Riders with access to indoors or good all-weather riding places can keep their horses in work all winter long — but for those who have to give their horses the winter off, there are still plenty of ways to keep those horses engaged.
It’s taken me a few winters, but I’ve come to terms with the fact that my little horse needs to get the winter off.
It’s probably not even the winter itself that’s driving this decision, but all the compounding factors: he’s the kind of horse who comes out high as a kite some days and just needs a few minutes on the lunge line to blow off some steam. Unfortunately, without an indoor or a safe, flat space to lunge during the winter months, my options are limited.
I’ve come to terms with the fact that I’m not a “cowgirl” like I used to be either — I’m at the point in my life where I’d rather not “let ‘er buck” and try to force my salty little pony into a respectable gentleman on snow or ice at risk of getting bucked off to land on something important. I realize there are plenty of schools of horsemanship that would state that I can work through Red’s spiciness without ever needing a lunge line, and I’m sure those systems work well for a lot of people. I just know what works well for me in my experience and this is the best solution I’ve found.
That doesn’t mean that I just turn the fuzzy beast out for the winter and ignore him until the ground thaws in the spring. Red lives out, but he’s far from ignored — he gets a daily check-over to ensure he’s in good health and holding a healthy winter weight as well as his regular trim when scheduled. To make sure from a riding and training perspective, however, that these aren’t “wasted” months, here are a few practices I’ve adopted to get the most from a winter off.
1. Polish the barn skills you need that will make the summer much easier.
Last winter, I worked a long time on ground tying with Red. He gets in his own head and pulls back when he’s tied or cross-tied with very little warning, so it was pretty critical that he learn to ground tie safely so I could work around him to groom and tack up. With nothing else on my agenda other than spending a little handling time with Red during the winter, I find myself much more relaxed with the time and energy to devote simply to practicing skills like this. Other skills you could focus on during the winter might include desensitizing to clippers or standing quietly for the farrier. Think back to your summer riding time and decide what you and your horse could improve upon to make life easier!
2. Try out some bodywork techniques.
There are LOTS of forms of equine bodywork out there, and certainly there are a few forms that are best left to the trained and the professional (for example, I am NOT going to be dabbling in DIY equine acupuncture any time soon). That said, there are plenty of resources out there for horse owners to learn and apply — one of my favorites is the Tellington TTouch method which has plenty of text references as well as videos to demonstrate techniques that anyone can try at home. Another one of my favorites is the Posture Prep cross-fiber grooming system, which I reviewed last winter — I saw a lot of improvement in Red’s demeanor and attitude in the barn thanks to these methods.
Even just a good, thorough grooming session can make a difference — especially if your horse has been standing in the cold all day! There’s nothing like a good, active groom to warm up both of you and keep the blood circulating.
3. Practice and perfect basic ground handling.
I know, I know — this might sound like a bit of a snoozer, and your horse already knows how to lead just fine, so why bother practicing these basics? I don’t think it ever hurts to refresh your memory or your horse’s memory to keep both of you focused and engaged on each other’s body language. Even if you never plan to compete in showmanship in your life, the principles of good, correct handling carry over into all aspects of the horse world — take the winter as an opportunity to teach your horse to stand square on cue, walk or jog without hesitation or rushing, and back nicely when you ask.
I also make sure that I can handle my horse equally well from the “wrong” side and get him to perform the same actions while handling him from the right. When I can, I’ll also drag out a cavaletti pole as a step-over to make sure Red is paying attention to his feet and not just shuffling along beside me. These are all skills that will translate out on the trail to a careful but responsive riding partner.
4. Continue some of your under-saddle skills on the ground.
Building on the last step of ground handling, I try to continue some of what we worked on under saddle in the summer. For Red, that means lateral movement — it takes some creative handling from the ground, but we’ve been practicing turns on the forehand and sidepassing using hand pressure on Red’s sides where my leg would be. My hope in the springtime is that he’ll need less refresher time with this concept that I introduced last summer.
While the ground work doesn’t necessarily replace the need for slowly legging back up in the spring, it should help Red maintain at least a low level of fitness and muscle tone — better than if he were just standing in the pasture for several months.
Whether you don’t have access to a good winter riding space, your horse needs the cold months off or your schedule doesn’t allow you to get in your riding time until the days get longer, there are still plenty of ways to engage your horse all season long. These are the activities that have worked well for me — feel free to share your own in the comments section!
Go riding! And you can’t do that, then just go to the barn.