Winter is Brutal, by Jennifer Lindgren
Winter has set in hard here in the Midwest. Brutal cold along with ice and snow makes traveling to the barn difficult for many. Once we get there, we aren’t much warmer because few of us can afford to heat a barn or an arena. Even true horsemen get discouraged on these damp cold days.
Now is not the time to stay on the couch or to leave your horse in the stall bundled under blanket. Abandoning our mounts until the snow melts is bad for both horse and rider. Exercise, crucial to maintaining proper circulation, respiration, and digestion, is more critical to horses in the winter months than in the summer. Horses can get the winter blues too. Give them much needed attention and boost your own spirits by spending time out of the house.
You don’t want to bring your horse to a sweat when it is brutally cold, but you must get them out of the stall and moving. Remove blankets to brush the horse down and check their coat for blanket rubs or fungus patches.
Monitor your horse’s water intake. Some horses dislike cold water. Encourage drinking with loose salt fed either by hand or sprinkled in feed.
If you bring your horses outside, clean snow packed hooves prior to stalling.
Take extra time for your warm-ups and cool downs. Warm-ups can be in hand or under saddle. If you have an arena that is hazard free, let your horse loose to let off some steam. Enjoy watching him run, spin, dance and snort. Let him be a horse! If he is lazy, encourage him with a longe whip. This free time is good for both his mind and body.
If you can’t turn out indoors, longeing is a good alternative. But, avoid standing in a circle with the horse moving mindlessly around you. Use the whole arena and move along with your horse, turning a boring longe exercise into a team workout. Much more fun than a health club!
Be creative under saddle. Riding the rail is best left for the show ring. Spirals, serpentines, squares, and diagonals are great ways to strengthen your horse’s hindquarters and they spice up your workout. Start the spiral with a large fast circle, moving inward as you slowly decrease speed and circle size. Try to make four circles prior to spiraling back outward. Spiral in both directions. A serpentine is a series of half circles with change of direction. Your goal is to have each half circle match in size and speed. The number of loops in the serpentine will depend upon your arena length. If you have trouble with the loops, set out cones to mark the change points. Riding a square involves 4 straight lines with 90 º pivots on the haunches at each corner. The pivots will help to strengthen and engage your horse’s hindquarters. Diagonal work focuses on controlling your horse’s speed through your body language. Set cones in the corners of the arena, riding diagonally between them. Maintain his speed until you approach the cone, then sit deep in your seat, relax and ask for the halt. He will catch on quickly.
Next, try to ride a straight line and halt with your eyes closed. Focus on getting your horse to change speed within the gait, on demand. Remember, you should have three speeds at the walk, trot (jog), and canter (lope).
If you have access to barrels or poles, set them in various patterns and see if you can bend your horse around them, hands free.
Have you ever ridden the alphabet? Lower case letters work best. First, picture the letter in your mind, planning in the arena where you will need to stop, turn, or back. Start with “a” at the walk and move to the jog or trot as soon as you feel confident enough. Don’t get discouraged, this is very tough. At first your letters will look like a preschooler learning to write. By the end of the month, you should be loping the alphabet with ease.
Cool downs are best done bareback. Pulling off that saddle not only helps you feel your horse better, it will improve your balance and timing. As you walk around the arena, get in sync with his rhythm, memorizing his footfall. Don’t worry about a headset or collection, let him relax and enjoy the ride too!
Jennifer Lindgren has been an All-Breed Judge since 1985. She is an experienced competitor who has earned Regional and National awards in Halter, Western Equitation and Hunter. She loves all breeds of horses and keeps her private collection in Grant Park, IL. Contact Jennifer at: JENLIND22MSN.COM
[published in Performance Horse Digest, Volume 2, Issue 12.]
What is your favorite winter-related, non-horse activity?
We enjoy hearing from you!