Many of us lament that we need to lose weight, get in shape, and tone up-especially after a long, cold winter. We may also gripe that exercising is boring or find we don’t enjoy a good workout day after day.
Those of us who love to ride often complain that we never have time to do ground work, so our horses’ basic manners are sorely lacking.
And those of us who own young horses may grumble that we don’t know what else to do with our weanlings, yearlings, and 2-year-olds beyond daily care and teaching them some basic ground skills.
I’d like to suggest that we can solve all these issues-and have fun doing it. The name of the game is “equi-cizing.” But heed this warning: This is an addictive activity. It will attract your friends….
Make Your Horse an Urban Citizen
According to a nationwide survey of 2,748 American pet owners in 2006, more than 52% of dog owners take their pets with them while exercising, and 74% said they consider their pet’s health to be a major reason for including them in a regular fitness regimen.
However, most horse people never consider taking their horses out for a walk or a run around the neighborhood. We tend to think that we have to ride our horses to provide them with exercise.
Equi-cizing-taking your horse with you on a long walk or jog-is an excellent way to spend quality training time with your horse. It offers many opportunities to improve ground manners and increases your horse’s exposure to obstacles and situations that can help him become a solid partner. Equi-cizing is also a great way to help you both get in better shape.
Share the Perks!
- Spend quality time with your horse during walks and runs.
- Get in condition, build muscle tone, and lose weight.
- Break up monotony and develop a positive attitude by getting out and about.
- Improve your horse’s leading and ground manners.
- Despook your horse to everyday activities and noise.
- Get to know your neighbors and do a little PR for horse ownership.
- Invite your friends so they can share the benefits.
You might not think that a mile or two of daily walking or trotting will improve a horse’s physical condition, but it certainly will-very few horses walk or trot that far on their own in a short, focused period of time, especially when kept on small acreages.
That distance will assist you with your own conditioning as well. Getting in shape and toning your own muscles will make you feel vibrant and strong. In turn, equi-cizing will increase your self-confidence and positive attitude in other aspects of your life. The psychological benefits to the human cannot be overstated.
You may see some attitude improvements in your horse, too. Many horses actually start looking forward to this leading workout-getting out to see the neighborhood and doing something different from being ridden. Some people report that after they have been equi-cizing, some horses pay better attention to obstacles and terrain when they are being ridden.
The walking workout allows you to meet your neighbors in a positive and more approachable manner. The old adage about “meeting people is easier with a puppy on a string” holds true because many people-especially children-will want to meet your horse and pet him. You are acting as a representative of the horse industry, so take a few extra minutes to speak with your neighbors and make new friends. Be sure to offer any cautions or instruction for approaching your horse in a friendly, positive way. You don’t want to scare anyone, but you certainly don’t want your neighbor to get her toes stepped on either.
A more subtle effect of the workout is your horse’s increasing respect for your leadership and space. Your leading confidence will also build as you refine your ground handling skills. Equi-cizers often report that their improved awareness and leading skills transfer well to other day-to-day activities with their horses.
Your Working Outfit
As you prepare for your outing, start with an appropriate SPF sunblock moisturizer on your face and all exposed skin, along with bug spray if needed. Consider a hat, hairband, or barrette to keep your locks out of your face. Wear a comfortable T-shirt, shorts, or workout pants, with appropriate “support” for the ladies. Shoes should be either good quality running or walking shoes, with support for the arch, or comfortable paddock boots that will not blister or injure your feet. Wear bright-colored clothing or reflective fabrics to maximize your visibility if you are working on the roadway.
During colder weather, wear appropriate workout layers so you can add or subtract garments as needed to prevent overheating or getting chilled, with shoes or boots that will protect your feet from cold. Consider gloves and a hat, too.
