatic as the cold front sweeps in, and the combination of wet, slushy roads, high wind and freezing temps, plus snow, have turned the roadways into sheets of ice. This last Saturday, the weather went from annoying to downright dangerous in the time it took to drive from our place to the barn. When we went from the barn to get T, he was thirty minutes late getting back from the ski resort where he spent Saturday skiing, the cold and wet snow had turned the road to ice. The highways were completely FUBARd with traffic and one of the ramps onto I-70 had a pile up of cars against the outside rail. Between traffic and the storm, our twenty minute drive home took better than two hours.

The best part of this winter has been the trail riding I have been doing. My goal was to do four season riding, getting out on trail in the weather rather than despite the weather. We have done that and I have managed at least 30 miles a month since October, with most months being closer to 40 trail miles. Of course, most of this riding has been done in decent enough weather, with sunshine or thin clouds and temps at least in the 40's. This is a huge jump over last year and both Ashke and myself are ecstatic at being out of the arena on the weekends. Riding during the winter brings the added benefit of being able to ride those same trails during all four seasons, of watching nature change from barren and brown, to bright green, to deep green and finally to the colors of fall.

We've had two really cold rides: the first in a snow storm with just J and I, which was magical and wonderful. This was a planned cold ride in the snow and wind. We were dressed for the weather and it gave us a chance to see what worked and what didn't. This really has been the only planned ride out in an active storm this winter, though. Mostly because we have been graced with great weather in between bouts of winter. It's easy to wait to ride out when the forecast says it's going to be 60 in a couple of days.

The second cold weather ride was the ride at Flatirons Vista with K, W and Eddy. That was completely unexpected and none of us were dressed for the conditions. 

When we left the barn that day it was sunny and 52. Ten minutes down the road, as we crested a hill, there was a wall of dark grey storm descending across Boulder and heading our way. When we parked the trailer and climbed out of the truck, the temps had dropped considerably and the sun was gone. There was a bitter cut to the wind and I immediately regretted not bringing my Carhartt coat. I had a rain coat/windproof jacket stuffed in my pack, a Northface skull cap that fits under my helmet and my winter riding gloves, which kept me from losing my fingertips to the bitter cold. W were able to scrounge up a thermal hat for W and some extra gloves. As we rode out across the Vista, I was still holding out hope that we could do the Community Ditch trail (that was the original plan), however J, W and K were not excited about extending our ride. (My kind of stupidity is what got people killed in past centuries in this kind of weather.) The temp was 19 when we got back to the trailer and I have never been happier to to have had my plans for a ten mile ride over ridden by the sane part of our group. It took the better part of the day to warm up from that ride. Note to self: always over pack for any winter adventure.

Our worse winter storm from my childhood happened when I was seven or eight (maybe?). The snowfall was fast and furious, and the winds were high. These are always dangerous conditions in the west as they result in huge rolling drifts that can cause more trouble than the actual snowfall. Our electricity went out for three days. We built a fire in the fireplace and slept in sleeping bags on the floor of the living room. My father broke out his campstove and we cooked on it or over the fire. I can remember popping jiffy pop popcorn over the fire one night after dinner. It was cold and the snow was drifted deeper than the five foot high front steps at the front of our house. When the snowplows finally made it through, the piles of snow in the front of the house were almost as tall as our roof line. Luckily, our pantry was always well stocked and we had plenty to eat, with water from our well. I don't think we had a lot of farm animals at that point, or I wasn't responsible for them, since I don't remember having to take care of them.

The worse storm I have experienced was in 2003. We drove to Idaho to my mom's house for the holidays. Traveling across Wyoming in the winter is a white-knuckled experience, with incredible wind, white-out conditions and black ice on the roads. The tried and true method of tail-gaiting a big rig at 20 mph (the tail lights are the only thing you can see in the swirling wind) got us to Rawlins before they closed the highway. By the time we reached my folks place, in Southeast Idaho, we were a frazzled mess of nerves and anxiety and we barely reached safety in time. A storm blew in that night that deposited almost four foot of snow and had sustained winds over 50 mph. A true blizzard. We woke the next day to drifts in the front of the house taller than the cars. The drive way was one solid snow drift taller than my head. Thank goodness for the generosity of neighbors. The guy up the street brought his snowblower down. It was six feet tall, eight feet wide and powered by his tractor. He backed in down the driveway and removed all of the snow, blowing it fifteen feet away into the nearby field. The kids, including T, created forts in the snow walls on either side of the driveway. It took several hours of shoveling to extract the vehicles from the walls of snow. Thankfully, that was the last of that weather until we were able to head home.

