Hoof Beats: ride the wind

I was in my twenties and at the University of Santa Barbara when I met the winds of Santa Ana face to face. Literally. Someone took a photo of me, barefoot, standing on the rocks next to San Marcos Pass, my new pup pressed against my legs. It was a cool spring morning – which explains the thrift store coat – but the wind was warm. It blew Jesse’s fur into waves and my long hair to the side – pulling both of us to the side, towards something I couldn’t quite make out. I still have the photo, a moody black and white shot – a girl and a puppy against the forces of nature. Californian writers love to invoke the Santa Anas because they have almost magical properties – some people insist their real name is Devil Winds.

Mystery writer Raymond Chandler said it best: “There was a desert wind blowing that night,” he wrote at the start of “Red Wind.” “It was one of those hot, dry Santa Anas that come down through mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like this, every drinking party ends in a fight. Sweet little wives feel the cutting edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. For the most part, Chandler wasn’t exaggerating. But – just to complicate matters – the Santa Ana winds can be both cold and hot.

The famous French Mistral winds are always cold, but they have the same effect on humans as the Santa Anas – from irritation to homicide. When my husband and I were in Pisa a few years ago, the wind picked up without warning. The temperature fell to “unbearable” in six minutes flat. I ran to the nearest gift shop and grabbed a shawl. After paying for it, I took off my jacket and wrapped the shawl around my body. Then I put my jacket back on while I was still in the store. I felt like I was mummified. But… I was hot.

According to Lyall Watson, writing for the Literary Hub website, strong winds of all temperatures affect men and women differently. Most women will “seek shelter from the wind,” he insists. But the men feel “restless”. It has that effect on me, too – except I feel exultant, like something life-changing is approaching. And I would not call this phenomenon “restless”. What Watson is describing is our old “flight or fight” response to danger – a rush of adrenaline. Colorado also has its share of hot and cold winds. According to the National Weather Service, the hot, dry Chinook winds are similar to those in Santa Anas, Southern California, while the destructive, cold wind we experienced this winter is the Bora, similar to the Mistral.

Although horses’ reactions to these winds have not been studied, your own eyes and ears will tell you that wind of any kind makes your horse uneasy. Everything seems to move – and millions of years of being prey animals tell your horse that if something moves it’s a potential killer. Even calm horses suddenly become scary. Riding in these conditions is not easy – your horse has stopped listening to you – or safe. The average trail horse much prefers to stay at home, where everything is familiar and feels protected. As soon as he leaves the house, he knows his enemies are there. He hesitates and fidgets and becomes very light in the bridle because he senses danger and his adrenaline surges. He doesn’t “play dumb”. He’s worried about his safety, and you’re putting his safety at risk. Honor this behavior. Don’t punish him by insisting he leave his comfort zone. If you can’t ride alone, can you ride with friends? Not if you want to be surrounded by a group of panicked horses who all see the movement and sense the danger and make a group decision, “Let’s turn around and run home.” Can you spell stampede? And let’s not forget that the stronger the wind blows, the more dirt it carries. Goggles will protect you, but what about your horse?

The smart way to trail is: wait until the wind stops blowing.

Riding when everything is blowing around can feel like “riding the wind”, but that’s not a good idea. Wait for the wind to calm down – and it will. Then get on horseback.

Joan Fry is a lifelong horse lover and the author of “Backyard Horsekeeping: The Only Guide You’ll Ever Need” (The Lyons Press, Revised Edition, 2007). She can be contacted by email at [email protected]

Clyde P. Johnson