Fresh Start

Like my fruits and vegetables, I prefer my horses fresh. It’s clearly not for everyone, but I enjoy riding a horse that’s a little bit excited, that’s looking down the road, eager to get there and curious about what job awaits him. It took me about forty years to realize it, but I prefer a horse with a big motor and a busy mind. To me, it’s more fun than riding a horse that’s sluggish, insensitive and looking for a way out of work. But a fresh horse is neither fun nor confidence inspiring to many riders.

What is a fresh horse?

A fresh horse is one that has not been handled or ridden for an extended time or for a longer period than normal. Perhaps it’s a horse that’s simply not in a regular riding routine or hasn’t been ridden in a few days. At one end of the extreme, it could be a horse that’s been turned out with the herd for several years without any riding or handling, and at the other end, maybe it’s Monday and that horse just had the weekend off. 

Because horses are emotional animals, a horse might be in a fresh state of mind because of the situation it’s in. Riding in a strange area or with unknown horses can sometimes cause emotional overload. When something changes in a horse’s known environment, like a new banner on the fence, it can temporarily blow his mind. Maybe the wind is howling, putting a normally calm horse on edge. Often a nervous or excited horse feels just like a fresh horse— it’s more horse than you are used to.

What does fresh look and feel like? 

A horse with the freshies tends to be high-headed, energetic and easily distracted. It may be looking around a lot, calling out to other horses, fidgeting. It’s muscles feel and look tight (we call that “on the muscle”) and sometimes the rider feels a hump in the horse’s back that may morph into a little crow-hop. It’s often the result of pent up energy in the horse, not the result of disobedience or defiance. There’s a big difference.

If a trained horse has simply had a time off, even if it’s been months or years, it does not forget its training or become untrained, let alone become disobedient or defiant. Horses retain their training forever; they don’t unlearn, although they may benefit from occasional reminders. 

However that horse was left before the lay-off, is the same horse that you get back, once you get the freshies out. While I expect a fresh horse to be energetic and need some re-tuning, that should not translate to disobedience if the horse was properly trained to begin with. Defiance and disobedience are signs of poor training, not a fresh horse.

Whether your horse has been laid off for days or weeks or has had time off due to weather conditions, vacation, physical rehab or some external reason, there are a few steps you can take to make sure your first few rides on a fresh horse go well. From take-off to landing, it helps to pay attention to details, to insure a smooth and safe flight.

Pre-Flight Checklist

At its best, riding is a physically demanding and somewhat risky activity. When a horse is fresh, it’s important to be thorough in your preparations and make sure all conditions are perfect for flight. If we always consider the worst-case-scenario with horses, it will keep us safer. Minimally, I want to make certain that my tack is right, the environment is conducive to training, and my horse is in the right state-of-mind. Before I take that first ride, I’ll go through a pre-flight checklist, to make sure all conditions are right.

  • Saddle fit and tack check: If the horse has had weeks or months off, it pays to reassess saddle fit. A horse’s body shape changes rapidly with age and conditioning, so saddle fit is a constant concern. With an extended layoff, it’s even more important. Pads may need to be adjusted; billets and latigos may need adjusting. Check all parts of your tack, especially if it hasn’t been used in a while. Adjust the headstall/bit/curb strap; look for wear spots where metal meets leather; check Chicago screws and other connections.
  • Safe footing: Keep in mind that the fresh horse is probably going to outrun his lungs. Like most horse trainers, I’m a fanatic about soft, freshly-groomed and consistent footing. A fresh horse may be physically out of shape or coming off injured reserve and in his excitement, he may run fast and buck hard in the groundwork and trot/canter hard when I ride. I want deep enough footing that my horse has plenty of soft ground underneath him, but not so deep that he over-stresses his tendons. I don’t mind mud unless it’s slippery, as long as the footing is consistent. 
  • Groundwork for focus, not to tire: If the fresh horse is nervous and a looky-lou right when I pull him out of the stall, some groundwork is indicated. If the well-trained horse is mannerly from the start, listening to me, standing quietly while tied and compliant, I may skip it. If I do groundwork with the fresh horse, my goal is to get the horse to listen to me, follow instructions and demonstrate compliance. It is not to “get the bucks out” or tire out the horse. In my experience, people who say that are often inadvertently training the horse to buck on the lunge line. 
  • Ground School. For groundwork, I use a premium rope halter, with a 15-foot training lead; I may also employ a flag or boundary stick. I start with leading the horse around at walk and trot, doing turns and stops, to check its manners, its awareness of boundaries and its focus on me. Then I might circle the horse on the end of the line and ask it to turn around and trot off a few times. If it gives me green lights, I may only spend a couple minutes in groundwork before I step up in the stirrup. If I think the horse really needs to blow off some steam, due to excessive confinement or extreme emotionality, I’d rather use the round pen or turn him loose in a bigger pen (assuming re-injury is not a concern).

Cleared for Take-off

Once I swing a leg over the back of a fresh horse, we are wheels up. As soon as I settle in the saddle, I will ask the horse to move forward at either walk or trot. If he’s truly fresh and has a lot of energy, I want to send that energy in a positive direction. Riding and training horses is entirely about controlling forward movement—start with the forward, then gradually start guiding the horse more and more.

