Training the Results: How You Might Be Sabotaging Your Horsemanship Goals
A Lovely Story
I’ve seen it a few times in my life. A well-meaning horse lover becomes inspired or enamored by an example of excellence in horsemanship. Maybe it’s a tackless exhibition ride. Or maybe it’s a liberty work display that showcases what is possible with an amazing relationship between horse and human.
It isn’t at all wrong to find these demonstrations inspiring, or to aspire to that level of horsemanship ourselves.
Where the problem arises is when a trainer tries to train the results that were so inspiring without laying the necessary foundation. This does a fundamental disservice, and can be outright physically dangerous, to horse and rider.
I’ve called this “Hallmark Syndrome” or “Disney-itis” before — the novice equestrian falls prey to the storyline of the average horse movie. You know the plot. A (usually troubled) child/teenager becomes obsessed with a troubled horse who no one can connect with and is in danger of being put down/auctioned, etc. because of its dangerously erratic behavior. The child/teenager, usually in violation of a wiser persons mandate to leave the horse alone, begins secretly working with the animal, and is eventually discovered to have formed a miraculous bond with the animal. The story usually ends with the duo handily winning a prestigious competition.
Sabotaging Your Goals
I actually like this story, to a degree. I’ve read The Black Stallion and Misty of Chincoteague my share of times. I waited for weeks to see the old Disney Channel original movie “Ready to Run” on the TV Guide so I could punch a blank tape into the VCR and capture it. “Flash” was another favorite. There are shades of these themes in “National Velvet,” and I broke the binding on two copies of that book. “Second Chances” and “My Friend Flicka,” I could go on for days. This is the stuff that the fantasies of horsemen are made of.
But it is important to recognize the fantastic element of the story. Instances of this plot playing out with a happy ending in real life are ridiculously rare. Far more often, it turns out in a case of green-on-green equals black-and-blue.
A human-world analog would be tossing an elementary school student who has barely managed addition into an undergraduate calculus class and expecting him to earn a passing grade. Or to throw a YMCA rec league baseball team into the World Series.
What is the antidote?
If a horse isn’t solid in his understanding of the basics, no amount of pushing for him to understand more advanced concepts is going to make it “click.” If something as simple as walking in-hand across the barn yard without wigging out is beyond your horse’s capacity, I can guarantee that a bareback and bridleless ride is going to end in disappointment at best.
It isn’t glamorous or sexy. It isn’t always easy. And it is deceptively simple. So is a brick. But, one at a time, bricks come together to build a mansion. And it can happen faster than you think it will.
Here is a short, short list of the basics that will sabotage your horsemanship if they are not ingrained to the level of habit.
Non-Negotiable Basics To Build On
Accepting Touch (Whole Body) This means that you can groom and handle your horse’s entire body normally without him flinching, dancing away, giving dirty looks, or threatening to defend himself.
Accepting Equipment This means that your horse allows you to fit him with the equipment that you need to use on a regular basis, whatever that means to you and your situation.
Yielding to Pressure Respectfully This means that your horse moves his body forward, backward, left, and right when you ask him to. He should do this willingly, no side-eye or dragging feet, and also without overreacting with flinching, dancing, or bolting.
These three raw basics are the minimum for living with your horse safely. To a degree, mastery of them never ends. But if you don’t basically expect these behaviors from your horse, if you aren’t “surprised” by your horse’s resistance to any of these basics (because we all sometimes have “off” days where we need to go back and revisit doing simple things), you are sabotaging your team by moving on to more complex challenges.
Taking the Lesson Beyond The Barn
As a final thought, I want to encourage you to consider the universality of this idea. When something is not going the way that you want it to, when your goals, in any sphere of life, are not materializing, no matter how hard you are pushing and focusing, what do your basics in that area look like? Are you throwing maraschino cherries onto a bowl of melted room-temperature former ice cream?
You want to get in shape… you are going to go farther by making a basically healthy diet and exercise into routine habit than by agonizing over whether you need foam rolling in your life.
You want that raise or promotion at work. Are you nailing your current job responsibilities? Is doing the simple stuff to your 100% ability your habit?
You want to expand your business, but you’re plateauing at a place where you just can’t crack that next level. Are your staff 100% on their basics? All of the teambuilding workshops and company events in the world can’t make up for shaky basics in operation.
Your problem may be more basic than you think. It may be more basic than you want to hear.
Show and tell time… have you ever come down with a case of Hallmark Syndrome? How did your experience turn out? Share your experience in the comments!
In an upcoming post, we’ll discuss practical steps you can take to un-sabotage your riding and horsemanship goals. Until then, you should be riding, too!
I recently posted an article about mindful horsemanship, and also an article exploring horsemanship considered as a martial art. Since I’m one of those annoying people who can’t encounter new data without relating it back to the context of horses, this week, I’ve got a yoga video to share with you. Yoga and equitation isn’t a new or revelatory combination, but this particular video struck a real chord with me.
Part of my morning routine includes practicing along with a short yoga instructional video on YouTube. I have a couple of favorite channels that I typically gravitate toward, usually looking for a 10-15 minute flow. The goal of this part of my routine is to get the blood flowing, muscles activated, and my mind and body coordinated to start the day.
Without further ado, here is the video that prompted a “click” in my rider’s brain. It’s a short one, so if you’re reading this in a context in which it would be classy to do so, go ahead and yoga along. I’ll wait.
All video credit goes to Yoga with Adriene — massive shout-out to her for her fine work and excellent instructional videos!!! Seriously, check her out on YouTube.
Finding Your Seat Out Of The Saddle
Did you catch the references to finding the sit-bones? To plugging into the earth? How about the ears-shoulders-hips alignment moment?
Easy Pose is exactly how we need to think about sitting in the saddle! The amazing thing is… finding your horseman’s seat is not at all the point of yoga. But, at the same time, the end result of practicing Easy Pose as Adriene instructs is to achieve the same alignment, connection, and grounding that so many of us seek in the saddle. Practicing this pose is going to jump-start your feel and muscle memory for that grounded-but-stretched-upward alignment.
