Sunday, February 17, 2013

Post Winter Considerations

In the Great North West, a lot of riders are hindered in their winter plans because of the weather - even if they have an indoor! Winter takes a lot out of us, and by this time, most of us are so ready to ride in the spring rains just to escape the indoor arena. This time of winter is one of the hardest - as horses shed out while temperatures still fluctuate, we are there trying to pick up the pieces of our training schedules.

First and foremost, remember that wet + somewhat cold is probably just as "cold" feeling as -10, so keep those waterproof, breathable blankets in use, and monitor your horse's ears for his temperature - plus feeling under his blanket gives you an excuse to warm up your cold fingers. As the snow melts, a lot of horses are happy to roll and stand in the rain and generally enjoy spring life, but keep in mind that mud can sometimes cover ice if you're riding outside, and that wet, muddy blankets don't do their job as well as you'd think.

Oh, did you want to ride during your barn time? Sorry not sorry.

Also let's take a minute and look at your horse since, like me, you've probably not looked too hard between pulling a blanket off and throwing a saddle on. Some horses turn into double-wides come winter time, while others look pretty round but under that fluffy coat you start to notice a few ribs or a general loss of body fat. If you haven't been riding much, your horse has probably lost a bit of muscle as well. Just like you, your horse is feeling the effects of winter.

If the horse is fat, consider spending a few weeks of solid, planned riding time working on fitness. 
If the horse is skinny, now is the time to start building him or her back up, combined with careful exercise to help re-build muscle. 
If the horse just hasn't been ridden consistently all winter,  join your friends with the porky ponies and start thinking fitness!

If over the winter you've become a weekend only rider, or are working for shorter periods of time, fever days a week (hey, we all do it!) it's time to asses your horse's condition.

I usually start with lunge work, as Foxie, when she comes inside after a long day outside, likes to work out her kinks and play in celebration of being able to move without slipping. Keep lunge sessions short, 15-20 minutes for the first week or two, especially if your horse is wild and galloping or bucking. After a week or two of these sessions, your horse will "tell" you that he has worked off his energy and start walking and trotting on the line without the theatrics of fresh horse. 

At this point, I would introduce your side reins, or long lining after a stretching warm up of 10-15 minutes and do short sessions that gain length as your horse begins to rebuild his topline and muscle flexibility. If the horse is pretty fit to begin with and doesn't work himself up into a steamy sweaty mess, start with gentle flat rides and then slowly increase the work until you're doing a "normal" flat ride of around 30-45 minutes tops.
I usually start and end with 10 minutes of walk, focusing on stretching and working in the contact, which is difficult for Fox at the slower pace. I try to throw some activities into my flat work to keep things from getting boring:

- Figure 8's, at the trot, or at the canter with simple changes of lead which can be done with a halt in the center, backing up and then taking the new lead, walking through the center, or just a break of a few trot steps. Don't ride too many, especially if you progress to clean flying changes, as you can easily get "into" doing it just perfect and not realize you've been riding transitions for 25 minutes.
- Shoulders in
- Haunches in
- Side pass, leg yeilds
- Turn on the forehand and turn on the haunches (done at the halt)
- Counter flexion or counter canter.
- If you aren't a dressage rider (or if you are) find some simple tests - either true dressage or eventing dressage and ride them
- Collection and lengthenings (I really like this at the canter - lengthen down the long walls and develop a nicely reactive horse by riding a square corner to collect and set the horse on his haunches before lengthening again - just want you need for that combo on XC or show jumping!) 
- Trot and canter poles - set trot poles 4-4.5 feet apart and canters 9-12 feet apart. 
- Mix up pole work by setting poles on the compass rose points of a circle (N, S, E, W) or in the center of a figure-8 to work on changes. 

See, the indoor isn't so boring, after all. I also like to work on ground manners and lunge manners because... well... practice makes perfect. And everyone loves taking my horse out because she is polite and respects your space - plus she's totally ok with gates, doors and the gator, so she's not spooking on the ice and nearly falling on you.

And we work hard to keep her the most popular horse in the barn. 

Once we do thaw out, make sure to ride outside only if the arena isn't a wet gross bog of possible tendon and ligament injuries - and watch for lingering ice on roadways and under the mud!

Have fun making your rides more interesting!
-Ashley & Foxie

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