Over the last couple of months winter riding in the Scottish Highlands has thrown everything at us. Every riding condition imaginable. Dry and bright, grippy, glistening hoar frost, fluffy powder days, un-rideable ice-encrusted    trails, freezing mud fests, torrential rain and finally the warmest New Year’s Day on record. You name it, we have had it all. So how do we make sure the four-legged fun continues through the meteorological melee that is Scottish winter riding?

Keeping a trail pup in good working order through the winter months is very much like maintaining your bike; check the pads, bearings and suspension regularly, keep it well lubricated, keep it away from road salt, don’t lose it, don’t break it, choose the right trail for the prevailing conditions and finally, clean it regularly and dry it after every use.

CHECK THE PADS, BEARINGS AND SUSPENSION

On the whole, I actually worry less about tender trail paws in the softer muddy conditions we often get in winter than I do in the hard, dry summer conditions. However, when it is icy, frozen or salty we need to be very mindful of little feet. When the natural trails are a frozen mud fest, we often turn to trail centres or fire tracks. These hard conditions underfoot can be highly abrasive for paws and put a lot of stress on your trail pups bearings and suspension. Be mindful of the distances you are clocking up on hard ground and check trail paws regularly for signs of wear and tear. Some of the best rides I have had with Fergus and Bree have been in the snow. They LOVE it. We have to incorporate frequent rolling around and barking breaks, the conditions underfoot are soft and snowballs at the bottom of every trail are a must. However, the snow brings its own problems; balling up of feet for Fergus and balling up of just about everything for Bree. These little balls get bigger and bigger until they are sore, distressing and surprisingly difficult to remove.I always make sure Fergus and Breagh’s paws are moisturized and healthy using Bark + Ride Paw Balm. We find its natural ingredients safe and manage to sort out dry cracked paws super fast. We also use it after longer fire road blasts and especially coming into drier spring or summer conditions.  I also carry a small pair of scissors in my poo-chi pouch which are perfect for removing the offending articles.

KEEP IT WELL LUBRICATED

Just like us our trail pups need to be kept well hydrated and nourished if they are to stay happy and healthy. One of the best things I have taught Fergus and Breagha is to drink from a water bottle. Most of the year they are more than happy lapping from any natural water source (the muddier the better for Fergus, Bree is a little more discerning), but in the coldest months canine trailside water stations tend to be a bit more limited. I carry my own water in a bladder in my hip-pack and a water bottle for the dogs on my bike. No need for a collapsible bowl as they drink straight from the bottle. We hear Bark + Ride have one launching next week!!!!

Just like me, the cold seems to sap their energy quite quickly. I keep a small bag of their favorite treats in my Poo-chi Pouch strapped to the top tube and use that to keep them topped up throughout the ride.

KEEP IT AWAY FROM ROAD SALT

Just like your bike, road salt is a killer for your pooches paddy paws. It is a mixture of sodium chloride and grit which can corrode metal; just imagine what it is doing to your dog’s feet and skin! The salt can not only irritate the skin, causing dryness and cracking, but can actually burn their pads. The best cure is avoidance, ride in areas where salt isn’t being heavily used. If you do cross an area which has been salted, clean your dog paws and tummy immediately. Carrying a small piece of chamois to dry off stinging paws can be very useful as frequent licking of salty paws causes your dog to ingest the substance.

If you can’t avoid salted ground, consider booties and always inspect feet, noses and skin for dryness, redness and cracking. A wax, petroleum jelly or other protective paw balm can be applied before going out, while a restorative paw balm or natural product such as coconut oil, olive oil or organic shea butter can be used to alleviate any soreness caused by the corrosive sodium chloride.

DON’T LOOSE IT

The daylight hours are much shorter in mid-winter, which means less time for faffing and less time for getting things wrong. It is frustrating enough in the long summer evenings when your trusty trail dog goes for an unscheduled adventure chasing bunnies, but in the winter, it could be the difference between riding home in the day light and the dark. I spend a lot of down time playing training games. The games are great fun, help the dogs develop self-control and get them completely, utterly focused on me. The aim is to become the most exciting aspect their little lives, so when they have to choose between me and the beckoning bunny, they choose me. When we take this to the trail, it means that they go where I go. I don’t need to worry about them heading off into the boonies at Mach 3 after squirrels or going digging while I disappear off down the trail by myself. If they do take the scenic route, a really good recall is super important. Both Fergus and Bree are obsessed by balls. However, they only get their balls when they recall to the whistle. This was a suggestion made by my local dog trainer and has resulted in a bombproof recall. We know a few other riders, Kaz and Harris included, that use a trust tennis ball and store it in their Poochi Pouch too.

