The bad news: winter is coming. The good news: winter is coming!
And this is a great opportunity to work on all those little exercises you haven’t had time for during the warmer months. Some are more work, some are more play, but they’re all great activities that will strengthen your horse, yourself, and your teamwork.
Gymnastic poles. Most suitable for those with an indoor arena, setting up gymnastic poles, whether they are on the ground or in jump standards, are useful for every horse and rider team. Not a jumper? No problem. Use poles the trail-horse way: set up a path about four feet wide (or more, depending on your horse’s comfort level) with lots of turns and angles, then ask your horse to walk, turn, and back up without stepping over the poles on either side. It’s a great way to improve straightness, especially when backing. How straight does your horse back up? You might be surprised!
Leading. Yes, leading. Of course your horse walks on a lead-rope beside you, but how nicely does your horse walk on a lead-rope beside you? Does he stop the moment you stop? Does he step forward when you do? Does he swing his head around to bite a fly and smack you in the forehead with his skull and knock you out? Fifteen or twenty minutes of back-to-basics leading training can go a long way towards improving your beast’s barn manners, even if they were fairly tolerable before. Remember horses’ pressure points and use them to your advantage — press against the chest to back your horse if he walks past you, and pressure against the ribs to ask him to move his body to the side. Put your horse through a leadline boot-camp and get his hooves to go exactly where you want them! Your feet, and your groom’s feet, will thank you!
Master the walk. Perfect for crowded indoors and small riding spaces, the walk can be a much more difficult gait than anyone really gives it credit for. But when’s the last time you got a perfect score on your medium walk? How about that free walk on a loose-rein? This four-beat gait has so many iterations, and they all require a balanced seat, soft hands, and an expressive, interested horse. A twenty-minute schooling session on collected, medium, extended, and free walks can really work up a sweat, and it will show in all of your gaits later on.
Leg yields. For when you’re tired of walking in a straight line, try a wobbly one! Well, not quite wobbly, but pushing your horses’ shoulders or hindquarters onto two track can be very entertaining, especially if you alternate shoulders on a center line. Try walking your horse down the center or quarter line of your arena, leg-yielding first to the right, then straight, and then to the left. It’s tougher than a leg-yield on the rail, and it’s more fun, too. At the end of the arena you’ll find yourself with a springier, more attentive horse. And at the end of the winter, you’ll find yourself with a more responsive horse all-around.
Indoor riding can mean tight quarters and arena fatigue, seeing the same four walls over and over again. But changing up the routine with some exercises that really makes your horse — and you — think about what he’s doing with his body can help get everyone past the winter doldrums, and set you up nicely for spring showing.