Beat the Late Winter Blues
Here in the scenic Great Lakes region, in March we still freeze. Horses are showing the first symptoms of Spring Fever, and the footing stays too rough to do much but tiptoe them out to their paddocks and pray that they exercise good judgment. So, the majority of training and tuning up for better weather is happening in the confines of the barn. Here are five great ways to keep your horse and yourself in a learning frame of mind during a weather-induced winter break.
Insist on Excellence in Ground Manners
I am a stickler for good ground manners anyway, but nasty weather tends to breed fractious horses that are more likely to “test” the humans in their herd. Being consistent in defining your personal space is critical to instilling respect for that personal space. This reinforces the leadership hierarchy with the human in charge, which is critical for basic safety as well as a healthy horse-human relationship. All of your interactions with your horse are teaching him something. A winter’s worth of not “slacking” on simple basic manners will pay dividends on the first ride of the spring.
Polish Old Skills and Teach New Ones
This idea is very related to the first one, but is more specifically targeting a skill beyond basic good manners. How subtle and smooth you can train everyday tasks to make everyone’s life easier in the barn. How good can your horse be at picking up his feet nicely? At keeping his head low enough to halter and bridle without drama? From there, you can introduce more advanced and formalized groundwork like Grooming and Showmanship training. With a little practice in the winter, you’ll have a new skill ready to compete in a new show class next season. Another great option if you have a great foundation of basic manners is to try some trick-training. All of these exercises keep the horse’s mind occupied and promote a willing, curious, and partnering mindset when we get back into the saddle.
Another great option is planning a routine spa day for your stable-dwelling partners. If the weather is too cold for a real water bath, a bit of dry shampoo can do wonders on stubborn stable stains. Beyond the cosmetic value, this is a perfect opportunity to bond with your equine partner, to engage in some non-demanding time together.
I’ve recently taken up a habit of listening to podcasts while I am doing other things, including cleaning stalls, cleaning tack, and grooming horses! Take a look around the interwebz for a podcast on your particular discipline, or for particular episodes that delve into topics that interest you or will help you when the weather does break. I hate fumbling with earbud or headphone cables, so my lifesaver has been my Bluetooth “boom box.” Beyond the barn, dark winter evenings are a great opportunity to catch a training DVD or other educational media. Besides the educational value, these media can be a great source of inspiration to keep you running until spring arrives. You might also want to enroll in a spring clinic that will motivate you through the last of winter.
Maintaining a basic level of physical fitness over the winter will make the transition to regular work in the spring much easier. For the rider, options for indoor exercises are basic bodyweight exercise, yoga, and Pilates for maintaining strength and balance. For the horse, at bare minimum maximize safe turnout. A horse that keeps moving through the winter months will be healthier and happier, and that much fitter to get back to ridden work when the weather clears.
I hope these ideas help get you through these last weeks of white stuff. The worst thing there is for a horse, physically and mentally, is to stand. These ideas are a starting point to transition to winter training-maintenance mode, and to make the shift into increasing springtime work a little easier.