True and I don’t take much time off during the winter because doing so requires so much re-conditioning in spring.
Time spent re-conditioning during the riding season is time stolen from teaching True his next lessons—flying changes, hand gallops, passing close by other horses, no-stirrup and two-point work, jumping. But we don’t have an indoor arena, so our training and conditioning does slip to a certain extent in winter.
I’m guessing many riders are in the same situation. So, how can we keep training and conditioning our horses when the arenas are all snowed under?
I use plowed dirt driveways a lot. On snowpack, the horse won’t slip if your farrier adds traction (usually borium or caulks) to her shoes, or if she is accustomed to bare feet. Test the bare feet in summer first to be sure your horse’s soles aren’t too sensitive for the harder ground of winter. The last thing you want is bruised soles—easy to acquire without realizing it, but hard to treat, extremely painful, and long-lasting if they occur.
I also use unplowed snowy areas in which there is no ice or fully frozen ground underneath, as long as it’s not more than knee deep on the horse. (If you go deeper, be sure to keep the horse at a very easy walk–this is hard work.) Shod horses need rim pads along with traction for unplowed snow, to prevent balls of snow from building up inside their shoes.
Here are some of the winter exercises True and I do in these locations:
Groundwork on the driveways – leading, halting, backing, turns on haunches and forehands, and switching directions back and forth along a fence to teach the horse to yield her shoulders to the trainer. Eventually, I teach horses to do all this on a slack lead.
Long haltered walks on the driveways. Bonus points if they include long uphill stretches. Just put some traction like Yak-Trax on your boot soles, then head out and go; it’s as good for your muscles and bones as it is for your horse’s. Fast walking is unexpectedly good exercise for horses, maintaining condition more effectively than you would think. It has to be FAST though, 4 mph minimum to achieve a pace of about 15 minutes per mile.
Mounted walks on the driveways. Less burn for you, but more for your horse.
Mounted walks or trots through the snow. I trot a horse through snow only after verifying that there is no ice or fully frozen (hard) ground beneath the snow. I’m also careful to choose a route without gopher or prairie dog holes. Trotting through snow is hard work for a horse, so take it easy at first with only a minute or two, then build up gradually.
Watch out with the youngsters at first—True skips and dances, sometimes bucks, when fluffs of snow fly up and strike his belly. It’s cute… until it’s not!
Reduced-size maneuvers on driveways. Mounted halts, backing, bending on small circles, shoulders-in, turns on the haunches, turns on the forehand, headset, and leg yields at a fast walk are all excellent means of continuing a young horse’s training and conditioning. With winter practice, your horse will be fit and knowledgeable enough to move directly into these lateral moves at the trot come spring.
Haltered walks past scary places or objects, or in light wind or rain. (Please see “Mistakes with Youngsters” if you think you can battle stronger winds or distant lightning and thunder.) After your horse has become fully accustomed to these unusual sights, sounds, and smells, ride past them mounted.
Please be careful—snowpacked driveways are a lot harder to fall on than arena sand. Also, we never want young horses to discover that they can unload their riders. Best to let them assume that unseating a rider is an impossibility.
Deeper grooming. Winter encourages True and I to spend more time in the barn, where we can work on grooming activities that take too much time away from riding in the summer. For example, we work more on lifting and holding the hind feet, managing mane and tail, and deep-cleaning the face. This would be a good time to teach a baby to tie and cross-tie, too.
Vacuuming and trimming with clippers. Winter also allows quiet time in the barn for operations that often scare young horses. My article a couple weeks ago explained how I taught True to be vacuumed.
Use the same gradual, baby-step method with clippers. I don’t body-clip, nor do I trim ears in winter (the fur helps with warmth), but it’s helpful to teach the young horse to stand quietly while you trim her bridle path, coronets, and the longer hairs on her lower legs. You can do a closer trim when spring comes and warmth is not an issue.
With all of these activities, remember that in brain-based horsemanship, you’re never teaching ONLY the operation itself. In other words, the goal is never simply to perform leg yields on a driveway or to get the horse’s bridle path trimmed in winter. Far more importantly, you’re also teaching the youngster to trust you, to accept your actions, to pay attention to you in even the most unlikely situations, to follow your lead, to allow you to expose her to new sights, sounds, and smells.
These lessons transfer to everything you will do with this horse in the future. They allow horse and human to build a strong bond for a successful team. And many of them can be done in the depth of winter!
Janet Jones will present “Brain to Brain: Cross-Species Communication between Horses and Riders” at the World Equestrian Center in Ocala, Florida, on March 14, 2024. Come to the talk and enjoy the international Winter Spectacular Hunter/Jumper Horse Show too. Learn more and reserve your tickets at https://janet-jones.com/product/janet-jones-ticket-sales.
A version of this story originally appeared on janet-jones.com. It is reprinted here with permission.