Namaste in the Saddle
In the saddle, finding the Easy Pose as shown in the video is effectively finding the basic neutral dressage seat. Cue lightbulb. More broadly speaking, yoga helps equitation in several ways.
Alignment and Balance
Adopting any yoga pose is a physical challenge to your body to move and stretch while maintaining correct posture and alignment. Just as in the Yoga with Adrienne video above, correct posture and alignment doesn’t change when you throw a horse into the mix. Practicing correct alignment, posture, and balance out of the saddle directly translates to better equitation. Similarly, poor posture while just standing around, or sitting at the computer, will carry over into your riding.
Another side effect of yoga practice is strength training. I am no physical therapist or personal trainer, but I observe a similarity between the kind of strength that the rider needs and the kind of strength that the yogi needs. It is a “holding” kind of strength, a subtle sort of strength that holds stability in movement. In contrast, visualize a power lifter, or maybe a football or rugby player where the strength manifests as brute force.
The most important part of any yoga practice is, hands down, the breath. Movements and transitions between poses are guided by the breath, which is the constant touchstone throughout the practice.
Feel tension? Breathe into that part of your body.
Mind wandering? Focus on your breath.
Challenging pose? Breathe through your discomfort. Now, DON’T try to breath through pain. That would be counterproductive. But, for the mild discomfort of adopting a pose that is on the edge of your physical ability? A stretch or position that challenges the boundary of your comfort zone? Bringing your focus to your breath instead allows you to keep on with the practice and be challenged by the stretch or pose, rather than giving it up totally.
Tethering focus and movement to the breath helps us as riders in the same way.
Breathing, especially deep and slow breathing, like that used in yoga, essentially forces the rider to relax mentally and physically. Consider moments in your riding, or life in general, when you are tense or worried. What is your breathing like? The answer is probably something like short and shallow, probably with brief spans of holding your breath. Have you ever gotten a “stitch” in your side? Especially in gaits like sitting trot or canter? That is a side-effect of unconsciously holding your breath in tension. Bringing your attention back to your breathing will wash the tension out of your body. It’s the first step of the Training Scale, for rider as well as horse. Since the horse mirrors the rider, a tense rider is going to create tension in the horse.
I don’t think I need to explain how a tense mind hurts your horsemanship. Fear and anxiety cripple many riders, keeping them from progressing as horsemen, or even keeping them from riding altogether. Returning focus to the breath relieves tension from the mind as well as from the body. In moments of fear and anxiety, when the “what ifs” take over and keep us from really riding, a few deep breaths relax the mind and bring it back to center.
Horses, in their phenomenal sensitivity and sympathy, mirror our mental and physical state, even before we step in the stirrup. Practicing, even dabbling, in yoga and bringing those techniques to the saddle brings a number of benefits to the rider. It improves our body awareness, and helps us find correct alignment in our equitation. It improves our strength and flexibility. Finally, it gives us the tools and habits to tie mind and body together through the breath, allowing us to relax and center our focus in ourselves, and by extension in our horses.
I’ve taken some of these yoga lessons to the saddle before, but adapting a more formal pose to horseback is an experiment. Easy Pose was a profound success, and a lightbulb moment for me connecting yoga and equitation.
I recommend starting every ride with a moment of quiet, and find your horseback Easy Pose first thing after mounting. There are two major benefits here. First, and most obviously, you’re finding your correct seat and position before you move off. Second, and less obviously, you’re starting your mount’s experience of the ride with a moment of calm and peace that he craves… and also setting his expectation that we stand still for a moment after mounting. 😉 When you have a moment of tension, of fear, of frustration, come back to your rider’s Easy Pose and feel the alignment come back, the rooting upward reach of your position, and the regulation and deepening of your breath.
Many many thanks to Yoga with Adriene for the excellent video and in-depth explanation of Easy Pose. You’ve jump started many of my mornings, and with this particular video forced me to deconstruct my equitation, an effect that I’m sure you never considered. If you haven’t, you really should try riding. Namaste.
The Mindful Horseman: How Mindfulness Can Transform Your Horsemanship
The moment that mindfulness as a concept is having seems to be extending into a full blown movement. It’s difficult to cross the threshold of the internet without running across the idea applied to some context or other. But what does mindfulness mean for riders? What is the place of mindfulness in the barn? Can approaching our horses with a mindful attitude improve our horsemanship?
For the Uninitiated… What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is the act of bringing full attention and to the task or process at hand. It is acknowledging distractions, but not allowing them to distract. It is total engagement with one’s present occupation. Being mindful is being totally present in the moment. It is experiencing and responding to your thoughts and environment without dwelling on the past or worrying about what might happen in the future. Mindfulness is about embracing what you are doing in its totality, without diluting that totality with things that don’t matter or apply.
Anything can be done mindfully. Meditation may be the ultimate form of mindfulness… being mindfully mindful, if you will. Meta-mindfulness. But the concept is applicable to any task. You can eat mindfully, work mindfully, play mindfully, etc.
What Mindfulness is Not
Sometimes mindfulness is better understood in contrast to what it is not. Mindfulness is not multitasking. It is not simply going through the motions while your mind wanders off to other topics.
What Does Mindful Riding Look Like?
Mindful riding is something that we owe to our horses. We expect our horses to give us their full attention and effort. This is only really possible for the horse when we return the favor.
Riding mindfully means that we engage fully with the horse and our ride. We take steps to reduce the baggage and distraction that we bring to the barn. We leave the phone in the tack room… or at least silence the ringer and notifications. The rider is wholly engaged with the horse, returning always to breath and feel and rhythm in the same way a meditator constantly redirects attention to the breath or to a mantra.
Again, to contrast, the opposite of mindful riding is sitting astride the horse in the center of the arena, clicking away on the phone. It isn’t plodding down the trail on a group ride chattering about politics with the other riders. Plodding lazily around the ring, letting your mind wander while your horse sets the velocity doesn’t count as mindful riding, either. That isn’t to say that either of those examples is terrible or abusive, or that they don’t sometimes have their place. Only that they tend not to foster the emotional, mental, or athletic growth of horse or horseman.
How Can You Incorporate Mindfulness Into Your Horsemanship?
