Not making it to Florida or Aiken this year? Never fear, here are some ideas to get you and your horse through the winter in better physical and mental shape than when you started and ready for the new competition year! Couple of things you have to know about me and my horse first:
1) Newman is a Trakehner, the most versatile breed of horse EVER, which also means he gets bored quickly.
2) I’m a veterinarian, so daily movement in the form of turn-out as well as controlled exercise to maintain cardiovascular fitness, strength, and flexibility is important to me.
3) My equestrian background is dressage and combined driving, which means my winter activities focus on those sports – their jargon, tack and equipment, purpose, etc.
I’m lucky in that the barn where I board only has three horses and each has an individual paddock connected to their stall, the door of which is never closed. So our horses are free to meander around 24/7, although some days I can tell that Newman did not move from his hay net AT ALL because the footing was bad, it was windy, or the warm sun just made him sleepy. On those days, I spend more time grooming and more time warming up so that his soft tissues, bones, and joints are not “surprised” by sudden exertion.
One thing I’ve been doing with Newman ever since I first got him at age 4 is free lunging, which some folks call liberty work or loose exercise. We have the best success when he walks, trots, canters, and changes direction calmly and to my verbal, whip, and body language cues and doesn’t just careen around or go off on a bucking spree. Let’s face it, some horses (and humans!) are not capable of free lunging, but with patience and consistency it can be an excellent way to build a relationship with your horse, warm them up prior to “real” work, and provide exercise on days that are too cold to ride.
Speaking of days that are too cold to ride, when the forecast predicts a “cold snap” or several days in a row of cold weather where I can’t feel my fingers and toes, I set up a jumping chute in the indoor arena. This ensures my horse continues to maintain his fitness, strength, and flexibility while at the same time gives him a mental break from the structured dressage exercises. It helps to have a horse that free lunges well, and sometimes having two people (one at each entrance) is also handy, but Newman really seems to enjoy going through the chute at the different gaits with either no poles, poles on the ground, a single jump, or even a gymnastic series of jumps set at correct distances for his stride.
Or course, there’s always good ol’ lunging, which does not have to be boring and unhealthy but can and should be interesting and productive. I challenge you to improve your horse’s gaits, suppleness, submission, and connection with you by perfecting your 20-meter skills, seeing if you can walk up and down the arena while lunging, teaching your horse to go in traditional or sliding side reins, and encouraging a more active hind end with the Pessoa Lunging System.
Work on the Long-Rein and Work on the Short-Rein
Ready to move into advanced schooling on the ground aka in-hand work? For these techniques you’ll definitely want to receive instruction yourself and perhaps even ask a professional to correctly start your horse. It can take a while to get the hang of walking, holding two lines, and managing a whip, but working with two reins – sometimes directly behind the horse, sometimes behind and off to the side, sometimes in the middle of a circle, and sometimes at his shoulder – can be an incredible education for you both and really aid in reaching that next pinnacle of success. From basic walking to trotting and cantering, and from simple leg yields to shoulder-in, haunches-in, renvers, and halfpass, work in-hand can really develop the mind and body of the horse and handler. Schooling your horse on the ground keeps you both warm and mentally engaged, two things necessary to make it through winter.
As you can probably tell, there’s no end to the new and exciting things that you and your horse can do together to break up the dark and dreary days of winter and be ready to step into the new competition year. For example, in addition to regular under saddle work, there’s an unlimited number of ways you can incorporate poles and cones. Whether you choose classic and traditional patterns or go the novel and innovative route, they can really break up the monotony of four walls if you have an indoor arena or the sameness of just walking if your only place to work is outside on frozen or slippery footing. If you have a versatile and safe horse like my Trakehner, give bareback a whirl or even try your hand at sidesaddle.
And every once in a while, just have fun in the snow!