Winter Riding

It may still be warm here in the UK, but the nights are drawing in. I’ve had to cash in my evening hack, leaving Daddy to do bedtime, for Pilates class.

There was an article in Horse and Hound recently claiming that horses don’t need to be trained daily, and it is more effective to train every third day. Which has obvious benefits in that the horse doesn’t get stale, and there is less wear and tear on their joints.

This doesn’t mean that we should only ride twice a week, as that won’t help the nationwide crisis of equine obesity. We just need to ensure that we’re providing variety in our work and not drilling our horses, despite really wanting to nail that particular exercise.

Yet winter is on the horizon, with dark nights and limited turnout. This means that for most owners, who work full time, they’re restricted to the arena for the majority of the week.

So how can we continue to get the best out of our horses without over training them during the winter?

Firstly, despite the weather it’s important to maximise turnout as much as possible, and to feed low energy forage and hard feed so that you don’t need to canter round in circles for half an hour to get a sensible horse to work with, and you’ll stay safer on hacks.

Set aside hacking days on the weekend; it’s a great excuse for a longer hack with friends! If you’re lucky enough to have the option of flexi-time, it might be a good idea to adjust your working day so you can have a mid week hack, even if it’s only a short one. Exercise outside the arena is always beneficial for both horse and rider.

Depending on your horse’s exercise requirements you then need to plan some arena sessions for the dark evenings.

I always think one session a week should be unridden. You can do a variety of lunging, in hand work, or long reining. Unridden work should always complement your ridden work, so don’t just let your horse troll round the arena in a hollow frame at the end of a slack lunge line. Use in hand work to improve their suppleness and their understanding of lateral work, and lunging to get them working long and low to develop their topline without the weight of the tack and rider.

One session should be poles or jumping, or perhaps two. You may be a dressage rider, but pole work provides variety to the flat work, improves their cadence and gets the horse to engage their core. There are hundreds of pole layouts which you can use to work on different areas of your schooling. For example, today I arranged some poles to improve cadence and engagement by trotting over the poles, lengthening the trot by trotting over different points of the poles, and worked between the poles to improve straightness. The net result was a switched on pony and rider, both working really well. For those who like to get off the ground, there are plenty of exercises which can be laid out in the school and jumped at any height.

The flatwork sessions should have a different theme so that you are using a variety of different muscles and not over stressing particular areas. For example, if you are working at prelim level, one flatwork session could focus on transitions between halt, walk and trot, with a short time focusing on the canter. Another session could focus on the canter school movements. Another session looking at lateral work in walk. By focusing on different areas in your training your horse is more likely to stay interested in their work, and less likely to strain anything.

I think it’s also important to remember that exercise during the week is a break from the stable for the horse, and a chance to stretch his legs. He doesn’t need to be worked into a sweat each time you ride. If you’ve taxed his brain in walk then he’ll be as tired as if he’d trotted for half an hour.

Hopefully you’ve now got some ideas for implementing an exercise regime through winter to give your horse plenty of variety, and interest, whilst still improving their level of training, burning calories and keeping them happy. After all, schools no longer teach by drilling pupils in their multiplication tables – they’re more dynamic in their teaching – so why should we drill our horses in their work?

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