“Where do you go for the winter?”
When I answer that I stay at Jonathan’s farm in PA all winter managing over 60 horses, I get many apologetic grimaces, but what people don’t understand is the winter months at the farm are very important and telling months as we are legging up horses and teaching new prospective jumpers the ropes. It’s a very crucial time for steeplechasers, turf horses coming back, and also young horses, and I really enjoy being a part of the process.
I don’t love the cold, the bad weather, and all the other hassles that come along with winter, but I do love the feeling of the hard work paying off come spring when we send our horses to the races. Last year we had quite a few winners over jumps that never shipped south, they spent all their time jogging roads and training in the snow, and came out firing early. I hope that this year will be no exception.
We all enjoyed a break after the Colonial Cup; I enjoyed a vacation/my honeymoon (finally) for a week, the horses enjoyed turnout time, and everyone in the barn had time to wind down from the whirlwind of a year that 2015 was for us. But when January rolled around, it was time to get back to business!
Both the jumpers and the turf horses resumed training in January, and by resumed training I mean they started jogging the roads. Jogging roads is definitely not something anyone really enjoys, as set after set jogs for miles down the road. But a base of fitness is important to any horse, whether they run 3 miles or sprint 5/8ths, they come back into work and build fitness the same way at Ashwell. Normally the jogging goes on for at least a month, but the weekend of January 23rd we were hit with the MASSIVE snow storm.
The Saturday the storm rolled in no one was able to make it to the barn, luckily exercise rider, Ollie Signey, lives at the farm and was able to hay, water and feed all of the horses. On Sunday, about 9 people (from a normal 25) were able to make it to work. We had to wait for the road to be plowed before we could make it in, but we did make it. However we found that every barn door (There are 5) had drifts up to my neck, and there was no way with only a few of us we were going to be able to dig out of the barn. Therefore, every horse handwalked, but that was the best we could do. It wasn’t until Monday that everyone was able to show up, and we finally were able to get plowed out and we shoveled the doorways and were able to get the horses turned out. It took 5 hours to shovel and plow out the whole barn, all while switching out horses in round pens for them to stretch their legs. There were a number of them we had to walk when they came in because they were so out of breath and fatigued from leaping through snow drifts up to their chests! Finally, by Tuesday we were back in business and that’s when the real fun started!
Following the snow storm, the type of winter training began that I love. Although I am sometimes jealous of the warm temperatures in Florida, those people don’t get to gallop through chest high snow drifts up and down hills on powerful animals. The other amazing part of this is how much the horses enjoy this type of training, and how fit they get from galloping through snow! With the amount of snow we got, we were able to gallop outside in it for about 3 weeks until the weather got abnormally warm, we got a rain storm, and it all pretty much washed away.
This is always the part that all of us riders dread. The horses have gotten very fit galloping through the snow, and us riders have not really done the same. All of a sudden they are set to gallop on the track and are so ready to go and feeling fresh, and that’s when we realize how fit we aren’t! We get toted around the track, but I think the horses enjoy it and it helps them be in a good place mentally, or that’s what I tell myself as I am at their mercy galloping around the track!
This put us at the middle of February, and that is when the prospective steeplechasers for the spring started working on and honing their jumping skills. We took sets to an indoor arena down the road weekly and learned a lot about the new jumpers in our barn! We take them through grids, and learn about how smart they are at correcting themselves when they knock a rail and also how their brain handles a trip in the trailer. It is very educational for the horses and for us really, and definitely gets spring fever rolling!!
Along with the indoor trips, the weather had gotten good enough the end of Febrary that we were able to take a few of our horses out foxhunting! We had an excellent day with Cheshire just a week ago, where we took three maidens, AlltheWayJose (2014 Novice Champ but a maiden to foxhunting), and Nationbuilder who is prepping for a timber comeback. All five horses jumped first field and were out for two hours! We are so privleged that Jonathan asks us and trusts us to take these great horses out foxhunting when he is in Florida! Not only do we have a lot of fun, but the horses love it as well, and it’s a great fitness builder for them!
Now we are at the beginning of March, horses are galloping on, we are making trips to Hannums Hill (3 mile jog over where we gallop up a long hill 2 times and then jog home), and starting to school outside. Point to points are beginning next week, and we will start looking for flat races to give our jumpers a prep before starting over hurdles for the year. Laurel Park’s next condition book has turf races written, and it won’t be long before people and horses start coming back here from down south.
I’m definitely ready to see winter go, as it’s been long and a pain as always, but I am excited to see how the horses come out running that wintered here. We have the steeplechasers ready to begin their season, a stakes filly gearing up for Keeneland, and quite a few other turf horses who will be striking early in the Mid-Atlantic.
I’m sure everyone who has wintered around here feels the same kind of relief and satisfaction when the winter months come to a close, and even a little fed up and wondering why they put themselves through another winter “up north”. However after a (hopefully) successful season, we will all feel it was worth it and before we know it it’ll be January again. But for now, let the race season begin!