Practice Mindfulness Away From The Barn
Practicing mindfulness away from the barn makes it easier to adopt a mindful mindset in the barn. Seems simple, right? Intuitive, even.
There are a number of free or cheap apps available for short guided meditations tailored for the newbie. YouTube has a wealth of channels dedicated to yoga videos, many as short as 5-10 minutes. Tai chi is another excellent low-impact and mindfulness-fostering practice to dip your toes into. Dedicating just a few minutes a day to practicing can provide benefits.
Less formally, you can practice mindfulness by trying to live its definition. Choose an activity that you normally do, say, eating, and commit to doing it mindfully. Silence your phone, eat at the table, off of a real plate, and only eat. But even though you’re only eating, really embrace the experience. Let yourself fully chew and taste before swallowing, rather than bolting the food to get to the next thing. Don’t try to multitask, don’t rush to get on with it.
So, how do you know when you’re being mindful? I find that when I “click” into a mindful frame, I lose track of time. That 10 minute yoga session is over in 3. I get barn chores that would take half an hour done in 15 minutes. I look up from the blog post I’m writing and find that it’s suddenly dark outside my window. Call it “flow,” call it “the groove,” call it what you want, working mindfully seems to help trigger the effect.
Set Yourself Up for Success
Leave the phone in the tack room. Unless you ride solo and it is your “safety buddy” for an emergency, in which case put the thing on silent. You don’t need to be checking it for phantom chirps every 10 minutes. And you don’t need it actually chirping, either.
Make the most of riding lessons. Much like a guided meditation, your instructor can keep you on-task and focused on your riding. If you don’t take lessons regularly, consider scheduling a few with a good instructor as a general refresher and an intensive immersion in your horsemanship. Riding or auditing in clinics is also a great option.
This is my favorite tip… set an alarm. With my day job, I have limited time to spend in the barn, especially in the mornings. Assuming that I don’t want to arrive at the office smelling like a horse, that is. I set myself an alarm for 5-10 minutes before I need to be back in the house cleaning up. That way, I can completely engross myself in mucking, grooming, groundwork, riding, etc., without worrying about losing track of time or breaking my flow to check my watch.
Make a Plan… And Stick To It. Flexibly.
I’m a big fan of Warwick Schiller. One of his trademark quotes is “stick to the damn plan” (STTDP).
Going to the barn with a gameplan gives you focus, something to guide your mind to task. Think of it like your mantra for the day’s meditation.
That is not at all to say that, when you get to the barn, if the situation is such that you need to adjust your plan, you shouldn’t. If you intended to polish your half-pass, and your horse tells you that today the focus needs to be on walking past the new red folding chairs lined up along the rail, by all means, adjust your plan. But stick to the plan that you’re working.
Embrace the Entire Process
Mindful riding is more than just riding. If you distractedly multitask when you tack up and warm up, it will be hard to ride the workout in a mindful way. Similarly, you don’t want to scramble and slap your untacking and post-ride routine together either. Really commit to bringing mindfulness to every facet of your horsemanship.
Part of embracing the entire process is accepting that you will struggle to be mindful, especially in the beginning. Like so many other things, it is called “practice” for a reason. Think of every time you catch yourself distracted and unmindful, and bring yourself back to mindful task, as a “rep.” Mindfulness is a muscle. It needs to be exercised to develop.
Benefits of Mindful Horsemanship
Mindfulness in the barn brings a number of benefits to your horsemanship. Most particularly, though, is the benefit of meeting the horse on a more even footing. A mindful mindset is much more similar to the horse’s natural state. Sure, horses get distracted, but their distractions are a result of being mindful of their surroundings. Contrast that to some very typical human distractions… that driver who cut you off and flipped you the bird in traffic this morning…. that donut you didn’t need to eat between breakfast and lunch… the growing to-do list for tomorrow… All that the horse is distracted by is the present.
Meeting the horse on this playing field allows the horseman to become more effective at communicating. This effectiveness allows us to improve our feel and timing, to understand the horse and his wants and needs and distractions, and to meet the horse, understood as a horse, as himself. This is an invaluable tool.
Furthermore, riding mindfully allows us to connect our purpose in riding to our present. This may seem super woo-woo and meta, but consider how powerful of a tool that this can be to overcome fear in the saddle, or to get over a training plateau.
What’s In Your Mind?
Do you practice mindfulness in the saddle or in the barn? How do you do it? How has it changed the way that you ride, or approach horsemanship? Or are these ideas that you might take with you to the barn for the first time? Share your comments and stories below, drop us a line, and remember, you, like me, should be riding!!
Have you ever come across a horse whose behavior posed a serious challenge to your horsemanship skills? Maybe a horse that could be described as dangerous? How do horses become this way? Are some horses just born with “attitude?” What is a dangerous horse? How do people, for better or worse, influence the behavior of the horse? And, the million dollar question… can “bad” or “dangerous” horses be made better? Safer to be around?
What is a Dangerous Horse?
Interacting with horses is inherently dangerous. Even the sweetest, kindest, best trained horse in the world could kill a human in a moment of fear or confusion.
The solution to that problem is to take steps to mitigate obvious risks. Things like wearing a helmet, being aware of the horse’s blind spots, and cultivating situational awareness go a long way to preventing accidents.
But what about when the horse is not necessarily the sweetest, the kindest, or the best trained?
Three Kinds of Dangerous Horses
Dangerous Horse #1
Dangerous Horse #1 is only dangerous because he is a horse. He weighs 1,000 pounds plus, he is a prey animal, and he has a mind of his own. By his nature, he will always be a potential danger to the smaller and weaker creatures in his world. Dangerous #1 is the lesson pony, the husband horse, the bombproof packer. This is the horse that, except in the most extenuating circumstances, can be relied upon to be reliable. He is worth his weight in gold.
Dangerous Horse #2
Dangerous Horse #2 is dangerous because the people in his world do not necessarily have the tools to coexist with him safely. His level of dangerous-ness depends heavily on the situation.
