By Morag Higgins WESI MRPCH BHSAI HNCES
For most of us the winter months put a halt on our equine work as we wait out the monsoons, gale force winds and big freeze. This can be very frustrating, especially if you don’t have anywhere to work and your horse is a youngster. Never fear, there is plenty of work you can do over the winter that does not require an indoor or outdoor school and that will prep your youngster for their first rider.
The one thing that a young horse can really struggle with is balance and when we introduce the added weight of a rider they can become very unbalanced and anxious. So, what can you do to ensure your youngster has good balance and is confident on their feet. The most obvious thing is picking up their feet. This can be done in the stable or on the hard standing at your field gate. Take the time to pick up their feet and hold their leg off the ground to allow the horse to establish their balance. Ensure that you horse is standing square and doesn’t have one leg in front of the other making it difficult not only for you to pick up the foot but also for them to remain upright!
To improve their balance you can lead them up and down small hills, encouraging them to go slowly and feel where their feet are. Let them explore things in hand and if it is safe to do so you could lead them out with another horse and let them see a bit of the world. This leading work can be done in their own field or around your yard. Remember, if you are out on the roads make sure you are wearing high viz vests and the other horse is safe and sensible (they should also be wearing high viz equipment).
Take time to ensure your youngster is ok with rugs as this prepares them for a weight on their backs. Please don’t just throw a rug on and hope for the best, if your horse is worried then you could start with something small like a folded up towel. Run the towel over their backs until they are happy with it. You can then drape the towel on their backs and one step at a time unfold the towel to let it hang down. If your horse shows any worry at any point do not continue till they are comfortable with what you are doing. This work can be done in the stable or field shelter. Once your horse is happy with the towel you can progress to a rug. Fold the rug up to prevent the straps from banging against the horse’s legs and keeping the experience a pleasant one.
One of the biggest problems with young horse’s being backed for the first time is that their skin around the girth area is very soft and sensitive. Towards the end of the winter, when you are thinking about sending your horse for backing, you could bathe the girth area with salt water to toughen the skin. You should have spent time over the winter months getting your youngster comfortable with ropes around them (on the ground) or across their backs. This is prep work for long lining and a horse that is comfortable with this is well on their way to the working world. If your horse is happy with ropes across his back then you could wrap a soft rope around their middle at the girth area and gently apply pressure to simulate a girth going on. Be very careful of this as some horses might react to the pressure, do not do this tightly at first but build up the pressure to get the horse used to it. Again this work can be done in the stable or in the field. If your horse is confident you could lead the horse whilst holding the pressure around his middle and get him used to moving with a tightness around his girth area. If your horse is really confident you could get him used to a surcingle or roller but again, do not try this until your horse is happy with the rope pressure and it is best to introduce this in a safe enclosed area such as a stable.
Another thing that is really important and that makes life so much easier for the horse is grooming the horse from a mounting block. This will get the horse used to having someone above his own head height whilst have a nice groom. You could even work up to leaning over him to groom his other side, but again be wary of this as some horses will be startled if your arm suddenly appears in their other eye!!
If you don’t have a youngster but still have nowhere to work your horse in the winter there are still some exercises you could do to keep your horse interested. Most people will be able to work their horse at the weekends so for at least two days a week your horse can be ridden. If the weather is really bad you could rug them up well and do some leading work in your yard or on hard standing in the field. You could make it interesting by putting obstacles such as cones etc in the way that you need to lead around. Again if it is safe and you have appropriate high viz gear you could walk them out on the roads (in daylight) if they are quiet enough. It gives your horse something more interesting to look at other than the confines of his field.
There is also the benefit of just spending time with your horse, either giving them a nice relaxing groom or just spending time hanging out with them. The weather may be cold or wet but your horse will appreciate your company and you could think up fun games for him to play by using feedballs with chopped up vegetables inside etc. It can be relaxing for you to sit in his stable and just clean your tack whilst he munches his hay. Your horse will appreciate your company and you will keep your tack in good condition. There are exercises you can do in the stable which is good prep work for lateral work being ridden and asking them to yield their quarters or forehand is a good start. Remember to keep your sessions short or your horse will become resentful.
Even if you can only ride on the roads once or twice a week you can still keep your horse fairly fit and a long walk will keep them active without stressing them or making them sweat too much. Whilst walking you can practise leg yielding across the road every so often (only when safe to do so) or even practice some shoulder in or quarters in. A little hill work is excellent and your horse will benefit from the time you spend during the winter months and be ready for spring when they are back into full time riding again. Try to get into a routine and for those nights that are too dark to ride, a few minutes spent working your horse in hand or working in the stable will be a great benefit and you will feel the difference when you start to ride. For the youngster you will be making life so much easier and less stressful by taking the winter as an opportunity to do the absolutely vital preparation work for backing. Remember, this work can be done even if your horse is too young to back. The more time you take preparing the easier and quicker the backing process will be. So, try not to despair now the winter nights are around the corner, be creative, think outside the box and try to keep your horse interested in life and in you!