Outfit your horse with a good quality halter (you may want to consider using a rope halter) and a long, comfortable lead rope (12 to 15 feet) or use a bridle outfitted with a snaffle bit and reins for even greater directional control. In the beginning, use a dressage whip, horsemanship stick, or crop as an extension of your arm. Consider lower leg protection for the horse to prevent nicks and scrapes if he stumbles or gets tired. Later you can add the saddle and breast collar as a great way to allow young horses to get used to carrying weight and the feel of a saddle as they move, or for experienced horses to carry a little more weight during their exercise regimen. In summer, try using fly spray to minimize the distraction of biting insects while you are working out together.
Starting and Charting a Program
Evaluate your health needs along with your horse’s. If you have a sedentary lifestyle, it’s generally advisable to talk with a medical professional before undertaking a significant exercise program. If you’re using this exercise (for either you or your horse) as physical rehabilitation from knee, colic, or other surgeries, check with your physical therapist or veterinarian to find out the proper level of activity and specialized activities to increase the range of motion needed.
If you are already exercising on your own, you can easily switch to taking your horse with you. You’ll probably be surprised how much more difficult it is to be using your upper body, communicating your intent to the horse, and applying leading lessons when necessary. On the other hand, the miles will fly by because you are constantly working and paying attention to your horse.
Keep a training journal to document how far you go, vital signs for both team members, obstacles and distractions surmounted, and improvements in your horse’s attitude. Tracking your progress will both please and encourage you. Your veterinarian can suggest how many miles and how fast your horse can safely go, but three to five miles at a walk or slow trot is barely going to raise most horses’ respiratory and heart rates. If the horse is overweight with a body condition score (BCS) greater than 6, severely underweight (BCS less than 4), prone to laminitis, or has other health conditions, you should discuss his exercise regimen with your veterinarian first.
You might want to make a chart to document your vital signs and your horse’s heart rate and breathing rate at the beginning of the route, immediately upon returning, and 20 minutes after exercising. As your fitness, and that of your horse’s, improves, vital signs will return to normal much quicker. (To find out how to take your horse’s heart and respiration rates, see the article on taking vital signs in the January 2007 issue of Perfect Horse.)
Measure the course you will be walking with a car or distance wheel ahead of time so you have a good idea of how far you are attempting to go. Is there a rail trail, running path, or horseback riding trail available? Evaluate your route for traffic load, road shoulders, dangerous intersections, or special hazards (bridges, large dogs, tight turns), and always select a quiet country lane or riding trail over a high-traffic road.
Make sure you know what kind of pace you’ll be setting. As a rule of thumb, 1 mile per hour (a 60-minute mile) is extremely slow; 3 miles per hour (a 20-minute mile) is a comfortable pace for most people; and 5 miles per hour (a 12-minute mile) is a very fast walk. Most horses range from trotting comfortably at 5 mph to trotting fast at 8 mph (from a 12- to 7.5-minute mile), which would require you to run. If you are in good enough shape and run faster than a 7-minute mile (8 mph), you will be asking your horse to canter with you, so make sure he is ready for that, too.
Leading Along Public Roads
Horseback riders and walkers are subject to, and protected by, the rules of the road. (See sidebar on page 57.) Even so, leading your horse along the road can be dangerous if sensible precautions are not taken.
Do not travel along roadways at dawn or dusk, when drivers can’t see well. Nor should you attempt to walk along the roads during such poor weather conditions as rain, snow, or ice because drivers might overcorrect and slide into you or the horse.
In most states, a mounted horse and rider must move in the same direction as vehicular traffic, but when you are leading a horse you are considered a pedestrian. By law, pedestrians are supposed to walk on the side of the road facing traffic. This means that normally the human would be on the left side of the road. If your goal is to keep your horse further to the left of traffic, you will need to teach your horse to be led from his right side-something that many of us don’t routinely do. We’re generally taught to lead the horse from the left side, which would position him to our right, closer to traffic. This may not be a problem if you have a wide enough shoulder. Other situations might call for using the right shoulder of the road.
If there are multiple teams, you should be in single file on a usable shoulder, lane, or path. In some communities, there are sidewalks available to keep the horse off the path of vehicular traffic.