  • Forward motion is the basis of all training. Working trot is the best gait for a fresh horse. It covers the most ground and is the most efficient gait for the horse. If he’s really fresh, I’ll jump right to working trot as soon as I get on and keep him at that gait for at least ten minutes. That’s enough to take the air out of most horses. After that, we can usually settle into some more serious work.
  • Lower your expectations for performance, but not for obedience. I don’t expect a horse that hasn’t been ridden in months to be as sharp in his skills as he was in the peak of his training, but I always expect and require obedience. If he hasn’t had a reason to think about riding cues in a long time, he’s a little rusty and I will give him the time he needs to regain his performance skills. But I expect him to go in the direction I choose, at the speed I dictate, without argument. Having time off does not change the rules of expected behavior.
  • Bending, not pulling, to control speed. A hot blooded, forward moving horse that has been laid-off or cooped up, is going to have a full tank of gas and be eager to go. What never works well on a horse like this is to try to control speed by pulling back on two reins. Instead, I prefer to control speed or excessive energy by bending the neck of the horse softly from right to left to right to left. When the horse builds speed, I gradually bring him onto an arcing circle, increasing the bend in the neck until I feel him gear down a notch, then letting him go straight in reward. Remember, the goal is to control forward motion, not stop it. A lot of behavioral problems stem from the latter.
  • Changes of direction matter. If I am bending the horse to control speed, I will also throw in some changes of direction too. I never go ‘round and ‘round in one direction; instead, I change directions often. This has the double-effect of bending the horse and showing the horse I control its direction. Changes of direction are a powerful tool on a horse that’s excited, scared or feisty.
  • Be prepared for spooks. A nervous or excited horse is more prone to spook, spin and bolt. Mange your rein length and know how to shorten and lengthen your reins blindfolded (my rope reins are the perfect length and are easy to manage); know how to execute the emergency stop (see my YouTube video on Pulley Rein). Don’t ride the horse as if he is going to spook (because he will), but be prepared to react if he does.
  • Rest in the far corners. After extensive trotting, circling, changes of direction, hand gallop and canter, when the horse reaches his full aerobic capacity (maxVO2), I will take him to one of the far corners of the arena (where he doesn’t want to be) for rest and recovery. This addresses barn sour tendencies and teaches the horse to enjoy the part of the arena he normally avoids. 

Horse, this is Your Captain Speaking

Besides getting the fresh off the horse and dissipating his pent-up energy, my main goal with this horse is to remind him of how we do business, who is in charge and who will be making all the decisions (me). I’m less concerned on the horse’s accurate response to specific cues, and more interested in re-establishing a productive working relationship. With that in mind, there are some specific parameters that I work within.

  • No looking around. Focus on the job ahead of you. This is a strict rule of mine on any horse, but especially for the green or fresh horse. A horse that is looking around excessively is not focused on me or the task ahead. I simply disallow it by bumping the outside rein once when the horse turns its head to look. As soon as the nose crosses the line of its shoulder, I issue the correction. Using good timing and the right amount of pressure, the horse stops looking for his escape and brings more focus to riding within a minute or two.
  • Breaking gait (up or down) is bad. Whether the horse is lazy or full of gas, he doesn’t get to pick the speed. Ever. You don’t want a thousand-pound flight animal thinking he controls the speed. A fresh horse needs to move forward, so I proactively take charge by asking it to move forward before it has the chance and for longer than it wants to. Holding that forward horse back when it’s fresh is a bad idea; it’s better for me to be the one asking for speed (and the horse asking to slow down). 
  • Control direction; don’t compromise the path. Just as with speed, I also don’t want my horse thinking it gets a vote in where it goes. If the horse is avoiding the far corners, pulling toward the gait or otherwise veering off the path I have chosen, I will address it. If the horse is nervous or full of itself, I may not take it immediately to the scary places, but it’s important that I maintain control of the direction. I may employ changes of direction, but always turning the horse away from where he wants to go (the gate) or toward the place his is avoiding (the scary place). This kills two birds with one stone: the changes of direction give me more authority over the horse and turning toward scary or away from home will make sure the horse does not benefit from its disobedient actions. If I let the horse veer-away from a place I’ve directed it to go or let the horse pull me in a direction without addressing it, it is learning the wrong thing.

Us horse trainers like to talk about riding the horse underneath you and staying in the moment. Ride the horse that showed up today; play the hand you are dealt. They are not robots and they all have good days and bad days. It’s the rider’s job to adjust to the needs of the horse, in the moment and ride proactively.

Just because a horse has pent-up energy or hasn’t been ridden for an extended period, does not mean he is a bad horse or that he has become untrained. Think about kids going back to school after summer break. They are a little wild and may need a few days to fall back into the routine, but they know how to do it. Contain and direct their energy, remind them of their manners, and get their mind back in the game. That’s what you want to do with the fresh horse.

As always, with horses, keep your safety and the safety of your horse, first and foremost in your mind. And don’t forget… enjoy the ride!

Winter “Whoas”

Pepper walking in the snow between two tree branches.
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!