Winter “Whoas”

Pepper walking in the snow between two tree branches.
Unless you have the luxury of loading up your horses and heading to Arizona or south Florida for the winter, chances are good your riding activities have been seriously curtailed by winter weather. Whether you’re dealing with rain and mud, snow and ice, or sub-zero temps and bomb cyclones, the winter months can put the brakes on your horsemanship, if you let it.

This time of year, I hear a lot of frustration in the voices of the riders I coach online, because they have assignments they want to complete, but can’t do much with their horses until the weather improves. I grew up in Florida, where winter is the prime riding season, but after decades of living in the Rocky Mountains, 7800 feet above sea level, I can certainly relate to the winter whoas.

Truth is, there are plenty of things you can do to advance your horsemanship and increase your horse’s training, no matter how bad the footing gets. I think it’s important to keep your hands on your horses daily—for health reasons, for bonding, for leadership. Even if the winter weather restricts you from riding or groundwork, just grooming your horse in the barn, is time well-spent.

With just a little bit of ground with decent footing– in the barn aisle, a stall or the driveway—there are ground exercises that will keep your horse tuned into your signals and interested in what you have to say. Even with no footing at all, you can engage your horse enough to maintain the relationship (and authority) you’ve built. 

The heart of winter is a great time to reassess your riding goals and your horse’s training. Evaluate and plan. And while you’re at it, think about improving your own self too! Horse sports are physically demanding, so fitness matters. 

Finally, while there are some skills that require getting your hands dirty in order to learn, there is much about riding, training and horse behavior that can be learned didactically. Winter is a great time to read, study, take online short courses and gain knowledge. There’s a lot to learn about horses; you need to gain knowledge every way you can.

Grooming Time is Bonding Time
Even if you can’t ride, it’s important to visit your horse and remind him of your relationship. Here in Colorado, some people hardly touch their horses all winter and by Spring, the horses are incredibly herd-bound. Getting your horse out, separating him from the herd and reminding him who you are, will help a lot.

Horses are mutually-grooming animals and they won’t groom on just any horse—it’s a behavior that only occurs between bonded horses. Giving your horse a thorough grooming reminds him of your special relationship and gives you an opportunity to remind him that you are still the one in charge. 

I like to lay my hands over every square inch of my horse’s body, legs, neck and face. It’s especially important in the winter when their coats are long. Winter coats can mask health problems, like weight loss, plus, I like to feel the skin for any scabbing or injuries. I give my horses a thorough head-to-tail curry with HandsOn Gloves, just for this reason. I can kill two birds with one stone—while I curry and clean, I’m also feeling the skin and searching for sore spots. It’s a great massage for my horse and it mimics the way horses groom each other.

Grooming promotes health and well-being in your horse in many ways. Since I cannot bathe my horses all winter, yet we’re still riding and causing sweat buildup, I use a waterless bathing product called Miracle Groom. It also cleans manure and urine stains, without requiring any rinsing.

Get Grounded
Even if you don’t have suitable footing for riding or active groundwork, there are still things you can do with your horse in the winter to maintain your leadership and authority. As I said, just getting him away from the herd and alone for an hour or so will help. Tying your horse for grooming reminds him to be patient. You can work on ground tying exercises in the aisle of the barn.

If your driveway has some dry areas or even some snow-packed areas, you might be able to do some leading exercises with your horse to keep his ground manners sharp and to keep him tuned into you. Check out my Lead Line Leadership video for ground tying and other exercises to work on. 

We try to keep our horses barefoot in the winter because it’s better for their hooves and an unshod horse has better traction in the snow and ice and is less-likely to get snowballs under his hooves. Hoof boots can be useful for shod or unshod horses, when you need more traction. If we have a horse that must remain shod in the winter for therapeutic reasons, we use snow pads for added traction and to prevent snowballs. Sometimes people use studded shoes or borium welded onto a steel shoe, for added traction in the winter.

If you have an indoor arena or suitable footing outside, you can include lungeing and circling work with your horse, which will not only keep him responsive, but also improve his fitness. If your riding activities are restricted in the winter months, spend whatever time you can on groundwork and relationship building activities. If you keep the relationship strong between you and your horse, you won’t miss a beat when the good weather finally arrives.

Goal-setting and Training Plans 
Winter is a logical time to look forward and decide what you will accomplish with your horse in the coming year. Feats to accomplish, skills to master, trail rides, horse shows and clinics to attend. Get a calendar and fill that thing up. Set your long-range goals now.

The next step is to think about the skills and resources you will need to acquire, what steps you will take, how you will condition both you and your horse. Back-track on that calendar, thinking about how many weeks it takes to impact fitness, training and performance. What skills are you and your horse lacking and how long will it take to fill the holes? Break down the skills and set a training schedule.

Training and performance goals are accomplished over months and years, not hours and days. Looking forward, six to twelve months in advance, will help you chart a course. My Interactive Academy curriculum begins with assessing the current skill level of you and your horse, then setting realistic goals for the future.

