There's nothing like being without an indoor arena and unable to ride for a week because the ring is now better for ice skating, or it's well below freezing, or crazy windy, or currently sleeting. It's also a hard time for some people to get to the barn during the week as they work and it gets dark so early, they become "weekend warriors," making maintaining the horses' fitness difficult. Oh, and the layers - so MANY layers of clothing!
Then, the day comes when you can finally hop on again, the ring is alright, the weather is okay, or, best of all, the perfect soft snow has arrived, and you get to head out on the trails.
What you hope your trail ride will be like
Except your horse has likely not gotten much, if any, exercise, even in turnout and suddenly, your sweet, easy horse has turned into a leaping, spinning, spooking nightmare, even just in the arena.
What your ride might actually be like
There are solutions to this - first, ensure your horse is getting enough turn-out time. Perhaps lunge the horse before your ride and look into any potential necessary dietary changes. Your summer performance horse probably doesn't need as much grain if they have a reduced workload in the winter. Some still will, especially hard keepers, but often looking into feed can solve a lot of problems.
However, when you really can't ride, it's far better for your horse and you if you find other ways to work their brain and build your bond when winter gets in the way.
As with many animals, stimulating horses brains can be as helpful as exercise on those horrible days.
Some great ideas include:
Going for a walk together. If the footing on a trail or a side road is ok, take your horse for a walk. Not only is it good exercise for both of you, but it's a great way to bond with your horse as well. Your horse looks to you for leadership and may appreciate the chance to check out new things with their rider/owner on the ground.
Gorgeous sights enjoyed by both horse and rider from the ground
Do some liberty training. If the footing is too dangerous to ride, but not so bad you can't walk around in the ring/arena, try liberty training. Liberty work is based on non-verbal communication between horses. The goal is to have your horse move with you or follow your commands without anything connecting you but your energy (i.e., no halter or other tack). You can work on lots of things like getting the horse's feet to move, free-lunging, or, perhaps best of all, having your horse learn to lead beside you at any speed and in any direction without tack.
Play games with your horse. Many horses enjoy playing with the large beach-style balls.
There are even people who play soccer with their horse.
Teach your horse tag.
Build an obstacle course and lead them through some desensitizing or problem-solving.
Another fun winter activity - after they learn to pull something - you can teach a horse to skijor, whether just pulling sleds around the yard to going out on the cross-country trails, skijoring can be a blast.
It can also get extreme when competition is involved!
Teach your horse useful tricks such as picking up things you have dropped and how to ground tie. It's also a great time to work on problems from the ground. From long-lining to liberty there are lots of ways to work on specific issues. One great one to work on right now? Standing still and lined up at the mounting block!
Do clinics together, take some lessons. Perhaps switch up disciplines for a bit or try versatility, working equitation, barrel racing or dressage, or even just get out of the arena for a bit and have a relaxing trail ride.
Examples of Working Equitation training - PLEASE WEAR A HELMET!
Whatever you choose to do, the benefits for horses of exercise in the winter are significant. Whether it's keeping your horse fit for spring training, busting boredom, or helping to prevent or help arthritis and other stiffness issues, winter weather doesn't have to mean spending the better part of the year as a pasture puff. No offense to pasture puffs intended.
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