This danger runs along a spectrum; a horse that is a #2 to a new rider might be a #1 to a seasoned rider. Even a seasoned rider may encounter a horse that is a #2, because there is always more to learn. Most often, though, Dangerous #2 is the horse that is good natured and well handled, but green, or the horse that has a known and manageable quirk or two. On the average, most horses in the world fall into this category.
Working with a #2 is not necessarily a bad thing, as long as you put yourself and your #2 within the learning curve. It’s ok to be challenged by a horse. If we only work with bombproof horses, we won’t become bombproof riders. The trick is in approaching the #2 horse with the appropriate attitude, knowledgeable assistance or backup, and precautions.
Dangerous Horse #3
Dangerous Horse #3 is the horse who must be handled with extreme care and caution by all. This is the “problem horse,” the habitual bucker, rearer, bolter. This horse might even show outright aggressive behavior, like charging or striking at humans.
With the exception of the untouched wild horse (which I would also initially place in this category), this type is fairly rare. This is the horse who, through nature or training, behaves in a way that puts its humans at risk, no matter their skill level. There are a further two subsets of this type of dangerous horse.
Some #3’s are created by humans. Perhaps the horse began as a #2, and was purchased or adopted by someone who could not cope with his needs or quirks, or establish themselves as an effective herd leader. Possibly, ineffective training has taught the horse that bucking or bolting gets a release of pressure. Or maybe the horse is simply in unrecognized pain or distress… a #1 or #2 who just cannot cope quietly any longer. This horse has either assumed a position of dominance in the horse-human hierarchy, or is behaving out of defense – fight or flight.
This sort of dangerous horse might still be rehabbed or corrected. A skilled and subtle enough horseman might establish a healthier and safer relationship with the animal. A source of pain or discomfort might be located and treated. This is the ideal outcome; maybe not a Disney story ending where a preteen rides the untrainable horse to victory, but at least the horse might be helped to become a more reliable citizen for the right person.
The Perfect Storm
Dangerous Horse #3 could also be a product of fate, so to speak. A perfect storm of physiology and environment that creates an unfixable (or nearly so) pattern of behavior. The example that comes to my mind is from the documentary “Buck” (which I very highly recommend watching if you have not already done so). For horses in this position, there really are no good outcomes. The undesirable behavior is so ingrained that the horse may never really be relied upon to do otherwise than he does. In these cases, sometimes difficult decisions must be made “for the safety of the public.”
Am I Dealing With A Dangerous Horse? How Do I Know?
There are a few ways to recognize whether you are in a dangerous situation with a horse. First, do you find yourself surprised or caught off-guard by your horse’s behaviors? Do you find yourself managing behaviors instead of fixing them? These are subtle signs that you may be over your skill level with a particular horse.
Have you been hurt or injured repeatedly by the horse? All riders fall, but if every trip to the arena with a particular horse includes an 8 second ride… Are you routinely crowded on the ground? Stepped on? These might also be symptoms of an unsafe situation.
The role of fear shouldn’t be discounted in evaluating your situation. All riders struggle with fear to some degree, but if there is a particular horse that you “don’t turn your back on,” or a horse that you wouldn’t climb aboard for all the tea in China, that is your brain telling you something valuable. It’s worth listening.
Helping Dangerous Horses
Do No Harm
Like trying to help people in difficult situations, helping troubled horses should always be undertaken with care. First rule: Do No Harm. To yourself or to the horse. Check your ego and your expectations at the gate, and don’t dive in unless you know that your intervention won’t make the situation worse. Not only do you want to ensure that you are treating the animal humanely, you also don’t want to mistakenly reinforce the behaviors you’re trying to correct. The horse’s quality of life in the future often depends a great deal on his lack of dangerous behavior.
Basic common sense safety rules and considerations are sufficient for dealing with most horses. Things that we learn on our first day at the barn, like wearing a helmet in the saddle, not crossing directly behind a horse, being aware of pinned ears. These basics are basic for a reason; they neutralize the most obvious and common hazards.
The best way to help a dangerous horse is through education. If you are lacking it, seek it out. Read. Take riding lessons. Most “dangerous” behaviors can be mitigated with enough knowledge and skill, or by approaching the horse or the task a different way. Experience and exposure to good learning opportunities make better horsemen. Knowledge is power.
Even professional riders have coaches. There is no shame at all in taking regular lessons and working with a coach even if you have a steady-eddy type #1. Indeed, there is wisdom in the practice. The best way to learn how to interact more safely with your type #2 dangerous horse is to regularly check in with a more experienced horseman. This becomes especially important if the horse’s behavior catches you off-guard or you are unsure of how to manage it. Sharing your experiences and asking others for feedback and advice can be remarkably helpful.
If you are dealing with a type #3 with serious or ingrained behavioral problems, the first order of business is to get a knowledgeable and experienced horseman on-site. Brainstorming and online advice are probably not going to substitute for in-person evaluation and assistance in those cases.
Despite our love for the animals and the sport, it is imperative that safety of human come first and horse come a close second. Even the tamest and sweetest equine should be handled with care. When a horse is greener or has confirmed problem behaviors, the need for safety-consciousness increases.
Have you ever dealt with a horse that you felt was dangerous? What kind of behaviors strike you as particularly dangerous in a horse? Do you have a “dealbreaker” behavior? Is there such a thing as an “incurable” problem horse, or do you think that there is a way to “get through” to any dangerous problem horse?
Share your thoughts in the comments, drop us a line, and remember, you should be riding!!
If you walk into your nearest stereotypical sports bar and poll the clientele… odds are good that horseback riding isn’t considered a sport. You might even be laughed out the front door.
If you walk into a horse barn, however, the general consensus will probably be that riding is indeed a sport. That consensus will probably include a detailed explanation of how physically demanding and inherently risky the endeavor can be. It may also include vehement assertions that only the toughest of the tough ride horses. I won’t dispute that assertion here.
As we’ll see in a minute, the beginnings of horsemanship come from military needs. The way that riding is taught and learned is much more like an art than a game. Competition between riders and students of the various martial arts is strikingly similar as well. Could “martial art” be a better way to categorize horseback riding as a sport? Is it appropriate to understand horsemanship as a martial art?
Riding… Sport? Or Art?
