A New Look at Winter Riding

Keeping up with your horse's training during the cold months just takes a little creativity.

When the weather outside is frightful, then outdoor riding definitely begins to look less delightful. And if you don’t have an indoor riding arena, then the appeal factor really wanes.

Still, if you’re like so many horse owners in cold climates, no doubt you get that nagging feeling throughout the winter that you shouldn’t allow your horse to just sit around. This year, make a resolution to keep up with your riding all year long. To boost your motivation, we solicited some cold-weather riding advice from Lyons Certified Trainer Debbie Bibb of Running D Ranch in Florissant, Colorado.

Debbie stresses that even the smallest effort you make to work with your horse can go a long way in the winter. Say, for instance, that you get home late one day and only have 10 minutes of daylight left, so you decide just to groom your horse. Even during this type of non-riding, relaxing activity, you should expect good ground manners. Don’t let him crowd your space, refuse to move over when you ask him to, or fidget instead of standing still.

“Whatever you’re doing with him, as long as you’re ensuring he has good manners, you’re not going to lose a lot of training if you can’t ride as much in the winter,” Debbie says.

With that in mind, here are three activities for you to work on this winter. And the best part is these can be accomplished either in or out of the saddle.

1. Practice your emergency stop.
Now’s a great time to practice the basics of an emergency stop. “To me, that’s the most important thing you can practice,” Debbie says. You can do this exercise for short periods of time-five minutes, even-and it requires no more space than a barn aisle or stall.

Stand facing your horse at his shoulder. You want to do this on both sides, but let’s start on the left. Hold your left rein in both hands and use a pulley system. Fixing your left hand, use your right hand to pull the rein through your left hand and create tension. Hold this tension and watch your horse’s hip. When he moves his hip away from you and his left hind foot crosses under his belly and over his right hind foot, release the rein.

“The main problem people have with the emergency stop is that the horse will move his rear end away but he doesn’t take that cross-over step,” Debbie says. This step is important because it’s what disengages the horse’s hindquarters; it’s what, in effect, makes the horse stop moving forward.

You can even practice this exercise at a walk from the saddle using your driveway, as long as it’s not icy.

2. Practice negotiating obstacles.
Obstacles are great for keeping minds active and engaged during the winter-both yours and your horse’s.

For groundwork, you can use a halter and lead rope or a snaffle bridle, plus a dressage whip. Start with easy obstacles, and work your way up. “If you’ve never asked your horse to cross anything before, you might just start with a pole on the ground,” Debbie says.

Other fun obstacles include a wooden platform that serves as a bridge, a ground tarp, and a narrow passage made from barrels or hay bales. Set up the obstacles where you have room to navigate safely. This could even be done in a barn aisle as long as it’s totally clear and wide and high enough that your horse won’t feel claustrophobic.

Stand at your horse’s shoulder so you’re in less danger of being stepped on if he decides to duck away from an obstacle. Tap him lightly on the hip with your whip until he moves forward. Stop tapping when he makes the smallest effort-whether it’s snorting, pawing the ground, or taking a step.

Be sure to send your horse over the obstacles in this way rather than leading him over, so he learns to trust you when you ask him to do something scary. This trust will translate into better performance with other obstacles and areas of riding.

Break down the obstacle into manageable pieces. Maybe your goal can be for your horse to place just one foot on the tarp. Concentrate on that for today, and you’ll be able to keep your work sessions short.

3. Practice riding patterns.
Riding patterns allows you to improve your directional control and cue softness. As long as you have a place to ride that’s not icy, you can do basic patterns at a walk. Use cones or buckets as markers, then set up a triangle, square, or even a straight line, such as a pole-bending course. Debbie says sometimes she’ll randomly place cones throughout her riding area and make up new patterns.

“You can practice stopping at different markers or riding circles around other markers,” Debbie says. “You can practice control of your horse’s hips and shoulders really well by riding patterns.”

Pattern riding can also be used as a great skill building tool. Create several different patterns, with each new pattern adding higher-level skills. That’s going to help you when you get to do more fun riding come the spring and summer.

With some creative ideas like these to work on all winter long, springtime will be here before you know it. You and your horse will be miles ahead of your friends who took the winter riding season off

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