The idea of losing one of my four-legged friends in the dark fills me with dread, so even if I am planning to be home well before dark, I still go prepared, you just never know. Both dogs have tags with my contact details, they are both microchipped and if I am riding somewhere they aren’t familiar with Isometimes use a dog Tracker device. As the dusk descends and much to their dismay, I deploy the Lumi lights and sleigh bells. I basically light them up like little flying Christmas trees which jingle and jangle their way down the trail. Not only does it mean I can easily see them, so can other trail users.

DON’T BREAK IT (OR YOU)

I hate when I break bikes, but that is nothing compared to the heartache of being responsible for the breakage of your trail dog. I can’t imagine anything worse than running into one of them or injuring them because I have gone too far or too long. Admittedly, if they are well trained and you are making sensible decisions about their welfare, they don’t break often or too easily.

Trail dogs need to be incredibly well trained in order to keep you safe, keep them safe and to ensure they don’t become public enemy number one to your local MTB community. The best command I have is ‘behind’, I use it on every decent and it means both pups are safely out the way and cannot get run over. I particularly like the ‘behind’ command when it is muddy and slippy as the unpredictability of the trail conditions, or perhaps more accurately, the unpredictability of my riding, means I often don’t go exactly where I planned which could easily result in a collision with a wayward trail hound.

Despite them being fairly robust pieces of equipment trail pups do break with surprising ease if we overdo it. Going too far, too fast and for too long is a perfect recipe for trail dog breakdowns. Over stressing joints, damaging paddy paws and causing unnecessary wear and tear can lead to irreversible damage. Think about the age, development, fitness and breed of your dog. If they have had a number of duvet days due to inclement weather and trail conditions, then build them back up slowly. Finally, if the conditions really aren’t great, don’t take them. Go for a walk or do some trail dog training ready for your next adventure.

CHOOSE THE RIGHT TRAIL FOR THE PREVAILING CONDITIONS

Choosing the right trails at the right time is the key to happy trail dogging. When the conditions are inclement and if we have haven’t been riding regularly, I always keep it short. It is amazing how quickly we clock up miles on the bike. Winter miles are harder on us, but they are a lot harder on our dogs. Fergus and especially Bree can cope with far less in the wet and cold and I always find they need a good feed and a big sleep even after fairly short winter outings. However, even if our dogs can’t go as fast or as far as we can on the bikes, they will run themselves into the ground trying. Our four-legged side-kicks aren’t aware of their limits, so it is up to us to be. Err of the side of caution, our personal riding ambitions are not at the top of the list when riding with our

dogs. I love the perverse satisfaction of coming home feeling like all my muscles have turned to noodles, I have suffered and conquered it! However, we need to be a bit more sensitive when it comes to the doggos. Both of my trail pups have two settings, stop and go. They go until they can’t go any more and then they stop. There is very little middle ground, just full commitment to life then crash and burn. You need to know exactly what your dog can cope with and think carefully about how different conditions will affect them. Some days it’s just not safe to take the dog – use those days to train for the glorious days of shred to come.

CLEAN IT AND DRY IT AFTER EVERY USE.

Although they cope really very well with a variety of weather conditions, both Fergus and Bree get very cold, very quickly when we stop. If I don’t dry them and get them warm, I have noticed it takes them a lot longer to recover. To avoid them getting too cold I make sure they are properly attired on the trial. Fergus is pretty hardy if he keeps moving and only wears a coat when it is really cold and wet, but Bree gets cold very quickly so needs to be nice and snug. In cold dry conditions she wears her Bark and Ride Chillbreaker coat and when it is wet, she has a soft shell waterproof.

I carry chamois towels in the car and give the pups a good dry before they slip into their fleecy onesies. The Bark and Ride Chillbreakers do a great job of wicking away any remaining dampness and both dogs are usually nice and dry by the time we get home. Bree is blessed with very fine, silky hair to which the mud just doesn’t seem to stick, she is always clean. Fergus on the other hand makes up for it and reliably returns to the car black. The trail towel is brilliant for getting rid of the mud. I also have one of those portable dog washing machines, both the trail pups hate it, so I hardly ever use it for its intended purpose, but it does a cracking job of my bike!

Winter riding in the Scottish Highlands with our trusty trail dogs really is about being prepared for anything. In order to keep them safe, happy and running well you need to keep them well maintained. – Becs, Fergus and Breagh