Despite the differences of opinion, horse-folk and the general public tend to agree that equestrian sports don’t quite fit within the stereotypical understanding of “sport.” Horseback riding isn’t like football or baseball. It isn’t even quite like golf or tennis, or even track and field.
Riding demands athleticism and physical skill from both horse and rider. However, the “riding isn’t a sport” crowd are quick (and probably right) to point out that the horse tends to burn more calories than the rider. Competition tends to be subjectively judged, rather than objectively point-based, although there are exceptions. Equestrian events feature alongside more “traditional” sports in the Olympic Games, and form part of composite events like pentathlon, which would seem to cement riding in general as a sport. However, the debate continues. Alongside these differences between riding and other sports, there is an acknowledged “marketing problem” in getting widespread traditional media exposure to high profile equestrian events, as discussed in this interview via Horse Network.
So, how exactly does horsemanship fit into the wide world of sports?
Horsemanship’s Military Roots
First of all, riding and horsemanship come to us through a strong military history. The first desire of man to swing leg over horse was inspired by the need to cover ground in the name of conquest. Xenophon’s legendary writings on horsemanship were born of the need to train cavalry for imperial expansion and military defense.
While the odds of any of us riding into battle are slim, traces of that military heritage remain. Have you ever wondered why we mount and handle horses from the left side? Imagine mounting from the right with a sword strapped to your left hip. Modern eventing demonstrates the skills of the ideal cavalry mount. Dressage shows us willingness, obedience, and technical skill. The jumping phases demonstrate boldness, speed, and power. The phases demand fitness and endurance from both horse and rider.
Ok, but what about today’s civilian riders?
Formal dressage comes from military riders on dress parade. The haute ecole and the Airs Above the Ground are movements that would have been highly effective to cavalry in close-quarters combat against other cavalry or ground troops. The levade raises a rider above the reach of a foot-soldier’s sword, spear, or bayonet. A well-timed capriole eliminates threats from behind with deadly efficiency. These movements are the formally perfected exercise of crucial battleground skills and tactics.
Into the 20th century, competitive dressage riders often came from military careers. The observer might see Olympic riders competing in military or police uniform well into the 90’s. Klaus Balkenhol is an excellent example, representing Germany and earning team gold in both the 1992 and 1996 Olympic games.
On the surface, Western disciplines appear to be based on the needs and skills of the working American cowboy and rancher, not the soldier. But, when you dig into the history, the true roots run deeper. The Western saddle and seat are derived from those of the Spanish Conquistadores, who brought horses with them to help conquer the New World. Over time, the needs of the Spanish evolved from conquest to colonization, but their horsemanship remained largely unchanged. Without military conquest, there is no NRCHA.
Where the military origins are less obvious or direct, echoes still remain. Today’s endurance rider might have been a long-distance courier centuries ago. Italian cavalry officer Federico Caprilli pioneered the modern forward-seat jumping style. With the rise of modernity, in which the horse became a luxury, the first civilian sport riders turned to cavalry manuals like this one for practical guidance. The explicit goals of these cavalry manuals was to train capable riders and willing, supple, and strong horses for the battlefield. These are ideals that still apply to today’s civilian rider and sport horse. These military resources trained horsemanship’s modern masters.
Similarities Between Horsemanship and Organized Martial Arts
From the perspective of training and competition, equestrian sport shares much with martial arts.
Although there is no formal “belt” system, training of the rider is progressive. Compare this to football, or to basketball, where youth leagues are playing the same game as Tom Brady or LeBron James. Not with the same strength or finesse, but certainly using the same rules, goals, and techniques. In martial arts and horsemanship, there are skills that the masters have attained that are vastly beyond the scope of the novice. Training is progressive, each lesson building upon the foundation of earlier lessons, and forming another layer upon which to build.
Because of the progressive nature of study, some activities and equipment are always reserved for higher level practitioners. A karate instructor won’t hand a set of nunchucks to a white belt. A rider won’t be permitted to ride with spurs if she can’t maintain a stable and effective leg. The development of a jumper’s release is another example of the difference in technique between a novice and a skilled rider. When the student does not have the skill or experience to use tools safely or effectively, the result is counterproductive at best, and dangerous at worst.
In both cases, there is a journey to mastery. There is an underlying idea that there is always more to learn, some more subtle nuance to understand. Even the idea of mastery itself is elusive. Even Olympic-level riders have coaches and trainers. The masters of horsemanship, ancient and modern, tend to consider themselves students. This mindset will be familiar to anyone with even a passing exposure to martial arts. Similarly, many horse enthusiasts find their purpose in the journey of the eternal student.
Most competitive martial arts and riding events are judged subjectively. Style counts, and the ends don’t justify the means. Technique has weight in the final score, even beyond the degree to which correct technique makes execution more functionally successful. In kickboxing, the two contenders may land an equal number of strikes, but the bout will go to the fighter with the better form and technical ability. Many equestrian events emphasize rider technique and equitation with a dedicated portion of the overall score for a class or round.
Once again, compare this to other popular sports. In football, as long as the ball makes it to the end zone, barring very specific codified penalties, it doesn’t matter how the team gets it there as far as the score is concerned. Form and strategy follow the function of how best to score a goal within the rules.
Additionally, the structure of competition is generally independent and piecemeal in both horsemanship and martial arts. There are larger national associations and governing bodies, but also thousands of small clubs and independent events. This feature makes riding and martial arts competition highly accessible. No rule says that to compete you must be involved with USEF, or push toward national level tournaments. Those things are there if that is your aspiration, but there are also smaller, more local, and more affordable alternatives for the amateur and hobbyist.
A Matter of Philosophy
Good horsemanship and traditional martial arts share a root philosophy in the idea that the same things that allow one to succeed at the sport also allow one to succeed in life. The skills are profoundly transferrable.
Additionally, horsemanship and martial arts often agree on what these specific skills and strategies are. Concepts like soft eyes, responding instead of reacting, and maintaining balance around the center are equally at home in the arena or the dojo. Mark Rashid explains his moment of profound connection between the “going with” an aggressor’s energy in akido, and “going with” the horse’s motion and energy in the saddle in his book “Horsemanship Through Life.”
