Resolving Not to Ride: My 60-Day Groundwork-Only Challenge

“If I was spending half of that ride hand-walking around particularly questionable areas already… what if I just stopped bothering to actually ride, and spent that time working on the ground instead?”

A few days before 2020 ticked over into 2021, a friend of mine sent me an invitation to a riders’ challenge: ride 100 times in 2021, with a group set up to help encourage a positive community and accountability to encourage folks to ride more. That’s ironic, I thought to myself as I accepted the group invitation, since I don’t intend to get on a horse again until — at earliest — March 1.

I’ve never been one for “giving the winter off” completely — but in past years, I do significantly back off my training program with my horses and scale rides down to just light 20- to 30-minute walk hacks, maybe with a little trot thrown in here and there. On most days, that involves a shuffle out to count the cows and an amble back to the barn. If we had a good base of snow, I might be able to get in a little work in a particular corn field that I knew was (mostly) flat and (mostly) rock-free, but those perfect snow days were rare and fleeting. Most days, it felt like I spent more time tacking up and getting dressed than actually sitting in the saddle. Winters in western New York typically include a lot of lake-effect snow, average temperatures in the mid-20s and a few brutally cold days peppered in here and there where normal people don’t even want to go outside, let alone climb on a horse.

Ah, those good old days. Photo by Chloe Petry

In recent years, with part of the farm now leased to a gravel mine and generally inconsistent weather rendering the roads and tracks around the farm into an ever-changing maze of bare rock, snow, boot-sucking mud or ice — sometimes all four in a given week — even those simple hacks have become a struggle. For the entire week of Christmas to New Year’s last month, I couldn’t even get a horse out of the barn/paddock — everywhere the tractor goes on our working farm had thawed and refrozen several times over into a beautifully deadly ice rink.

Lest you think this is turning into a “woe is me, feel bad for me!” piece, I did a little reflecting at the end of the year, and came to the conclusion that a 20-minute ride, carefully picking our way over rocks and ice, wasn’t really accomplishing anything for my horses anyway. In the winter, especially in cold temperatures, the horses weren’t even properly warming up to the point that I could start working in some flat work anyway. If I was spending half of that ride hand-walking around particularly questionable areas already… what if I just stopped bothering to actually ride, and spent that time working on the ground instead?

I thought about this some more, and how it could fit into the goals I already had for this winter:

  • Try to maintain top line fitness on both horses
  • Strengthen relationships with both horses one-on-one to prevent herd/barn sourness, which is always at its worst in the spring when I start riding out again
  • Improve lateral work (leg yield, side pass, turns on the haunches and forehand) for both horses
  • Improve reaction times to aids and respect of personal space for Shorty
  • Work on showmanship training for Jobber
  • Work on patience and separation training while tied in the barn for all horses

You know, just a short list of aspirations for the next few months. #dreambig

Jobber, clearly thrilled about being made to stand quietly in the barn like a real horse. Photo by Kristen Kovatch

I’ve always been a big believer in trying to be fair to my horses. While those short walking hacks are not physically taxing to them, they’re both generally high-spirited and intelligent (though good-minded) horses, and asking them to contain any winter sillies they might be feeling while the most I can do is sit dumbly on their backs while they plod through snow and mud to go look at cows and back? That just doesn’t feel fair to them — not when I can give their brains something a bit more active to do from the ground that keeps them mentally stimulated.

While I’ve always held fast that you can do a lot of flat work at the walk, I also believe — based on some ridden experiences and experiments earlier this fall — that my horses require a bit of warm-up time before they should be asked to engage on the bit and start working muscles in lateral movements. That warm-up requires more than a carefully-mincing walk on bad ground — they do best with a ground-covering walk that actually gets them WARM. When it’s snowy one day, mud the next, and iron-hard frozen ground with no snow in sight the day after that, keeping them in any kind of consistent riding program just feels impossible — and inconsistency is the nemesis of mental and physical soundness.

There’s a special place in heaven for neighbors with unused outdoor rings who say “come on up any time!” Photo by Kristen Kovatch

And so, on Christmas Eve, I decided I would do something I’ve never done before. First, I would take the next week completely off: that Christmas-to-New-Year period was already predicted to be dreadful weather anyway, so I wouldn’t be out any actual usable time. And starting on January 1? I resolved to intentionally NOT ride my horses.

Here are some of the activities we’ve already done or are planning to do — keep in mind my specific list of goals, above:

  • Hiking: as short as the quarter-mile out to the cows, mixed with a little bit of lateral work and “personal space” training for Shorty, or as long as a ramble over the frozen pastures to hit up some hills
  • Hill work: accomplished with a hike, or a walking lunge over some shorter, shallower slopes
  • Lunging and long lining: when conditions permit up at the neighbor’s outdoor ring, which also includes a hand walk up the road through the neighborhood
  • Daily sessions for Jobber in the barn for patience and short-term separation
  • Daily carrot stretches
  • Showmanship sessions for Jobber
  • Obstacle work: as simple as raised poles and various iterations of tarps, as complicated as I want to get with building things like cowboy curtains or teeter-totters
  • Other in-hand exercises as I feel they apply, such as lateral drills, backing through turns and figures, all sorts of stuff you can do with a single ground pole…

My goal is that if conditions might allow in March, to start working some under-saddle work back into the mix… likely taking advantage of that neighbor’s lovely outdoor ring. We’ll see. I have a feeling that even if the weather is still frightful by March, I’ll have plenty left to do.

Safety first for the road walk up to the neighbor’s. Photo by Kristen Kovatch

Want to see what specific exercises I get up to day by day? Follow along at Jobber Bill: Race Horse to Ranch Horse for tips and exercise ideas.