As I sit by the fire while snow is falling yet again, and on the second day of spring no less, I am again kicking myself for not sending our horse south this winter. Realistically with all we've been going through it wouldn't have worked out this year but a winter like this one really helps me wrap my head around the idea of sending the horses even if the humans can't go.
Many people on the East Coast, and elsewhere in the country for that matter, send their horses south for the winter. The big attraction for people across the country is the amount and quality of competition available in Wellington, Florida during the winter. Wellington is the most upscale version of going south and takes a pretty serious budget but if you can afford it there is quite an equestrian scene there. WEF (Winter Equestrian Festival) runs all winter long and offers weeks of showing in the warm weather in the Hunter, Jumper, Equitation and Dressage disciplines. If you are a rider who is hunting points for the pony division or working toward a dressage medal or some other particular honorific, going to Florida expands the opportunities. Most of the professionals where we live in Massachusetts go south for some period of time so if you don't go you end up a bit on your own.
Eventers tend to go to Ocala, Florida or Aiken, South Carolina. Board in these places is very reasonable and there is a ton of land and open space. There are plenty of schooling shows and some horse trials so if the snow ever melts up north your horses are ready to go out and compete in the spring.
As to the why, well, all you have to do is sit in a freezing cold indoor watching 4 horses going in circles while someone is trying to give a lesson and another person is waiting to lunge and you understand that staying home is frustrating. The bottom line is riding is an outdoor sport and when you bring it inside for 6 months it begins to lose some of its appeal. The barn we ride at has 4 outdoor sand rings, a round pen and a XC course so it's an extreme change for us from summer to winter and the horses feel it as well.
If you stay behind in the winter there is only so much you can do. The horses hardly move in their paddocks so they start every day stiff and cold. There isn't much room and you are always fighting the crowds. If your trainer went south then you may not have any professional support.
I did the math and going south actually wasn't going to be all that expensive for us. Our trainer didn't end up going but, if she had, the fees she would charge for training board in Florida, which would include her riding our horse 4 times a week, was actually less than our current board with two lessons and one training ride a week we pay for here in Massachusetts. Our farrier and vet both go down south so none of that would have to change. We would then have to pay shipping both ways and half board to hold a stall at Course Brook but all in it wasn't a bad deal. Of course my assessment was meant to encourage my husband to go along with the plan and didn't include the several trips south my daughter and I would be making - airfare, car rental, hotel.
Having a horse down south does give the humans a great excuse to escape the winter. In the hunter/jumper scene the kids tend to get into more of a routine, going down on Thursday nights and flying back on Sundays. For them, the 12 weeks of WEF mean an opportunity to ride against all the best kids in the country and gain ground accumulating ever important points to qualify for the year end national shows. As more kids opt to take this route, it makes it harder for the kids that stay up north to catch up during the regular season. The kids we know who event and send their horses south either stay down for 3 months (each has worked out something different with their schools) or they go down a couple of weekends and for a week over break. Most winters there are many people who send their horses down for 6 - 8 weeks during February and March to start their conditioning for the spring season. This winter the people who had that intention have decided to just leave the horses down there until May. The ground up here is still frozen and covered in snow. There's nothing to do here!
This year I decided that to do such an extravagant thing for the horse of a 12 year old girl set an undesirable precedent. I believe riding through the cold is character building and part of earning the privilege of having a horse. Sadly, I had to build my character right along side my daughter and I'm heartily sick of the cold. I have a friend who keeps horses at home and has a couple of boarders. She sent her two horses south this winter with her trainer and will never keep them home again. It completely changed her stress level.
Theoretically, spring is right around the corner. Hopefully this will be the end of lamenting the choice to stay home this winter.
Update: We are now heading into winter 2016/2017 and we thought seriously about going south for a month. My daughter has some early season goals that will be hard to achieve without heading south but in the end, we aren't going. We will hope for an early spring and shoot for an early season event in Virginia to get things started.
It is also worth noting that for young riders eventing in Area I, Florida does come into play at some point. To be chosen for the Area I NAJYRC team kids have to ride in a couple of competitions in Florida the winter prior to the championship. I don't think we will ever be on that path but never say never!