Many riders, like Mark Rashid, turn to martial arts as a way to improve their riding. Yoga, tai chi, akido, karate, muay tai kickboxing, fencing… all promote the same strength, balance, body awareness, focus, and control that we seek in the saddle.
Horsemanship IS A Martial Art
Understanding riding and horsemanship as a martial art answers the questions that make defining it as a sport difficult. According to Wikipedia, “Martial arts are codified systems and traditions of combat practices, which are practiced for a number of reasons: as self-defense, military and law enforcement applications, mental and spiritual development; as well as entertainment and the preservation of a nation’s intangible cultural heritage.”
Horsemanship’s heritage and traditions are rooted in combat and defense. The mental and spiritual development aspects have come more to the foreground in recent decades. The entertainment and cultural value of riding and equestrian competition and exhibition are indisputable. By all of these metrics, riding is a martial art.
What do you think? Are you a rider who cross-trains in a martial art? Have you considered taking up a martial art to supplement your riding? Why or why not? Share your story in the comments, or give a shout-out by email. And remember, you should be riding!
This one is for the folks returning to horses after taking some time off. Maybe “real life” took priority for a while, or a couple of decades. Or maybe you had an injury, or are perhaps coming back after pregnancy. Maybe you haven’t been completely out of the game, but riding has taken a drop on the priorities list. But no more — you’ve realized that you should be riding, and you’re making your comeback! Go you!!
For better or worse, no matter how much reading or rail-sitting you’re able to do to keep yourself involved, the fact remains that time off, especially prolonged time off, brings even the most seasoned rider back a few levels in ability when they come back. This can be frustrating, but isn’t a “bad” thing per se. It is expected, and something that is best accepted, embraced, and worked forward from. It is okay to be a beginner again.
Factors that Bring You Back to “Beginner” During a Break
This situation can sometimes be harder than coming to horsemanship as an adult greenie. Adult greenies have their obstacles, for sure (fodder for another post?), but the returning rider carries many of the same obstacles along with the memories of their former abilities. You have expectations of your body and emotions that reflect your younger equestrian self, not your current place.
This mismatch between expectation and reality doesn’t just apply to folks coming back after a break of decades. Even skilled teenage riders who step back to focus on higher education and starting a career, return to the sport in their mid to late 20s can find that the intervening 4-5 years have wrought major changes to both body and mind. You’re still young, maybe still relatively fit, but you’ve seen a bit more of the world and have more responsibility, more experience overthinking. Everyone who has ever set toe into stirrup understands what I mean when I say that riding will show you muscles you didn’t know you had. Those muscles don’t really get exercised by any other activity, and are hard to keep riding-fit during a break.
Beginning Doesn’t Mean The End… Obviously, or Not So Much
I say “obviously,” because the beginning is by definition the start. It is no doubt disheartening to discover that while your mind and understanding of the sport is thinking about intermediate-plus riding theory, skills, and movements, your body will barely allow you to balance well in walk.
This is a tougher mental obstacle than a lot of folks expect. It can really knock you down a peg, make you feel like a failure, like a shadow of your former self. But that’s the thing… you are a shadow of your former self. Just like your even-more-former-than-that self was a shadow of your future self. And, to quote Gandalf… “that is an encouraging thought.”
Grant Yourself The Grace to Be Where You Need to Be
This is a sort of wonderful corollary to the idea of riding the horse you have today. Extend the same grace to yourself, and ride as the rider you are today. Think of yourself in the same way as you think of your project horse. Turn your attention to your foundation, and build back up.
Pick up some beginner riding books. Not necessarily kids’ riding books, but beginner riding books. I’m a big fan of the US Pony Club Manual, along with the classic Centered Riding by Sally Swift, but there are literally hundreds of resources that fall into this category. Remind yourself of the very basics of good riding. Start at the very beginning, and test yourself for holes and gaps. Make sure that what you know in your mind still translates to your body. Try to step back from yourself, treat yourself as if you were your nit-picking instructor, building a new rider into a capable and confident horseman, and putting the best tools and advice in place to guide that transformation.
Find a nit-picking instructor. A nit-picking beginner rider instructor. Explain at the outset that you are a formerly experienced rider, but that you are coming back to basics after time off. Ask them to really drill you on those basics, of correct and effective position and seat and aids. Even if your time away hasn’t truly brought you all the way back to square one, you will find gaps in need of attention. As these gaps are addressed, your skill and confidence will bounce back.
This idea is exactly the same as bringing a horse back into condition after an extended layoff. You wouldn’t expect even a Grand Prix schoolmaster to come cold from the paddock after a season off to step off into a connected, rhythmic, active piaffe first thing. You would no doubt start that ride by showing him the tack and testing his acceptance of the most basic parts of being ridden. The piaffe is still in there, but the horse needs to work back up to it, both physically and mentally. We as riders need to recognize that we need the same process to come back from time off.
If your confidence hasn’t exactly weathered your time away from the saddle untarnished, grant yourself the grace to set yourself up for success as much as possible. Don’t necessarily rush out and throw the close contact saddle on the forward and scopey jumper that you rode in the past. Acknowledge your present self, your present needs. Maybe start with a Western saddle (if you formerly rode in any of the “English” disciplines), and let the tack help set yourself up for stability, physically and mentally. Start with a levelheaded, been-there-done-that mount, at least for the first few rides. Even if your confidence is intact, you will probably still need a horse that will forgive your antics re-learning balance in the body, stability in the leg, and softness in the hand. As your basics re-solidify, your strength and stability in body will support your mental and emotional confidence.
Allow Yourself to Reclaim a Beginner’s Joy
The most helpful things to revisit as you make your comeback are the reasons why you began riding in the first place. Before you became absorbed with competition, before you had to prioritize the practical in your life… try to reclaim the headspace of the person who was first drawn to these magnificent animals.
Living in that unbridled joy around horses again can dramatically ease the tension and drive the reintroduction of horses and riding into your life. Focusing on the simple joy of being around and with the horse lets you shed baggage you didn’t know you carried. Suddenly the rider you were doesn’t matter anymore. Suddenly you don’t compare yourself to other riders. You are just present with the horse, enjoying his company and the gift of time spent building partnership with him again. And isn’t that joy the reason why most of us started riding in the first place?