When crossing the road, move quickly, but do not run, and watch for traffic. Cross in areas where any oncoming cars can clearly see you and slow or stop if necessary. In heavy traffic, find a driveway or wide shoulder of the road to lead the horse along, or better yet, choose a different route.
Most drivers do not realize how easily a horse can get spooked and how fast he can move. Your rule should be to never trust a driver to do the friendly or smart thing!
Distress Signal. Despite all your hard work at home, the moment of truth arrives when you lead your horse into public. If the horse becomes frightened or unmanageable at the approach of a vehicle, attempt to lead or drive him out of the road onto the shoulder. Look directly at the driver and wave to slow him by raising your hand to your shoulder level, then lowering your hand in a downward direction repeatedly.
Horse-Friendly Rules of the Road
Many states have taken measures to help ensure the safety of horses and their owners:
• In New Jersey, motorists must slow to 25 mph while passing a horse on the road.
• In Connecticut, motorists must reduce speed, proceed with caution, and stop if necessary to avoid endangering, frightening, or striking a horse.
• In Connecticut, no motorist shall blow the horn or cause a loud noise to frighten a horse.
• In Wisconsin, livestock have the right of way while crossing the road so motorists must stop and give way.
• In Wisconsin, those in charge of animals have to “use reasonable care and diligence to keep the road open.”
• Also in Wisconsin, it’s the law that if someone is riding or leading a frightened animal and gives a distress signal, drivers must stop until the animal is under control.
• Wherever you live, it’s a good idea to post “horse crossing” signs if you’re making use of roadways.
Get in Step with Your Horse
Ground work. Start at home with basic ground manners and exercises to establish your personal space and your horse’s respect for you. Your horse should at a minimum understand how to yield to pressure on the halter, lead safely at your shoulder, step over and yield his shoulder, and stop and back up before you attempt to begin exercising together. It is also helpful if your horse is used to being longed in a circle in case you need to get mental control over him at an obstacle.
If you are nervous about taking your young or silly horse out the first few times, practice with an older and less nervous horse until you feel more comfortable. Going with a sedate buddy horse may be the best situation and provides a human friend to join you too!
Despooking. You can’t desensitize your horse to every potential fright you’ll encounter on your walks. Mailboxes, flags, a big rock out in the middle of nothing, dogs barking or approaching, even weird yard decorations may startle him along the way. But you can teach him to maintain his composure when he encounters something that alarms him. (See “Meet the Monsters” in the October 2007 issue of Perfect Horse.)
Get your horse used to passing vehicle traffic by working him in a pasture near a busy road. Introduce him to vehicles that are slowly moving down the driveway before taking him on a public roadway.
Start slowly and aim for quality, not quantity. One mile, or less, is plenty at first, especially if you are asking for your horse’s concentration. Covering a long distance does not necessarily require you to go faster and can be just as healthy for you and the horse as a short, fast workout. Remember to treat obstacles as training opportunities along the route.
Encourage Good Etiquette
Concentrate on getting your horse to walk with you and stay off the trail or road where you want to walk. He should yield to you and walk in a straight line looking forward and watching where to place his own feet rather than crowding you. Many people make the mistake of watching out for the horses’ feet instead of their own. That is his job-let him pay attention to ditches, obstacles (mailboxes, trash cans, rocks, mud puddles), and changes in the terrain. Of course, you do need to keep an eye out for holes and sharp objects and ensure that you aren’t asking him to walk in garbage.
Use your lead rope, reins, and stick to move the horse out of your space or to block him from coming into you. At first this may take a lot of repetition to keep him tracking nicely alongside you, but if you are consistent, the horse will realize that he must yield to you, not vice versa. Since your feet are still moving forward in a businesslike manner, he will begin to take the cue that he has a responsibility to move forward in a straight line at a certain speed.
