While the rest of the world wrestles with keeping New Year’s resolutions to lose weight, quit drinking alcohol, or go to the gym more, we horsey folks tend to focus on our sport. Even if you’re not one for making resolutions, there is something about the start of a new year – that clean slate feeling perhaps – that sparks reflection. What did you wish you’d done more of with your horse last year? What did you want to accomplish that you didn’t? Was there some day-to-day horse care duties you could improve?
Why not start 2024 with fresh resolve to make all your horse interactions even more fun? Here are some ideas to get you motivated. But remember, no pressure! Barn time is still fun time!
Our equine partners can get as stiff as we can from overwork or even lack of work, especially as they age. Simple carrot stretches before and after a ride can improve range of motion (ROM) and suppleness.
“Carrot stretches target muscles involved in stabilization of cervical vertebra, parts of the trapezius muscle, and depending on the range of motion the horse has, it can activate the abdominal and back muscles as the barrel bends,” says equine vet Dr. Ali Miletic of Orillia and District Veterinary Services in the Horse-Canada article Limber Up Your Horse with Simple, Tasty Carrot Stretches. “All of these are helpful when riding because it allows the horse to become more supple and more comfortable (therefore more willing) under saddle. Improving proprioception is beneficial in so many ways, including more awareness over fences, improving hoof-eye coordination and improvement in flatwork exercise performance.”
There are many videos online demonstrating proper carrot stretches, such as this one from Loomis Basin Equine Medical Center in California:
Working in-hand with your horse or pony is an excellent way to build trust, confidence, and communication. It’s also fun! “Groundwork allows you to apply positive pressure in an environment that is safe for both horse and rider,” dressage coach Nicole Stella tells us. “Teaching a young horse to yield from your hand placed against its side is much safer and easier to understand than sitting on them with your heel dug into their side.”
Ground exercises can also help your horse’s self-carriage. Professional trainer and clinician Josh Nichol defines self-carriage as “mental and physical unity, allowing the horse to use his own body correctly in movement, with little or no human input.”
There are lots of videos online to show you step-by-step exercises, including Nichol’s own YouTube channel that show you how to begin groundwork at home, or check out this article. Consult your coach, too, for how to get started with a simple halter and lead.
No matter how confident a rider you are, or how seasoned your horse is, spooks can still happen, and it can unnerve you. While there is no such thing as a truly “bomb proof” horse, there are desensitization exercises you can do to build your horse’s confidence to reduce its reaction to new or unusual objects.
“I feel like a horse’s number one question when you introduce them to something new is, ‘is it going to hurt me?’” explains horse trainer Sarah Hoffman. “Desensitizing introduces something new in a way that teaches the horse, ‘Oh, it’s not going to hurt me.’ So then when a flag does blow in the wind or a dog runs by, they might still look, but they’re not going to run.”
Desensitizing involves getting your horse used to and confident around objects such as flags and tarps while you’re on the ground. This is an extension of groundwork and must be done in a safe and enclosed environment, preferably with an experienced horseperson if you are unsure how to proceed. More information about effective desensitization methods such as counter-conditioning and approach conditioning (and some outdated methods to avoid) is available here.
Get Riding Fit
The winter is a great time to introduce some workout moves for when you’re not in the saddle. Strength, suppleness, and great cardio are three health aspects we want for our mounts, but don’t forget about your own physical fitness, which is just as vital for you to ride your best. And don’t think riding fitness is just for the pros or those who compete; even weekend riders or happy hackers can benefit from keeping themselves active and fit between rides. Incorporating stretches, lunges, burpees, planking and other exercises can really make a difference to being able to maintain correct position, apply aids properly, and keep up with your horse.
The Federation Equestre Internationale (FEI) has a strength training for riders video that shows you step-by-step exercises to increase your strength. And don’t worry, you don’t need a gym or equipment to do them! (But if you do want to set up a basic home gym, here’s some guidance as to what you will need and how to use it.)
Clean That Bit
Not everyone has the time or desire to clean their bridle after every ride (kudos to those that do). But if you can suffer through dirty, grimy, and sticky leather (eew) on your bridle, at the minimum you need to clean or rinse the bit. A clean bit isn’t just about being show ready or looking good to your riding friends on the trail. It’s about ensuring the bit is free from dried saliva and food particles, which can scrape and irritate your horse’s tongue.
But you can also do a simple warm water rinse in the barn, removing debris with a toothbrush and drying with a clean cloth. Mind the reins and the leather cheek straps, it’s okay if they get wet but be sure to dry them off to prevent mould and long-term damage.
Deep cleaning your horse’s bit is also recommended, weekly if you can. Simple at-home solutions such as vinegar and water and baking soda can help gently lift stains and stubborn grime.
Wishing you all a healthy, happy, and horsey New Year!