Have you ever been in the position of rebuilding your skill or confidence after time away from the saddle? What tools and tactics worked well for you and your horse? I look forward to your comments! For now… off to the barn. I should be riding.
How often do riders get in the habit of managing a problem with their horse rather than fixing it? Managing is the horse training equivalent of sweeping dirt under a rug. Fixing addresses the root cause of the problematic behavior. A problem that is fixed no longer needs to be managed.
What does a managed problem look like in practice?
Managing a problem behavior can take many forms. I am thinking of the horse who ground ties so beautifully… because he has broken everything solid he’s ever been tied to. Or the horse who won’t get on the trailer, but it is never addressed because he has no need to travel. How about the horse who needs to be baited into being caught in the pasture? Or twitched into behaving for the vet or farrier?
Why might a training problem be managed instead of fixed?
Riders manage instead of fix their horse problems for a number of reasons, but most commonly they simply do not have the tools to fix at hand.
Sometimes this means a lack of physical tools, gear, or infrastructure. For example, if my horse refuses to cross a creek, that can be tricky to practice if I don’t have a creek on my farm. Or my horse refuses to load onto the trailer, but I don’t own a trailer to practice with. That being said, a little imagination can solve many of these lacks.
Sometimes a lack of tools is a lack of mental or experiential tools. The rider simply doesn’t know how else to ask the horse to do what needs done. If my horse refuses to cross that creek and I don’t know any other way to ask him to, I am out of tools. In this case, the rider needs a horseman with more experience to help. That help can be advice or physical assistance. In this case, the problem is (tough love time, here) with the rider, not with the horse. The horse and rider both need training.
Sometimes a lack of tools is a lack of emotional tools. In this case, the rider is apprehensive, maybe even fearful of addressing the problem. These cases are usually a bit more extreme or generalized in terms of the behaviors involved. Perhaps the horse bolts in canter… so the rider only walks and trots. The fix here overlaps somewhat with the fix for the lack of experiential tools, in that the rider needs help from a more experienced horseman. These are sometimes the hardest problems to fix, since these riders often know exactly what to do, but freeze instead of acting out of that fear. Here, the horse needs training, and the rider needs confidence, perhaps in addition to training.
When is it okay to manage a training problem instead of fixing it?
Sometimes it is okay to manage instead of fix. There are cases where working around a less desirable behavior is a more valid option than addressing it, especially as a short-term solution. These are usually cases where a gap in training is discovered in a situation that makes a fix difficult or dangerous. The managing is only happening to keep all involved safe until the training can be addressed.
Ideally, this situation is quite rare. We as horsemen don’t want to put ourselves or our horses in a situation where we don’t have the foundation in place to solve a foreseeable problem. We want to set ourselves and our horses up for success. But these are horses: anything can and will happen. Sometimes despite our preparation the situation dictates that we manage now and fix properly later.
Your horse loads nicely onto the trailer at home. You go to a show or event, you have a good day, but when you go to load up and go home the horse flatly refuses. You are unable to take the time it takes to work him through the task like you would at home. Maybe you need to clear your rig out of the barn area for the next guy to load up. So, you break out a carrot and bribe the horse onto the trailer.
We’ve all been there. A nonideal situation and a nonideal solution that works because the moment dictates. The difference here is that the savvy horseman realizes that he has discovered a gap, a point that deserves training review, and addresses it properly later. He doesn’t continue to substitute the bribe or the crutch for the training.
In an ideal world, horsemen never manage a training issue. They are fixed instead. Managing a training problem is typically indicative of a deeper problem, a lack in skill or tools to dive deeper and correct behavior at the source. Sometimes a particular situation dictates that a training gap be managed in the moment, but it is important to recognize a managed problem and take steps to fix it if at all possible. Horses with managed training issues are not set up for lifetime success, and the horse’s lifetime success is the responsibility of horsemen.
What about you? Do you have training gaps or problems that you manage day-to-day rather than fix? What kind of problems? Do you recognize that you are managing? If so, why do you manage rather than fix? What are situations where you have had to manage?
And those are the musings of the day. Remember, you should be riding!
The Problem: Natural Horsemanship Isn’t “Natural.” No Horsemanship Is.
The problem with Natural Horsemanship is really very simple… horsemanship just isn’t natural, in any sense of the word.
Horses don’t naturally socialize with predator type creatures.
This category certainly includes humans, yet horsemanship takes the unnatural aspect even further. We ask the horse to calmly and willingly carry a predator on it’s back and perform without fear! The basic fact of predator and prey animal working in partnership flies in the face of all that is “natural.”
Humans don’t naturally understand equine psychology and communication.
If we did, can you imagine how much simpler of an endeavor horsemanship would be? It is unnatural for a human to set aside linear thinking patterns, and to not register the horse’s behavior and responses to us on an emotional level. It is our human instinct to anthropomorphize, to fit our understanding of the horse into human terms. This problem can be overcome, and there are clearly many, many people who excel at understanding the horse on his own terms, but it is far from a natural ability for most humans. The study of horsemanship itself is the attempt to overcome this barrier.
Horses aren’t built to carry weight where the rider sits.
They aren’t naturally suited for a domesticated lifestyle of confinement, punctuated by bouts of structured exercise. Humans impose these unnatural conditions on the horse, and then make other unnatural modifications to compensate — metal shoes to protect the hooves, blankets to help keep warm and dry, support boots and gel saddle pads for protecting the legs and back.
An entire industry has sprung up to compensate for the unnaturalness of the horse’s modern domestic lifestyle and the unnatural endeavor of horsemanship. From the gear to the books to the lessons and training and clinics and DVDs… none of it would exist if horsemanship were natural.
The Miracle of Horsemanship
The miracle of horsemanship is that, despite its unnatural nature, somehow, it can all work. Humans can and do form partnerships with their horses. Horses are, astonishingly, willing to do some very unnatural things if asked in the correct way.