If your horse is anxious and trying to get ahead of you, use your rein or lead rope to ask your horse to give his face and disengage his hips to slow him down. Be sure to release when he slows his pace and gets into the right position alongside you. (For more advice on leading, see “A Pleasure to Lead” in the April 2008 issue.) When your horse is walking patiently at your shoulder, give him slack to reward him.
If you’re experiencing the opposite problem and your horse is lagging behind you, you’ll need to work on your go-forward cue to get him to step up. It’s dangerous if the horse is trailing behind because if he startles, he may bolt forward and run right over the top of you. Use the end of your lead rope, or your dressage whip, to drive his hindquarters forward as necessary, and then step into place alongside him so he gets the idea of where he needs to travel in relationship to you.
Remember that although you are going out to exercise, your expedition is also a training opportunity. If your horse is worried about a particular object or obstacle, be patient. You may want to allow him to investigate it until he is convinced it is not a big deal, or you may choose to keep him in motion and his attention on what you are asking him to do. Act as if the object is of no real interest or concern, rather than allowing him to get himself worked up. Work with him at a comfortable distance from the object (ask him to move his hips over, lower his head, and make small requests that will help him transfer his focus to you). With time, fewer and fewer obstacles will spook him. He’ll learn to take his cues from you.
When leaving buddies behind in the pasture, some horses will challenge your ground control of them. Be prepared to work through panic behaviors, such as kicking, rearing, jerking, and attempting to pull away. Focus on moving your horse’s feet, changing directions, and speeding up his feet until he gets emotional control and turns his attention back to you. Concentrate on what you want your horse to do, not on the negative behavior, and be sure to keep yourself out of harm’s way. For more information on dealing with dangerous separation anxiety, see “Ask Perfect Horse” in the April 2008 issue.
Similarly, remember that as you return home from your workout, your horse may anticipate and try to hurry. A wise horseperson will go a short distance past home and then turn around and head back to the barn to prevent barn sour habits from forming.
Of course, these outings also have social implications, too. When you stop to speak with passersby and neighbors, it’s good practice for your horse to stand still and be patient. The ability to stand quietly and calmly is an essential skill for any horse. Take advantage of the opportunity to refine it. Stroke your horse. Give him slack. Make it pleasant. What’s more, your horse needs to stand quietly while traffic or other obstacles pass, so work on standing still when you’re at home and whenever the opportunity presents itself in a safe setting.
You should also be able to lead your horse from both sides. This will take lots of practice. When you put your horse on one side, he should stay there and not try to trot circles around you. At first, standing and leading from the “off-side” will feel awkward.
Mix It Up, Add Some Fun
Begin to increase the distance and/or speed of your workout. Take a look at your journal. Add up the mileage you cover over the weeks and months. How fast should you be equi-cizing? How much distance do you want to cover? How much variation do you want to build into your plan? Answers to these questions will depend on your commitment to exercise and your goals for you and your horse.
Your horse will learn to look to you for clues when to start walking or trotting and when to stop. Later on, you might notice him speeding his feet up and slowing them down in time to your feet. Make a game of it-can the horse read your body language and transition directly to a trot from a standstill? Can he learn to slow and stop in coordination with your body?
Add some calisthenics to your exercise regimen. Every half-mile or so, stop your horse and use him as a “dance bar” partner for stretching, leg lifts, butt crunchers, and quad steps. Perform a certain number of jumping jacks, arm circles, abdominal twists, and other standing movements. Make sure you’ve done your sacking out training, so you don’t startle your horse and send him racing home. He should stand quietly. Performing exercises at regular stops will acclimate him to your exercise movements and he’ll come to accept it as just another part of the routine. The better your rhythm, the faster the horse will get used to swinging arms and the sound of feet slapping on the pavement.
Equi-cizing Pays Off
Equi-cizing can provide an interesting change of scenery and opportunities to improve your horse’s responsiveness to your cues. It also gives you a chance to develop your own leading skills and confidence. And maybe best of all, it eliminates those complaints we mentioned at the beginning. Taking your horse along for the walk or run is never boring and allows you to combine exercise, training, and quality time spent with your horse.