Kristen Pierce explains why being a “fair weather rider” may not be fair to your horse.
Winter has rolled in once again and many riders are struggling with keeping their horses in shape. Freezing temperatures and frozen ground may make riding impossible at this time of year, but should you really give your horse a winter vacation?
Horses who are not exercised or given ample turnout time during the winter months tend to become stiff, stubborn and seemingly “forget” how to use themselves properly under saddle when they get back into a routine come springtime. Keeping your horses physically fit through the winter is one of the hardest challenges of winter horse care. However, keeping your horse in shape does not solely require physical fitness. They need to be mentally fit as well.
When you don’t have access to an indoor arena, be prepared to be cold. Your horse needs you in order to keep him thinking and moving, especially if they are stalled or even in a small turnout. If the ground is too frozen to ride, walk your horse. Walk around the property, around the riding arena, or on nearby trails. However, it is important to not just go for a stroll. Power walk and encourage your horse to move briskly so that their gait will be able to naturally stretch their legs, neck and back. Keeping their muscles working through winter will reduce any stiffness in the spring when you’re able to get back into more of a routine.
Don’t have an area that is safe to walk on? Don’t worry! Snow and ice may prevent you from safely being able to walk your horse but, you can still work their muscles and help them stretch. Center aisle barns, shed row barns, large run in sheds and (if your horse is calm enough) stalls will work for this next exercise. So, everyone should be able to do something with their horse this winter. Groundwork is key to keeping a mentally fit horse. Your horse will need to know how to yield to pressure. Take a look at this eXHorses video for a quick how-to on teaching your horse to yield to pressure.
Stretching the neck and back muscles are the most important areas to work on before doing anything else. Begin by asking your horse to gradually lower their nose to the ground until their neck is fully extended. Next, ask them to gradually turn their nose in towards either side of their shoulder or belly. This will stretch the muscles of your horse’s neck and topline, warming them up and resulting in a more supple horse. In both directions, ask your horse to side-pass on the ground, turn on the forehand, turn on the haunches, back up and move forward are the eight directions of movement that your horse should be able to master both under saddle and on the ground (side pass to the left and right, turn on the forehand to the left and right, turn on the haunches to the left and right, back up and move forward).
Performing these stretching exercises at least three times per week will help your horse’s mind and body be prepared for routine riding once spring arrives. I repeat, be prepared to work in the cold. Conditions are not always perfect and you may just need to work with what you’ve got. In the spring, your horse will come out to be more supple and focused than if they were not engaged all winter. They will thank you for it, and you’ll thank yourself!
Kristen is a versatile equestrian who grew up as a western pleasure rider. Since then, she has expanded her interest in almost everything from (but not limited to) barrel racing, hunter/jumper, eventing and her newest feat, extreme trail. Plainly speaking, her life revolves around her two horses. Kristen’s youngest horse, Ace, is a 4-year-old Quarter Horse/Haflinger cross who she trained herself since he was a yearling. Kristen is also a huge rescue advocate for all animals. You can bet that both of her horses are rescues as well! Read more of Kristen’s writing on her blog, Simply Sorrel.