For instance, if you’re planning to attend a multi-day rigorous trail ride in July, start by getting that date on the calendar. Calculate how many weeks and days-per-week of riding t will it take to condition your horse. Now you can back track on the calendar and set your riding goals.

Maybe you need to acquire some new skills for the trail ride… ground tying, tying to the trailer, trailer loading, crossing water, riding in a strange location. Identify the skills/experience/resources you need and make a plan. Take lessons, go on shorter rides, fill the holes with training—all that requires planning and time to accomplish.

In Pursuit of Knowledge
Most accomplished horse people are curious and insatiable learners. It’s a good sport for people that crave learning because if you devoted every waking minute of your life to learning more about horses, you’d still never learn it all. There’s no such thing as a perfect rider—never has been, never will be. And even after more than five thousand years of domestication, there’s still an awful lot about horses we don’t know. 

The professional horse trainers that I admire, all have cross-trained in other disciplines and/or taken any opportunity they can find to study classical horsemanship. Certainly, riding horses requires a lot of physical skill, but there is also a huge body of riding theory that can be learned by reading, studying and taking lessons, clinics or online courses

I’ll never grow tired of studying horse behavior and the science behind behavior modification. Sometimes a small piece of information can connect a lot of dots in your understanding. Personally, I look to science-based, peer-reviewed research and avoid fluffy, anecdotal books that tend to romanticize horse behavior. 

Recently I wrote a blog sharing my favorite horse books, so if you’re looking for books that will increase your knowledge base, check it out. Also, if structured learning is important to you, check out my Interactive Academy. Each set of assignments includes a study problem (complete with all the study resources you need), a groundwork exercise, an equitation exercise (to improve riding skill) and a horse training exercise (mounted). It’s self-paced and for all skill levels and I personally coach you through the program. It’s not for everyone, but for self-motivated, insatiable learners, this program is perfect!

Fitness Matters
Horse sports are physically demanding and getting in better shape will always make a positive difference in your riding and in your self-confidence. The winter months are a great time to reassess your fitness and think about improving your conditioning in ways that impact your riding. 

Balance is the #1 skill required of riders—a critical skill that must be constantly honed through exercise. We reach our peak ability to balance at the age of 18-20. Balance decreases with age, unless you work on it. Fortunately, balance improves quickly with exercise and practice.

My fitness regime always includes exercises to address core strength, increase aerobic capacity and improve my balance. I find that cross-training in my fitness routine is important—I might hike one day, bicycle or ski the next. I like to start my day with a 30-minute Pilates workout because it involves core strength and dynamic balance. Of all the exercises classes/videos I have done, Pilates relates the most to riding because it connects your core strength to body control and balance.

Consider your horse’s fitness alongside your own. Inactivity affects all of us. If nothing else, maybe you can go on walks with your horse in-hand. Stretch your legs, jog a little bit, work on your horse’s ground manners and get him away from the herd and more focused on you.

From “Whoas” to Goes
Don’t let the winter months bring your horsemanship to a sliding stop. Even if you only find one thing from this entire blog that you can employ, it will help you further your goals. Just imagine if you picked one thing from each category and then dedicated time each week to work on it! Without question, both you and your horse will feel a positive impact. 

Stay connected with your horse through grooming and groundwork, even if it takes place standing in the barn aisle. Take time to assess where you and your horse are in the training continuum, where you’d like to go, then chart a course to get there. Great accomplishment stems from evaluation, planning and taking small steps. 

Finally, invest in yourself. Improve your balance and strength—even just adding one new component to your exercise regime can make an impact. If you cannot spend time in the saddle, the next best thing is to study riding theory, watch videos, take online courses and read, read, read. 

Horse sports are some of the most complicated, physically demanding and difficult-to-learn activities out there. To excel, you must give it everything you’ve got and attack it on all fronts. My husband likes to tease me by saying I can relate any subject in the world to horses, and he’s right. I look to all areas of sport, exercise, philosophy, psychology, science and behavior for knowledge that can inform my horsemanship. 

Go ahead and take the plunge.  Change the narrative from whoa to go. Make a commitment to advance your horsemanship and don’t let winter slow you down!

December 2019 Horse Report

I’m happy to report that after several cycles of injury/treatment/rehab and two months of stall rest and hand-walking, the Adventures of Pepperoni are back in full swing! Thankfully, we were able to start turning him out with the herd and riding again last week, because stall-rest and hand-walking was getting old for Pepper (and for those of us on the end of the lead trying to stay clear of his “airs above the ground”).

The good news is that he is now sound and healthy, and his under-saddle training is picking up right where we left off. Pepperoni is coming 4 years old now and his maturity is starting to kick in—less silliness, more coordination, more responsiveness. Time off doesn’t cause a horse to lose its training—it stays right where you left it. Poor handling and riding will un-train a horse fast (or train him something different) but leaving him alone does not. Sure, he may be a little fresh when you return to riding, but he knows exactly what he knew before the layoff.

