Feeling the winter blues around your barn already? It might not be the weather — your horse is probably enjoying the chill in the air! Winter is a prime time for boredom, though, and it can affect both horse and rider. If you’ve been riding twenty-meter circles until you’re dizzy, it might be time for a little shake-up to your riding routine. You can fight the winter training doldrums with some fun cross-training for you and your horse.
Why is cross-training is important for your horse? It’s more than just boredom, although alleviating the stress brought on by constantly working on the same movements day after day has serious mental health benefits and can improve your horse’s attention and frame of mind when you return to the job at hand. You’re also stretching your horse’s muscles in new ways, increasing agility and strength, and reducing the risk of repetitive-motion injuries, such as strained muscles and ligaments.
Subtle changes matter for your horse. Cross-training might be as simple as changing arenas for fields and working on different surfaces a few times a week. The changes in footing encourage your horse to move differently, stretching out new muscles, as well as easing old tensions building up from hard or soft footing in your usual riding space. This can also increase responses in nerve endings, giving your horse more value out of his workout.
Fun cross-training exercises. To sharpen up your horse’s skills, and to add some fun and variety to your workouts, try some of these cross-training exercises:
1. Work with ground poles. There are many ways to use ground poles to spice up your training routine. Random poles located throughout the arena are the easiest, simply requiring your horse to pay a little more attention to where he puts his feet. This is especially useful for cantering. Create a simple box with four poles and ride through in various patterns, like a cloverleaf, that encourage your horse to bend while thinking about his footing at the same time. Or create a chute with some 90-degree angles and use a combination of bending and backing to create some mind games for your horse to solve.
2. Learn something new. Grab a new saddle and try a new discipline! Change up the routine and let your horse learn to use different muscles with a gentle ride in different frame. Go easy on your horse, especially if you’re changing to heavier tack, and concentrate on letting him move freely and confidently with the change in balance.
3. Play on the ground. There’s always room for more ground manners, especially in horses who have been building muscle. Peak fitness usually results in some sassy behavior from horses, who previously might have been meek and quiet! Get on the ground for some good-manners games and conduct a training session which will pay off both in the barn and in the arena. Trainer Raye Lochert has some excellent tips at InfoHorse on ways to move your horse’s body from the ground, putting you in control.
Of course, cross-training your horse might be as simple as taking a weekly trail ride. Remember that your horse, like you, needs to decompress. It’s not just valuable for your horse’s mental health, but also for his physical health. Enjoy your time with your horse, and forget the winter blues!