The winter of 2006-2007 was the most consistently snowiest winter I have seen in Denver. It started on the 17th of December and snowed 33". Every weekend for 10 weeks, we got more snow. The totals were between 8" and 10", and there was so much snow that CDOT started using bulldozers to load it into semi trucks and taking it out of the city to dump on empty lots they had to rent. Some of those lots were thirty feet high with snow and it didn't melt until late June. That was the winter T and I played The Star Wars Saga on the Wii for hours on end at home, so obsessed that we stopped doing anything else. That winter single-handedly got us out of our severe drought by the time it was done.

All of these winters were before I had a Ashke. The winters we've had since I brought him home haven't been out of the ordinary. 

I would have to say that this winter is a tie for the best winter ever. We've had enough clear and warm days that Ashke and I are having a blast getting out and exploring the trails. Being able to ride him outside the arena has really helped with his attitude and willingness to work when we are inside the arena. The combination of those activities has completely reshaped his understanding of what I want and expect when we are riding. He no longer fights to race when we canter, he is balanced and sure footed enough to handle the snowy footing and he no longer acts arena sour when asked to ride inside. Additionally, the arena work on our canter has increased his ability to canter on trail (and vis a versa) and directly contributed our cantering through the trees, laughing and giddy on our last trail ride.

The other winter that will always hold a special place in my heart was the winter I got Queenie. When I got her for Xmas the year I was 12, she was green broke and pretty raw. There was ten inches of snow on the ground when I made my way out to meet her for the first time and it hung around for the next three months or so. I spent hours riding her in the snow in the field behind our house, bareback, in a halter and lead rope. The snow acted as both a conditioning tool (harder to move in deep snow), as a throttle on her speed (hard to move fast in deep snow) and as a cushion (in theory it doesn't hurt as bad to fall into deep snow). She was smart and willing and by the time the snow melted she could neck rein, stop on my seat (which is sooo much easier when you ride bareback) walk, trot and canter on command. By May of that year, we were riding every where in my small town of 800 people. That winter though, that was one of the high points of my life. 

I have always ridden during the winter. As a kid, and especially after I was given Queenie, I pretty much rode every opportunity I got, which was always on the weekends. Most of the time, it was just me and my horse out exploring and adventuring. I can remember riding for hours in the snow, until my hands were almost crippled with the cold and I could no longer feel my feet. We would make our way home at Queenie's running walk where I would struggle to pull the bridle from her head (so much more comfortable to ride bareback because at least one part of my body was warm) and then race into the house to stand in front of the heating vent, almost crying as my hands turned from white to red. I was very careful to make sure my horse did not sweat during our rides and brought her home dry and warm. Both of my little fingers were damaged during those rides and I have been unable to straighten them completely since I was in my teens.

Some weekends in the winter, my sibs would join me on foot. Exploring and following the canal was a favorite adventure. There was one trip my sister still remembers where we were following the canal for miles and miles (we thought we walked far enough to have reached the nearest town six miles away). There were fences in the empty canal to cross, abandoned farm equipment to explore and traverse, and all matter of new barn yards to peruse in our travels. We would always make our way home, snow covered and shaking with the cold, but that never deterred our desire to adventure out again.

As I finish this, our weather has reverted to winter. Again. We have snow in the forecast for the next eight days. March seems to be coming in as a Lion. 

Updated: Denver officially broke a 103-year-old record for snowfall in February and we still managed 37.75 trail miles!!

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  1. Will have to participate, thanks for leaving the Hop open for so long!

  2. Definitely going to do this one!

  3. I always love your stories and the way you write them out. They are so vivid.

    And that photo of you and Queenie at the show: HAWT!!


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