By Morag Higgins WESI MRPCH BHSAI BscES EqL4
Now the winter season is truly upon us most horse people are battening down the hatches and gamely preparing themselves for the hard slog of winter routine. For most of us winter is a survival game and little thought is given to training your horse, especially if you don’t have any riding facilities.
However, believe it or not, now is the time to be preparing your horse for the summer season. When thinking about training most of us immediately think about riding, but this is not necessarily the case. Training can be done from the ground as well as from the back of your horse and we should be training our horses and ourselves every time we go near them. Catching in the field is training, teaching your horse to be patient, to be polite and to stand up straight whilst you put your headcollar on. How many of you are headbutted, shoved around and generally harassed as the horse demands that you bring them in RIGHT NOW! This behaviour will be magnified when you get to a showground or competition in the summer, so it stands to reason if you can teach your horse to be patient and calm when you are handling him in the winter, he will be much more biddable and obedient under other stressful situations, he may not be perfect but the groundings of good behaviour should make your life a little easier.
When you are leading your horse, either to the stable or field shelter or if you only have a bit of field you can, if it is safe, lead your horse around for short sessions, make sure you are not being sloppy and that your horse is attentive and active, staying light on the rope and listening to your commands. Practice stopping and turning, yielding the forehand and quarters, backing up etc, it only takes a few minutes each day and your horse will become lighter and lighter and more responsive as time progresses. This will have an immediate affect on your horse when he is being ridden again as he has basically been worked all winter on suppleness and lightness and you will feel the difference when you get back into the saddle.
If you are lucky enough to be able to ride through the winter then you should try to work at least every other day. This doesn’t mean grinding round and round the track in mindless walk, trot canter, vary what you are asking your horse by working in hand. If the weather is too wet to ride comfortably then it might be easier to put a rug on your horse, a waterproof jacket on yourself and do some line work in the arena. It only needs to be 5 or 10 mins work but at least it is something. If you can ride, try to vary what you are asking. Ride out every other day if you can whilst the weather is decent enough or if you can’t get out during the week, try to leave the weekends for hacking during the short daylight hours and schoolwork for the week nights. If you are giving your horse a couple of days off during the week and doing groundwork for two days a week then you really only need to be riding for three days a week, this is really not too much to ask and will make a huge difference to your horse. Remember, it is not the quantity of work that is important it is the quality. 10 mins of really hard work is better than 30mins of slopping or charging around and the horse will be more grateful for frequent short sessions than 4hrs of riding crammed into one day!
If you are unfortunate enough to be on a yard where the horses do not get any turnout during the winter then it is even more important that you spend time and work your horses. Most yards like this will have mechanical exercise units like horse walkers available and for the horse’s peace of mind it is better to do some time in the walker through the day to breakup the boredom of standing in a box. I personally don’t like walkers but, if my horse had no option then I would use them to at least get him out of his stable for an hour or so and I would be spending at least two to three hours a day with him to give him work and interaction such as grooming or just company. It is even more vital in situations like this that you work and train your horse through the winter as the lack of movement and socialisation can have a huge physical and mental impact on the horse.
Now we have been harping on about how important it is for the horse to continue training through the winter and it is equally important that we continue to train ourselves through the winter. Most people don’t mind “Letting themselves go” a bit when the cold sets in but really we shouldn’t. We expect our horses to stay fit and trim so realistically we should do the same. The sheer hard physical work involved in caring for your horse will burn off a few pounds but we should also be training ourselves to be thinking more about what we are doing and building up those very important riding muscles so that we are not in agony on the first day of spring when we hop into the saddle and go for a hack.
This can be done in a variety of ways, there is always the gym (personally I don’t do gyms as I would rather be with my horse), if you can’t go to a gym then think about how you are working around your horse. As you are mucking out why not do some leg stretches as you bend down for the poo, or do some step work up and down a mounting block for a few minutes. Carrying waterbuckets is brilliant and practice some weight training as you lift them slightly away from your body. Be inventive and creative, it only takes a few minutes and you can use the equipment around you as weights or props. One of the best ways to train your mind and build your muscles is to groom your horse with both hands. When you are on the horse’s right side you should have the brush in your right hand (the hand nearest the horse’s head) and on the left side it should be your left hand. Make the effort to do this and stop whinging about “Oh that’s my weak side, it’s too difficult, I can’t do it”, man up and get on with it! We expect our horses to be ambidextrous and balanced on both reins but we tend to be lazy and uneven in our coordination and muscle development then wonder why the horse struggles on one rein more than the other. Believe me, you will feel a huge difference in your riding if you become adept at a simple task as grooming with both hands.
The winter is also the perfect time to exercise our brains and train our minds. One of the best ways of doing this is to visualize how to achieve your goals. It might be ideal to sit down and right out what you would like to achieve this year, there are several very good courses you can go on that can assist you in thinking clearly about what you want and how to achieve them.
I recommend Margaret Rae from Raecoaching M: 07832 232 009 to help you achieve this with a full range of courses specially designed for equestrians ranging from one to one sessions or two day training programmes and what better time to do this than the winter months where riding time is limited. Remember, this is the most important training period you will have, use the time, think creatively and you will be up and running for the summer season.