Fall is here. The days are getting shorter. And in many parts of the world, the competition season is winding down. However, that doesn’t mean your work with your horse needs to as well. Here are three things you can do to make the best of the most of the off season:
Welcome to the next installment of Thoroughbred Logic. In this weekly series, Anthropologist and trainer Aubrey Graham, of Kivu Sport Horses, offers insight and training experience when it comes to working with Thoroughbreds (although much will apply to all breeds). This week ride along as Aubrey shares her logic on how to approach and make use of the off season.
It is officially cold, dark, and gray here in Georgia. 6PM feels like midnight. If the weather and time change wasn’t enough to suck the wind out of one’s sails and send you looking for a nice fire and a drink as opposed to a ride, looking at the dismal show calendar would. Nothing on the books until basically 2024.
So besides burning circles into the arena on rare sunny days, here are a few ideas to keep busy and productive while both allowing you and your horse some end of year slow down AND supporting the foundation that will kick off next season on the right foot:
I love ground work, but admittedly I don’t do it enough. OK, you’ll never hear me say that I love long-lining (ground driving) but that is useful too. Ground work is great for rainy days, when you can only work in the barn aisle. But OK OK, it is also great for all the other days too. The reason I respect ground work so much is that it is a super way to build trust, establish clear boundaries and sort out some of the in-the-saddle issues.
Horse pops a shoulder or leans does not move away from your aids when you get on? Great! Ground work can help fix that. Learn to move away from pressure in hand.
Horse sucks back when asked to go forward? Great! Ground work can help fix that too. Lunge with verbal cues and send them on.
Horse is pushy, dominant, or a bit of a bully in general? Super, that guy or gal probably needs ground work, like yesterday. Grab a good rope halter and work on in-hand boundaries.
Here’s the catch with ground work though — while a bonding activity, especially with smart, smart, smart Thoroughbreds, it is not about making them love you or turning yourself into a treat factory. It is much more about learning to use a language of physical movement, pressure (the ask) and release (the reward) to build understanding and trust. And with trust comes the horse that looks to you for security and support — the one that comes to you in the field and embodies the overgrown Labrador moniker.
LESSONS & CLINICS
While losing light early likely limits the in-the-arena time, the slow-down in the show season *might* just open up weekends or other time slots for things like lessons and clinics. Due to the general insanity of my schedule, I hadn’t been able to carve out time to get down to my coach since June (it’s a two-hour drive one way, but I still can’t believe it has been that long…). This week, I was finally was able to get a couple lessons on the books, take a breath and work on both myself and a couple of new horses. Despite the dreary weather and lack of light, the amount of confidence and drive that came out of those training sessions kicked my butt and I was ready to apply all the things to all the horses. Seven PM and dark, yep, Uno — your turn, let’s go.
Besides the general serotonin boost that comes from good, challenging lessons, the homework is enough to motivate more work through the darker, colder days. Even if I can only lesson every other — or every third — week, I go home with exercises and activities to work on, and head back ready to show progress, discuss stumbling blocks, and make new plans forward. Maybe I’m just your standard “A” type of person, but I find this energizing and again… positive enough to temporarily ignore the weather and kick on.
Clinics are the same deal. Hopefully a host has an indoor or the weather gods are in their favor when teaching (which they decidedly were not last Saturday when I was coaching), but riding with new instructors, gaining different perspectives, and often hearing the same thing your trainer tells you from someone else’s mouth is super productive. It might be heading into the slower part of the year, but clinics can still build up that knowledge base that you can put to work as you kick off in the new year.
And if, like last week, the weather is bollox (48 degrees and pouring rain), you can either throw in the towel and enjoy that drink in front of the fire (believe me that’s where I wanted to be) or you can layer on the rain gear, ride out and head home at the end of the day not suspecting your level of tough-as-nails badassery, but fully aware of it.
Trails are some of my favorite ways to build trust and a confident relationship with a horse. Trails are all ab0ut the unknown — the deer in the woods, the logs across the trail, the slick footing, the crunching leaves, the flowing stream (ahem, Hudson). The new environment provides a stimulating, yet relaxing break from the sandbox and allows you to both test your trust and to add to it. (Foxhunting will do similarly, but that’s its own article after I get a bit more experience, which I’m also looking to use the winter “off time” doing).
In the off season (when possible — believe me, I wish I had time to haul out and do this more), I combine this love of trails and conditioning. When the arena is too wet, trails or the field are still a nice, albeit, likely boggy option. A confident walk for an hour or a quality sequence of trot sets over uneven ground is both great for their brains and bodies. Hell, it is probably just as good for the rider on each of those levels as well.
And then besides building up strength and endurance over uneven terrain, there is the perpetual ability to learn about your horse and train along the way. Scary rocks at the turn? Great! A bridge to cross? Even better! And the streams… oh the streams…
Quick stream side-story: Hudson (Primetime Spy) has been in my barn for a handful of months as a sale horse. He has jumped around Novice/Training and generally been a super good boy. I was told there was a rear in there — and that it was big, and that it was repeated. But I hadn’t found it yet. I decided to keep him on as an upper level hopeful in my program… so let’s push the boundaries and build the trust — to the trails we went.
He was cool with the rocks and the bridges and the deer. Good kid. But with the stream? He was like, “Look human, I think I like you enough, but this is too much. NOPELOPE hold my beer. BYE.” Two steps right, I say “nope,” he says “too bad” and stands up and bolts. OK. I can manage that. (Though, next time Hudson, please don’t try to run me face-first through the Jura spiders — don’t know what those are? Look ’em up). At least now I know what that rear is like and have a sense of his tell. This is all good learning, and all things I am comfortable managing. So back to the stream we went — and after a few more revolutions of stand up and bolt, we were able to approach quietly and stand still.
The big stream may not have been something I “won” outright, but we did build trust — we stood still and looked at it without levitating (that’s a surprising amount of progress). I honestly could have walked him across in hand but wasn’t going to spend the rest of the day riding and teaching with freezing cold wet feet. So we stood quietly, walked towards it, rewarded and headed on our way. The little stream though — that one worked in my favor and we got to end water crossings on the trail with a ton of confidence and trust. Nifty.
So between recent lessons and trail rides, I have ample homework and a ton more knowledge about this talented horse. And with the combo of the above — groundwork, lessons, and trails — I have a feeling this “off-season” is going to be exactly what this horse and I need.
So folks, while you slow down and take an eye off of the show calendar, here’s a little push to still go ride (or ground work). And if the weather is too frightful, or the year has just been too long, find a nice fire and a good drink. As far as I’m concerned it is all productive.