Breaking sleigh trail

 By Phillip Odden, January 17, 2014

This message is from Phillip Odden in Northwestern Wisconsin where we are experiencing an old fashion winter with all the trimmings.

The talk around here, in our rural neighborhood, is about winter. It hasn’t let up. If its not snowing its cold. We have a weather pattern referred to as Alberta clippers. The wind blows hard from the east and then south, it warms up a bit, snows and the wind turns to the west and northwest and it gets down right cold. Then again the wind blows from the east to the south and more snow drifting and then cold.

My 2 1/2 mile sleigh trails were in pretty good shape before Christmas. Over the past couple weeks they have been drifting over. My personal cutoff for comfortable sleighing is 10 degrees fahrenheit. Well today at 3:00 pm it was 12. So I decided to give my pair of grays a go at grooming the sleigh trails. Odden’s Idar is a 6 year old gelding and Odden’s Josephine is a 5 year old mare. Both in good shape. They are a matched pair in color, stride and size. In summer time they are a dark steel gray but in their winter coats are a ghostly silver gray with dark black points. They stand about 14.1, are well muscled, calm and have adequate experience so one can feel fairly relaxed handling them.

I hitched them to my light red bob sled with metal runners and gear. Behind the sleigh I drag two 4x4s and an oak 2x6 chained together. These are to drag and groom the trail. As we left the farm yard I knew the going would be heavy. There were sizable drifts from the Alberta clippers on the trail. We left home at a walk and only once went to a trot to make the steepest hill. They worked with their heads down low and not much contact on the bits. On the way over the edge of the fields the snow drifts almost reached their bellies. Here it was most important that they work together both leaning into the collars on their draft harness. The sleigh runners didn’t have much float in them with the soft snow and the three gang drag picked up a lot of snow. It was work in every step making the sleigh lurch with each forward impulsion from their hind quarters. I was thinking how good this exercise would be for building muscle in those hind quarters. Not sure what they were thinking other than it seemed like hard work.

Penny my red Irish Setter Penny was riding the sleigh with me, sniffing the cold crisp breeze as her partner Tia the tricolored English Setter was our forward scout, as usual. I had so many layers of shirts, under ware, over ware, over shoes, mittens, hats and other assorted clothing that it was hard to bend. Sitting on the sleigh like the michelin man is much less work than pulling it.

I stopped them after the first long pull once we reached the woods. They were panting hard. The gelding panting harder than the mare. I always keep an eye on this. It may be from my CDE experience. I want to make sure they are able to recover in a few minutes rest. After the second pull of about a half mile I could see that the gelding was quivering a bit at his shoulders, a sign that we should take it a little easier. So after their respirations caught up we stopped a little sooner for the next rest. One thing about heavy work is that they learn to stand and catch their breath when they have an opportunity. This pair has always been willing to stand but the gelding would be the first to try to move, though the mare is the more forward thinker of the two. After about an hour and a half we made it back home. The hill coming into the yard on the field’s edge was easier because they had already groomed it going out. The snow had already set up with the falling temps and the sleigh runners rode on top rather than under the snow and the drags had less snow to move.

On the last rest stop clouds of vapor drifted from their sweating bodies into the fresh crisp winter air. Their neck yoke frosted over from their heavy moisture laden breath. The rich deep smell of healthy horse everywhere filtering through our soft fluffy but oh so cold snowy woods.

The woods were quiet with few fresh tracks. The hard winter's deep snow and cold has already limited the movement of the deer. The squirrels are holed up and sleeping I suspect as are many of the other animals in the woods, living off last fall’s well placed fat. Not a bad strategy for those who can. For us it was nice to get the sleigh trails open and groomed again. Next time I will take another pair out for exercise and one day it will start to melt and the trails will get icy fast. What fun that will be. Then we will trot and clumps of snow will be flying from their hooves.

It was good to get the trails opened again and I think the horses felt a measure of accomplishment getting it done. Meaningful work is one of life's greatest pleasures even if it is cold. Now 6 degrees and falling.

Phil Odden