2018-04-07 / Opinions


When a Sunny Day Turns Soggy: Riding In and Out of the Elements
by Candice C. Dunnigan

Welcome, April! With this month comes rain, snow, sleet, as well as shine, if you live in Michigan. On Mackinac Island, the external elements are with you day and night. For those who work with horses, whether riders or teamsters, there is nothing worse than being wet and cold from the start of your day to the finish.

Horsemen here have long since adapted to dressing in layers. A base layer usually consists of some kind of T-shirt and long johns next to your skin. Jeans, or a durable work trouser, are next, followed by a turtleneck on top, flannel shirt, fleece vest, and a canvas or treated-canvas outer jacket. The final topping usually consists of rain pants, rain jacket, or poncho. Add to that perhaps an ear band and neck warmer; for your feet, sock liners, socks, and durable boots. No matter how wet the horse can get, he usually is still warmer and more deeply insulated than his human counterpart, and he dries off quicker.

Fellow trekker Gabi Geibel in rain gear including upper leg rain guards. Fellow trekker Gabi Geibel in rain gear including upper leg rain guards. At this time of year, there are very few riders or riding horses on the Island. Trail riding in the state really begins in earnest in the latter weeks of this month. Those who want to ride in spite of bad weather, however, who have asked for some suggestions on what to wear on Mackinac in the shoulder season when it comes to trail riding. Since folks are now planning visits to Mackinac Island, which might include a horseback ride for some, what to wear or bring has merit to mention, as well as trail riding in a lot of other places where the weather is anything but constant.

This past February, I returned for a riding week on São Miguel, the largest island of the archipelago in the Azores. It is full of horses, cows, and verdant and lush landscapes. It is called “The Green Island” for good reason, as much rainfall attributes to its colorful name.

Intrepid trail riders in their gear, including author and son, in São Miguel, Azores, Portugal. Intrepid trail riders in their gear, including author and son, in São Miguel, Azores, Portugal. Although mild, with temperatures in the low 60s, it is wet. This year, I was better prepared than previously. I also was accompanied by a fellow rider, my adult son. Although he grew up riding horses, he certainly did not have all the riding paraphernalia.

These are some solid basics for trail riders of all ages and sizes. They might want to consider this whether they plan to come to Mackinac Island and hit the trails, or travel in the valleys of Iceland, or Argentina. I have learned to incorporate apparel from specific equestrian outfitters as well as items that can be found at the local “farm and family stores.” The items are handy on the trails with a horse, but can just as easily be suited to offer some comfort riding a bike or hiking a path on a soggy day on the Island.

Footwear is important. When riding, something that gives your toes protection from getting stomped on, and keeps your feet dry, is of concern. One of the best boots out there is a combination reinforced leather and canvas boot that laces. Laced boots help to tighten ankles. One such product is made by Ariat, and can be found at any of the farm shops or online. It has a good sole, because one never knows when you might have to dismount and walk with your horse. Likewise, it makes a decent hiking shoe. It is smart to purchase a can of waterproofing spray and treat the boots for extra protection. I am on my fourth pair in 20 years. The price tag is still less than $100.

A riding helmet is a must, but as with trail riders, and rental stables on Mackinac, no one really cares what “brand” it is, but it should be certified. Suffice to say that stables will have them on hand to lend out, and these should show ASTM/SEI certified (look for that inside the helmet). Otherwise, you can buy your own certified helmet. I opt for a certified lightweight, adjustable version, and Ovation and Troxel are both good bets. Mine weighs less than four slices of fudge. This, too, can be purchased from a farm store, online, or a tack shop. I suggest getting an adjustable helmet with a visor. Visors are good for shading the sun and deflecting the rain. An adjustable helmet can enlarge to accommodate an ear band for warmth. I take both with me in my flight bag.

In the old days, 25 years ago, I was riding in a waterproof, expensive rubber boot called Aigle, which came from France. They were great, but clumsy to travel with and heavy in my luggage. These days, I travel in my riding shoes and I take along my half chaps, which seemingly have become universal in use. Half chaps can be costly, but they don’t have to be. For riding trails, suede ones are fine, and they don’t have to match your paddock boots. What you need is leg protection. Measure around the widest part of your calf when in jeans or breeches. Also size the height from your instep to below your knee. Finding a wide-calf half chap proved to be a stumbling block for my son on this Azores trip. Then we eliminated the tack stores and searched online, found an equestrian wholesale site, and bought a pair for less than $35. They did not fall apart in the weather, and look to have a lot of life in them.

If you are a hiker, or a biker, you know how best to keep your upper self in comfort in inclement days. If you are a rider, and coming to Mackinac Island, and you do not have one, get a riding jacket that covers you and has a hood large enough to go over your helmet. There is a certain “cringe” factor when rain starts running from your hat, down your neck, and onto your back. A jacket with a hood large enough garners many points. Check this out, as many of the “fashion” jackets look great, but only “just” cover your head if you are wearing a baseball cap, not a helmet. This does not have to be a Drover coat style, as there are many very lightweight fabric types out there. These brands include Irideon, Horseware, Mountain Horse, and Outback Trading Company, to name a few.

Ponchos, while lightweight and packable, are not the best bet for trail riding, even though their coverage is good. Ponchos can flap in the wind and cause a horse or rider to spook. They can also fly up in the face of a rider if he or she is going at a fast pace, and they are easy to snag in underbrush. Forgo the poncho.

The best vest is a thin one. A vest with a high neck and dual zipper works well; the less bulk the better as riders move with their horses. The pants one wears can be anything from jeans, riding jeans, or breeches. The older and the softer, the better, if you are going to top them with an outer layer.

Rain pants (although I have found they are never completely waterproof) help to keep the chill and dampness off the legs. Rain pants come in all shapes and sizes, and begin pricing around $25 and upwards, into hundreds of dollars. Look for reasonable bottoms that zip or have easyopen fastenings. Those with foot elastics do not ride up on your leg in the saddle. Ask any dock porter or Island driver and they will tell you, “Rain pants are rain pants, and are not just for riding. They work great if you are driving a dray, a taxi, or riding a bike.” There are also rain toppers. We rode with a lady from Germany, who sported waterproof half leggings. They covered just below the thigh area and were an apron-like “upper-half chap, half chap,” very lightweight and packable. These are harder to find in the United States.

Gloves are a good bet, even the inexpensive neoprene gardening gloves to help keep wet hands from slipping. While they may not last for more than your trek, these are inexpensive, easy to carry, and offer protection. Many a kid leather glove has left a lasting dye on wet hands.

And last, but not least, is some kind of a waist bag. Some call them “bum bags” or “fanny packs.” In any event, they can hold a pair of glasses, money, cell phone/camera, bandages, and ointment. While these bags seemed the norm for most tourists a decade or so ago, they have fallen out of fashion. For riding, however, they have proven to be invaluable. Make sure to carry an extra plastic sandwich bag or two in case your carryall is not waterproof and you do not want to compromise your valuables, such as a cell phone or camera.

No matter if you are gearing up for a major trail ride, international adventure, or solely concentrated on riding in spite of a rain when you come to Mackinac, there is some kind of inclement riding wear that can help take care of you. If you manage to own several essential pieces, having one or two of them with you should put you in better shape to ride on a sunny day that suddenly turns into a soggy one, or vice versa.

Happy Spring! Happy Trails!

Candice Dunnigan is a resident, writer, and equestrian on Mackinac Island. She belongs to various national and local equine organizations.

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