The trick of the miracle, and the tough-love lesson for the would-be horseman, is that it is all up to the human to recognize how unnatural it is. It is up to the human to learn to “speak horse,” and to train their own body and mind to work in harmony with the body and the mind of the horse. The horse is not able to learn to “speak human.”
Strategies to Make Horsemanship Less Unnatural
Communication is everything in horsemanship, and it is the onus of the horseman to be in the constant practice of improving communication. We do this by observing equine behavior and applying those lessons to our behavior with the horses. All of our movements, cues, and aids should be clear, consistent, and meaningful, reducing “static” in our body language. We can be more mindful in the barn and the arena, more focused and less distracted.
We can strive to keep and manage our horses in a way that mimics the horse’s natural lifestyle as closely as possible. Turnout and freedom to move and graze in fresh air are ideal. Uninterrupted stable life can be harmful to body and mind. There can be an increased risk of colic, ulcers, and heaves among other maladies with stall-kept horses. Stables of any size typically house at least one cribber, weaver, or pacer. Stalls may be convenient for us, but tend to be less desirable as a default housing strategy.
We should always be striving to become better educated as horsemen. I’ve written before about how the learning curve never ends in horsemanship. We can learn more about the horse’s physiology to make better stable management decisions. Studying biomechanics helps us ride with more understanding and finesse. Brushing up on equine psychology helps us communicate better. Good riding lessons never did a soul a bit of harm. Even lifetime riders and seasoned horsemen fall into bad habits or don’t recognize an opportunity to grow and improve in their art.
As much as I advocate for self sufficiency and self reliance, it is important to remember that you and your horse are not an island. Even Olympians have coaches. While you should be able to recognize illnesses and perform basic first aid, you should also have a good relationship with your vet. Be able to ask questions and get advice beyond your (hopefully rare) emergencies. While you should be able to recognize lameness or pull a shoe, the same goes for your relationship with a good farrier. Even if you don’t take regular lessons, get to know a better horseman than you personally. Keep an eye and ear open, and soak up what they have to teach, even through conversation. Horses are herd animals. Humans can learn a little something from that mentality. Don’t be afraid to utilize the resources and equestrian community around you.
I may be opening a can of worms, but I am interested in opinions. Where do you stand on the idea of “natural horsemanship?” Am I off base? Can horsemanship be a truly natural endeavor? Perhaps I put too much meaning and thought into a ubiquitous buzz phrase is, at root, a marketing tool. I believe that it is well worth bringing more naturalness to horsemanship; the horseman ought to on the burden of the unnaturalness as much as possible. This would make the horse’s life easier physically, mentally, and emotionally. Are there parts of horsemanship that cannot be optimized for naturalness? I look forward to reading your thoughts in the comments section.
Spring has finally sprung, which means I am in the arena with some regularity again! I’ve been stocking up ideas and inspiration all winter, and I’m excited to finally get to put them into practice. Both of my horses are on the older side, and it has been a long winter layup for them, so we are starting out slow and easy with groundwork and lunging to ease their bodies and minds back into work.
Problems That We Don’t Know We Have
Here is a video that really caught my attention. I have been excited to try tweaking my lunging technique based on it for some time. Before you watch… the reaction of the horse when the handler changes to incorrect technique is one of my horses to a “t.”
(All video credit goes to the original presenter, demonstrator, poster, uploader, etc. I remain a humble surfer of the Tubes of You.)
After watching this video, and seeing this lovely young horse who moves and lunges so nicely devolve into the exact behaviors of my grumpy old man when the handler simply steps off on the wrong leg, I had to dust off the lungeline and give this a shot.
My boy’s story since his earliest training has been “he hates lunging and groundwork,” That label has stuck with him, wisdom passed along to me years ago from his previous owner. He’ll lunge, but not with a smile on his face, especially not at the beginning of the exercise. Expect some low-grade bucking in canter, pinned ears and grumpiness in trot, and a draggy reticence to move forward in all gaits. Historically, I have left groundwork alone with him beyond basic decent citizenship. He has always just been happier to work under saddle.
I am stunned by the results of applying the lessons in this video. Absolutely stunned. Like, I waited to call “confirmed” until I tried it again and duplicated my results. Three for three. I call that confirmed.
Keeping Perspective in Perspective
I do not have a horse that hates lunging, or even dislikes the practice. I have a communication issue. And like any problem in life, recognition of the problem is the first step to solving it.
This was not an easy thing. Like so much of horsemanship, it is simple, but not easy, especially working against fifteen years’ worth of muscle memory. I am slow. I am clumsy. I have to be present and deliberate in this new technique. I bobble as I catch myself stepping off on the wrong leg and “dumping my manure.”
But, as I apply what I have learned, my horse has amazingly become forgiving, if slightly distracted by the grass underfoot, and has not even offered to buck. He can tell that I am trying. I’m lunging him in the same simple rope halter and line that I use on my pony who “loves” groundwork (and on whom I am also excited to try this tweak), instead of the thick web halter and chain shank that is the default gear on the rare occasion that this horse must be lunged before a ride. I’m telling you, this is a total 360 degree change for this horse.
The constant learning curve is part of what has always captivated me about horses and horsemanship. There is never a point at which one has “made it,” when there is mastery with no more to learn. Horsemanship truly is an art; there is always more to learn, more to practice, more finesse to achieve. Our communication, our relationships with the horses in our lives, can always be improved.
What do you think, dear reader? Have you ever had a lightbulb moment like this? Solved a problem that you didn’t know you had with a simple change that wasn’t necessarily easy? Please share in the comments — I love to hear your stories!
I dug for more info from Chris Irwin. As far as free content goes, I vaguely remember that State Line Tack’s website used to have an incredibly helpful video library that featured him as the host, but apparently those are no more. YouTube has a few gems, snippets of his clinics like the one above, but I haven’t found any longer form lessons or clinic videos. I am very interested to see, hear, and learn more. I’m adding his books and DVDs to my wish list. I’m especially interested to hear more about how he transitions these concepts from groundwork to the saddle. If you’re interest is as piqued as mine, you can check out his website here. I get zero kickback for sharing — I am simply interested and spreading something I stumbled across that seems to work.
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.