It happens to the best of us: some days you just don’t want to climb up into the saddle, or else the days are so short you barely have time. Here are a few suggestions for things you can do with your horse instead!
I was just as horse-crazy as the best of them as a kid: I wanted nothing more than to spend every waking minute on the back of a horse. While I had posters of the international Olympic riders all over my bedroom walls, my own trajectory towards glory was a bit, shall we say smudged — while my barnmates were all hard at work practicing for the big qualifying show, I was thundering around on the trails bareback on a free-lease pony.
Even when I got the opportunity to be mounted on a seriously talented reined cowhorse later in my horse life, heaven knows I trained plenty — but also found the time to wander off with the mare into the woods, or spend time just lounging around in the grass letting her graze around me. I drifted away from showing entirely for a few years after that, but the horses themselves remained a constant.
With a new project horse come loosely-defined plans to get back into the show ring again… but I’m not a terribly ambitious showman, and I’m more than willing to take my time. In my particular path through horse life, I’ve found that there are plenty of ways to enjoy my horses that don’t involve actually throwing a leg over their back — but contribute overall to our working relationship and improve that saddle time when it does happen.
Horse Nation’s tagline is “go riding,” but there are plenty of ways to have fun with your horse on the days that you can’t or don’t want to ride. Here are a few:
1. Go for a walk.
Especially useful on days that the temperature is too cold to ride but you still want to make sure your horse gets out and moves, take your horse out for a hand-walk. Hand-walking is a good time to brush up on basic handling, making sure your horse is walking with you rather than ahead of or behind you and listening to your cues to halt, turn or back up. Tackle some hills to improve topline muscling. And of course, going for a nice blood-pumping walk has plenty of health benefits for you as well!
2. Set up an obstacle course.
If you’d rather not strike out over hill and dale with your horse — and on especially cold or windy days, I’m right there with you — set up some trail-inspired obstacles in an arena or enclosure to work through in-hand. Obstacles can range from basic ground pole walkovers to raised cavaletti, back-through chutes or doglegs, sidepassing poles (sidepassing in-hand is a great skill to polish!) old tires and sturdy wooden bridges… all the way to some truly inspired and challenging obstacles, such as pool-noodle forests, suspended plastic sheeting car wash-style, objects you can drag behind you and more. (Check out a few ideas here.) Even the seasoned show horse needs to switch up his routine every now and then, and even navigating the same obstacles in-hand that a horse might tackle under saddle can help him improve.
3. Work on your showmanship.
Even if you never plan to set foot in a show ring in your life, every horse can benefit from learning to stand square, walk and trot easily in-hand, back smartly and quickly and pivot — if you’ve ever done a basic lameness exam with your veterinarian, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. That quartering system that every 4H kid learns by age 10 and you’ve probably long forgotten? That’s exactly how you should be handling your horse for the vet or farrier, both of whom will appreciate a quiet, balanced, standing horse.
4. Ground drive/long line
I originally discounted the benefits of ground driving or long lining a saddle-broke horse, believing for a long time that it was just a transitional step to help the green, unbacked horse understand how basic aids worked before carrying his first rider. I spent some time long lining my cow pony in our first months together, however, when I felt we weren’t “clicking” yet as a team, and the time I spent working him first with long lines while lunging and then ground-driving over obstacles at the walk and jog helped us get to know each other and build trust, which carried over out into our forays into the woods and cow pastures far from the barn.
5. Spa day
If you’re typically a more businesslike rider, who grooms, tacks up and gets right to work in the ring, your horse may appreciate a little ground pampering with extra time spent grooming. There are myriad massage groomers on the market (I like the Posture Prep, which helps manipulate the fascia to improve circulation and posture) as well as bodywork techniques that any horseman can learn (I like Tellington T Touch myself, but there are plenty to choose from).
What else do you like to do with your horses when you don’t want to go for that ride? Let us know in the comments!