For some riders, the winter months can mean less time in the saddle. Whether it’s bad weather, a busy holiday schedule, lameness or a scheduled break in your horse’s training schedule keeping you out of the saddle, not riding can leave us feeling detached or unconnected to our horse. Luckily there are several ways you can spend quality time with your horse without being in the saddle. We spoke with top natural horsemanship trainer and Team Absorbine rider Julie Goodnight about the best ways to spend downtime.
Julie starts off by saying that the secret behind creating meaningful interaction with your horse during down time is really about keeping the mental connection. Regardless of the activity or exercise you’re doing, you want to make sure your horse is interacting and focused on you. Ideally when you are doing exercises on the ground, you will be separating your horse from the herd. This helps you prevent your horse from becoming herd bound.
“It’s really important to keep a mental connection going with your horse during periods of down time,” says Julie. “Even if you only have the capacity to interact with him in tiny ways, that’s really significant because you’re keeping a connection going, you’re separating him from the herd and asking him to interact with you in a positive way.”
So what are some ways you can interact with your horse on the ground? Here are Julie’s top six exercises to do with your horse when you can’t ride.
1. Grooming time. Spending time grooming your horse is a great time for you to bond with him. It also gives you time to assess his condition—especially important if your horse is blanketed—and check out every part of his body. To interact with your horse while grooming, you can ask him to do things like ask him to stand tied, pick up his feet and remind him of your cues to move over and back up. You should do this activity separate from the herd so your horse is focused on you during your grooming session. Grooming can be done inside or outside in a relatively small space, so it’s an activity every horse and rider can do together! Watch Julie’s tips on bonding during grooming here.
2. Work on personal boundaries. Look at how your horse interacts with you. Is your horse respectful of you or is he pushy? When away from the herd, can your horse focus on you? If your horse is pushy or unfocused when you are working with him, downtime is the perfect time to work on your relationship and setting personal boundaries. Check out some exercises on reinforcing personal boundaries here
3. Teach your horse to ground tie. Ground tying, or teaching your horse to stand still on command, is the perfect skill to teach your horse during down time, especially when the footing isn’t suitable for riding because the horse isn’t moving. Teaching the foundations of ground tying can be done in a small space—like a barn aisle or small pen—and as you and your horse get better at it, you can move to bigger spaces like an indoor arena or outdoor space. Watch Julie’s step-by-step tutorial on ground tying here.
4. Polish your horse’s leading manners. In order for your horse to lead correctly, you’ll want to make sure your horse is rating your speed. Horses do this naturally in the herd, so they should also be doing this when you lead them. For this activity, you will need a little bit more space—driveway, indoor arena, long barn aisle or outside space. The footing should be safe for you and your horse to walk and maybe trot or jog a few steps. Ideally you will use a rope halter with a longer training lead for this exercise. In this exercise, you want your horse to walk next to you, not in front or behind you as you change your walking speed. Watch Julie do the exercise in this video.
5. Circling work. For this type of work, you will need a round pen, indoor arena or somewhere the footing is suitable for the horse to move in a circle at a walk or trot. Circling work describes lunging and round pen work. The main goal of the exercise is controlling the horse’s shoulder, not chasing him around in a circle. You can watch a video of Julie demonstrating circling work here.
6. Train hand signals. Horses are very good at reading body language and teaching your horse hand signals can be a fun way to work with your horse. Your hand signals should be subtle, not extravagant. Try putting commands like back up, turn left and turn right on hand signals. Julie demonstrates how to teach your horse hand signals in this video.
Staying connected to your horse when you can’t ride can be both fun, bond-building and a great way to keep you and your horse moving. For more tips on keeping your horse comfortable during the winter season, check out Ten Tips for Winter Horse Care here.