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What to Do with Your Horse When You Both Have the Winter Blues

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.


Free lunge
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.


Jumping chute
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.


Ground-drive/double lunge/Long-line
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!


Lydia F. Gray, DVM, MA SmartPak Staff Veterinarian and Medical Director Dr. Lydia Gray has earned a Bachelor of Science in agriculture, a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM), and a Master of Arts focusing on interpersonal and organizational communication. After “retiring” from private practice, she put her experience and education to work as the American Association of Equine Practitioner’s first-ever Director of Owner Education. Dr. Gray continues to provide health and nutrition information to horse owners through her position at SmartPak, through publication in more than a dozen general and trade publications, and through presentations around the country. She is the very proud owner of a Trakehner named Newman that she actively competes with in dressage and combined driving. In addition to memberships in the USDF and USEF, Dr. Gray is also a member of the Illinois Dressage and Combined Training Association (IDCTA). She is a USDF “L” Program Graduate and is currently working on her Bronze Medal. Find Dr. Gray on Google+

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7 comments on “What to Do with Your Horse When You Both Have the Winter Blues
  1. Jennifer Downey says:

    Great input here. I do incorporate alot of activities to get my horse thru long winters. I only have 1 negative remark, I’ve had horses my entire life (55 yrs) and not once have I ever carried or owned a whip. I believe in human contact only in my own hands or feet.

  2. Karin says:

    All great ideas…what do you suggest when you only have an outdoor ring that has a thick layer of ice covered by 18′ of snow?

    • SmartPak SmartPak says:

      Boy, you REALLY must have the blues! Your choices are down to the area where your horse is turned out, the barn aisle, or your horse’s stall. I had a lot of fun clicker training my horse, my cat, and even my husband (shh, he doesn’t know it) so that’s a mentally and perhaps physically stimulating game for you to play.

      – Dr. Lydia Gray

  3. Hilary says:

    Good basic information but what’s with the condescending tone? Your tip that lunging “doesn’t have to be boring and unsafe” is a really odd suggestion that people lunge their horse in a willy-nilly, uninformed, reckless way, That’s pretty insulting!

    • Lynne Popiel says:

      Well…if the shoe fits wear it! If it doesn’t…chill. I do know too many horse owners who just lunge, and lunge and lunge with no real purpose, and their poor horses just tune out. I think her comment was valid. Be happy you are not one of those folk!

  4. Suzanne says:

    Thanks for the ideas. I also used to do combined driving, and forgot about ground driving. I will try to introduce this during our next cold snap! I think my smart horse will enjoy the variety.

  5. bf says:

    not all of us have the money needed to board during the winter. My mares are out enjoying the snow and fresh air

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