Monday, February 1, 2010

Getting Through Winter

This time of year, it is often hard to find the motivation to do much riding. It is cold and wet, there is snow on the ground, the days are short and the horses are often filthy. But keeping up even an abbreviated schedule throughout the winter will help your horse, and yourself, feel better when spring finally rolls around.

Many horse owners cannot afford the luxury of an indoor riding arena, so during the winter months, riding time is very dependent on the weather conditions. Even if there is no immediate precipitation, footing in an outdoor arena can be affected for days, or weeks, and create a hazard for riding at anything faster than a walk. What is important to your horse, though, is keeping to a daily ritual. A horse that is kept in 'work mode' all winter will be more willing to go along with your preparations for heavier riding in the spring. What a horse requires to stay in work mode varies by the horse, but generally, just doing something one on one with them 4-6 times per week will keep them fresh and interested. I have found that horses are much like humans, in that when they take an extended vacation, it is harder to get back to work afterward. The longer the vacation, the harder it is! So frequent interaction keeps them thinking that they are still on duty.

If footing is an issue for you, in your outdoor riding area, you can work your horse on a lunge line, for exercise, as well as for staying in sync with your body language and cues. Find the driest area you can, and don't push the horse to go fast; instead focus on keeping your voice and body cues consistent, and insist that your horse respond quickly. Ask the horse to walk (and trot if footing allows), both directions, going around 3-6 times per direction before reversing. When you change directions, insist that your horse NOT come in to you, in the middle of the circle, and also, that he waits for you to give him the go-ahead before zipping off in the other direction. Be consistent in your use of the word, "Whoa." Whoa means "all four feet stop now," not "easy," or "slow down," or "please do what I ask." When your horse responds positively, forgo the treats, but reward him generously with your voice, and if necessary, your hands.

If you can't find a good place to lunge, work your horse on a lead line; asking him to move both his hind quarters and his front end away from you in a pivot. Work on getting him to do a nice, straight back up with as little pressure as possible on the halter. Another great skill is trotting in a straight line next to the handler - so many horses aren't taught this, but even if you never show in showmanship or halter classes, being able to trot in a straight line in a halter is essential if your vet ever needs to examine your horse's legs.

On the days you can neither ride nor lunge, stay with your daily schedule with an extended grooming session. This is pleasurable for both you and your horse, and will bond you together, which is always proactive. Running your hands all over your horse not only relaxes your horse, it gives you an opportunity to feel for injuries under all that winter fur! If your horse has any 'touchy' areas, now is the time to work on them. Carefully, but determinately, touch and stroke around the area your horse is shy about, working toward it. Don't tickle or use too light of pressure; massage and scratching is usually more acceptable. This is one of those times that treats are allowed and can help 'sweeten the deal' for a shy or timid horse.

If you are lucky enough to have an arena, but don't want to spend much time in the cold, focus on slow speed work with your horse. A half an hour of bending and flexing at the walk is a fantastic way to keep a horse in shape without a long time commitment. It's like horsey yoga! If you do this regularly all winter, your horse will be lighter in the bridle and more willing, in the spring, when it's time to return to competition, or the trails. On the days that you ride your horse a little harder, take frequent walk breaks to keep your horse from getting too sweaty. Some horses get sweaty no matter what you do; make sure you have a 'cooler' ready to throw on them as soon as you get off, and keep it on until the horse is no longer steaming, and is mostly dry. If you don't have a cooler, try to keep your horse out of the wind, and use brushes and towels to get them dry as quickly as possible after you are unsaddled.

Over the Christmas and New Year's holidays of 2009, we had truly horrible weather here in Kansas. Aside from doing the basic chores, the temperatures were so low that it was necessary to stay inside, rather than attempt any horse activities. But even if your can't work your horse, keep yourself in 'work mode.' I work out every day, regardless of the weather, and this really helps battle the winter blues. Staying fit and flexible all winter makes my springtime go so much easier! There are so many options now for working out at home, from DVD's to online to the Wii system. Even if you just get on the floor and stretch, you will feel better and mentally, you will be sticking with a regimen - a key to making these seemingly long winter days go by a little quicker. Bring on spring!! :)