Pepperoni is an unusual horse in many ways. He’s wicked smart and a lightning-fast learner. Be careful what you wish for. If you don’t make many mistakes, the smart horse excels in his training. But mistakes are often illuminated in a very smart horse. Pepper is exceptionally aware of his surroundings. Not in a distracted way—he’s very calm and focused and he’s always taking stock. He rarely displays fearful behavior; but he has an intense curiosity. These are traits bred into the cow horse, and while they may sound good when you read it on paper, do not be fooled. These are the very traits that cause some to say cow horses are “difficult” and “challenging.”

Pepper also has a very strong sense of right and wrong (some might call this bull-headed, but it is a trait I like). Most of the time we agree on what is right, but occasionally there is a dispute. At times, when he believes I am wrong and he is right, his red-headed temper flares. In those moments, I’ve learned to 1) check to see if I was wrong (it happens) and take responsibility, and 2) do not yield to a tantrum but do not throw gas on the flame.

Sometimes us riders find ourselves at odds with a horse and in those moments, it’s important that we prevail, lest the horse learn he can do whatever he wants. But it is never wise to start a fight with a horse, because it may be a fight you won’t win. At the end of the day, they are much larger, faster, more athletic and more lethal than humans.

Pepper is not argumentative, difficult or challenging to train. In fact, he is full of enthusiasm for the job—any job, eager to please and a joy to ride. But he is not a horse that will suffer fools and not a horse you want to fight with. Most of the time when he gets testy, there’s something I’ve done to contribute. I’ll admit that on occasion, I am the one that gets testy or impatient first, and his subsequent ire is justified. I can always count on Pepper to let me know when I’ve made a mistake. He makes me a better rider.

I’m super happy to be back on track with Pepperoni and I am hopeful that he will stay out of trouble for a while. He’s lost a lot of conditioning in the past few months, so we are in a rebuilding state now. We lose conditioning much faster than we gain it, so I expect that it will take 2-3 months to get him back into shape. Right now, our daily rides consist of a long walking warm-up, then 10 minutes of long-trot on a free-rein, followed by 5 minutes of collected trot in a “training frame,” followed by five minutes of canter on each lead. If he’s not completely gassed out by then, I’ll work on bending, shoulder-in and/or leg-yielding at the walk and trot.

By this time next month, I hope to be back to collection at the canter, departures and lead changes. But I am patient, and I have no deadlines looming. It’s all about the joy of training, about building a strong relationship and developing a high-level athletic partner. It doesn’t get any better than that!

Be Careful What You Wish For…

It’s a beautiful morning here in the Colorado mountains. After a few inches of wet snow last night, the sun is out, it’s relatively warm, no wind and the snow is melting fast, leaving behind some badly needed moisture. I think I’ve been complaining too much about cold weather because I see on the news this morning that I am headed into record breaking hot weather in central CA this weekend! As I said, be careful what you wish for. So far, the only place I’ve found with perfect weather is Kauai, with a year-round mean temperature of 72°—that’s if you miss the hurricanes.

I had a great ride on Dually yesterday. Because of the wet snow that fell all day, we rode indoors. He’s very mellow in there—it’s the wide open spaces that get him cranked up and thinking about speed. Inside he is quiet as a mouse and yesterday he worked perfectly—even on the mechanical cutting machine. A total joy to ride! I had a few friends visiting so we all rode together and had good fun. Here’s a photo of Dually, too.

That’s what it’s all about—having fun. I want every ride I have to be fun and fulfilling; not aggravating, scary and working on issues. That’s why it pays to have a really well trained horse without issues. In my horse sales program I try to find horses that fit this bill—mature and experienced, well-trained and with great temperaments (and a little eye candy never hurts). I love finding the horses, I love having them here for my friends to ride and I love selling them to the perfect owner and starting the cycle over again. There’s lots of great horses out there, but they are not generally easy to find or cheap! I am fortunate that I get around enough to find a lot of great horses and when I do, I buy them J

My mission in the last couple of weeks has been spring cleaning in my tack room. It was sorely needed after a winter of piling stuff in the corner. I washed old dirty blankets and rags, cleaned out all the unnecessary odds and ends that accumulate and reorganized my tack. It’s so nice to have a clean, well organized tack room! I can actually find stuff.

My biggest problem in the tack room is not throwing out all the old stuff I’ll never use again. And the pile of broken stuff I think I’ll get fixed one day is just getting bigger and accumulating more dirt. But it’s good stuff and I can’t bring myself to throw it out! I do not have that problem in my house; I love getting rid of stuff there. But old tack has sentimental value and it feels good to have lots of stuff. Am I the only one that has this problem?

Toady I’ll get caught upon some writing, then ride. Tomorrow is packing day, to get ready for my clinic in CA this weekend. Then I hit the road again on Friday. It’ll be a fun weekend. I always love going to CA, even if it’s hot. I’m not sorry I wished for it; a little bit of heat will feel good for a change.

Enjoy the ride!

Julie

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