We’re into week three of unrelenting sub-zero temperatures and the trouble is that the ground is frozen to a deep level and is only superficially thawing each day.
Combined with freezing fog, limited turnout, and fewer daylight hours we’re restricted to the arena. Most of which at the moment are as hard as the roads.
Which leaves us only able to walk. The slowest, most boring gait!
After spending three hours schooling horses in walk this morning, I’ve come up with a list of exercises to occupy you and your horse.
- Long-reining. Yes it’s not riding, but whilst walking around behind your horse you keep nice and warm. It is also a different dimension to riding, particularly at slower fairs, to keep the horse interested in work. It also gives you chance to study the way your horse is working.
- In-hand work. This time of year is a good opportunity to introduce lateral work to your horse, or perhaps refresh their memories, and again you can study the correctness of the movements from the ground.
- De-sensitisation. If your horse tends to spook at different objects, or isn’t a fan of fillers, then scattering fillers, cones, and any other object (don’t have one that will flap and cause a big shy on the hard ground) and work your horse around these strange objects in walk so he learns to ignore them. Creating a tunnel of fillers can also be a useful exercise.
- Polework. Yes we’re only in walk, but using tunnels of poles to check your straightness, making zig zag tunnels to improve their proprioception, stepping over slightly raised poles on circles, all helps engage the mind and supple their joints.
- School movements. You can work on small circles, numerous-looped serpentines, 10m figure of eights, and any other school movement you can think of; being incredibly critical of yourself, your horse, and striving to ride it perfectly. After all, you have plenty of time to correct you both within the movement. Plus, on frosty days you can see your tracks so you can analyse precisely when you faltered.
- Quality of the walk. Really focus your attention on the four beat rhythm; tempo; balance; light, even rein contact; active, even strides; straightness; impulsion; outline/self carriage of the horse; and relaxed frame with a swinging back. You can also play around with extended walk and collected walk.
- Work without stirrups. It’s not as taxing as sitting trot without stirrups but it should highlight and crookedness in yourself, or twisting through any movements as well as allowing you to use your seat more to influence the horse, and feel the movement underneath you more.
- Transitions. Transitions can be between halt and walk or between the various types of walk. In all of them you are looking for the horse to be responsive to the aids, your aids to be as light as possible, the horse to stay straight and balanced, and the hind quarters engaged.
- Rein back. Incorporating rein back into your walk-halt transitions can stop your horse anticipating. Again, you’re looking to use the lightest aids possible; the rein back to be straight, relaxed, the back lifting and the neck staying nice and long with the diagonal legs stepping back in pairs. Many horses tense their neck, hollow their back and shuffle backwards, so take your time to improve this so your horse understands the concept and takes quality backwards steps.
- Lateral work. All too often we focus on lateral work in trot and canter to supple our horse, but these lateral movements are actually much harder to perfect in walk. Don’t stick with the typical “leg yield track to three quarter line”, but use the centre line, leg yield into shoulder in, zig zag leg yield. Be creative! Turn on the forehand is also a useful change of rein, and adding this to the mix of halting and rein back ensures your horse stays listening to you.
- Free walk on a long rein. Always worth double marks in dressage tests, it’s often a weak point for many riders, so use days like this to practice the transition from medium walk into free walk on a long rein. The free walk needs to stay four beat, have active strides, show a good over track, maintain a rein contact despite the rein being longer, have the horse stretching their head and neck out and down, and be purposeful.
- If the roads aren’t icy, or you have fields to ride around, then take the opportunity when you can to have a change of scenery.