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Can Spring Be Far?

Can Spring Be Far?

By Betsy Kelleher

     For some reason, my husband doesn’t enjoy mucking stalls, emptying muck buckets and carrying water when it’s cold, raining, snowing or icy. Now he says he’d like to store the horses in a box over the winter and bring them out after the weather becomes pleasant enough for riding. But of course horses don’t fit in a box!

     I want to deal with the question, “What can I do with my horse in the winter, when I can’t ride?” That might be the wrong question. The fact is: many people do ride in cold weather. But for those who don’t, there are many other things we can do with our horses now that would increase our riding pleasure in the spring. A better question might be, “Why don’t I do something with my horse?”

     February and March are excellent months for ground work, for establishing good relationships and for planning a schedule of work for the coming year. Whether your horse is kept out on pasture or in a barn stall, he or she needs exercise and grooming. Grooming helps with circulation as well as staying clean (just don’t look at my own horses right now for an example of good grooming). If your horse does not like to be groomed, perhaps there is a reason. Does he need to find trust and enjoyment in the human and horse relationship? If so, there’s your first project. If nothing else, we can lead our horse around the barn, getting our own exercise at the same time, just spending time with him or her. We can work on the basics, including respect, obedience and confidence issues. And we can pick up all four feet, cleaning hooves regularly, to work on both hoof condition and manners!

     We are fortunate to have an indoor arena at our boarding stable, so we have no excuse not to ride or do ground work. Dressing in warm layers may be the key to staying comfortable longer. We know it’s a good idea to lunge first to be sure a horse is warmed up before riding and has the opportunity to work off the extra energy that usually comes with colder weather. But sometimes a human being needs some warm up and a few stretches too. A word to the wise: February is a good month for us to be exercising our own human bodies to get in shape for that first spring ride!

     Basic winter horse care includes plenty of fresh water, good clean hay and maybe some extra grain. Let’s assume our horses have all that and are being groomed and turned out or exercised regularly. Some simple training exercises now might help us enjoy them more when we start riding in the spring. I used to live where I didn’t ride between November and April. So every spring, I would clean up my horse and start all over. She was a bundle of energy that had totally forgotten I was supposed to be in charge. Living in the St. Louis area (with an indoor arena available) has allowed me to ride all year, and it does make a difference! 

     I believe if we like our horse and feel comfortable with him/her, we will do something with that horse even when we can’t ride. If not, the reason may not be the weather. It may be our relationship with the horse, and a lack of trust or a lack of skill. So instead of waiting until spring, make a plan now to change the horse or the rider so that riding will become the pleasant activity it was meant to be. Consider lessons for the rider, or learning from DVD’s or videos or books. Consider getting help from a professional trainer if necessary for a horse’s bad behavior.

     One of my goals for this year is to review the basics with each of our horses and look for “holes” in their training. I am working on a list of “tasks” a horse should be willing and able to do. As I test each horse with that list, any imperfect responses show me what needs more work. A book helping me with my list is Building Your Dream Horse, which outlines Charles Wilhelm’s Foundation Training. Chapter three of this book is the key. Specific exercises are given with excellent explanations. These exercises include the go forward cue, line work, leading, giving to the bit and softening, moving the hips or shoulder, stopping, engagement, transitions and collection.

   Another book, “Right from the Start,” by Michael Schaffer, has the subtitle: Create a sane, soft, well-balanced horse. In chapter 4, the author gives his five rules for working with horses. One: No one gets hurt. Two: Reward in proportion. Three: Every step counts. Four: Correction not punishment. And Five: Take your time.

     Under rule four, Schaffer says, “Correction comes from knowledge, is rational, and deals with problems rather than symptoms. Punishment comes from frustration, is emotional, and almost always deals with the symptoms rather than the core problems.” He says we should simplify our assessment of a problem. Instead of trying to figure out why my horse bucks going into a canter, just deal with one fact. He bucks. Basically, a horse may buck, rear, spook, bolt, stop or fall in or out.  All these problems are a result of one thing: a lack of softness in the horse. We need to work toward helping our horse stay soft, relaxed and balanced through our corrections and not get angry and punish him, destroying the very things we are working toward!

     Since watching Clinton Anderson’s suppling exercises and working all our horses that way, I have seen a definite improvement in each horse. To me, that confirms Schaffer’s conclusion that a lack of softness causes most of our problems! Wilhelm’s book also deals with this issue when he explains giving to the bit.

     Rocky is now tucking his head more often with very little pressure on the reins, where his head was always “above the bit” before. Lady is more responsive and willing than previously. Both Rocky and Lady feel much lighter on the reins. Traveller is still stiff in his neck and shoulder, but that may be age or EPM damage. He still has trouble bringing his head around to his ribcage on either side.

     Horses often have limitations we need to understand. When weather is colder, horses need warming up on the lunge line, five or ten minutes of walk and trot, before we ask for serious work. The cool down period is also very important to prevent chills and tightened muscles. Stretching exercises are recommended by massage therapists. And the older the horse, the more these things help to keep muscles, tendons and ligaments more elastic, which can prevent pulls or strains.

     Aside from the physical aspects of dealing with horses, have you ever wondered how a horse FEELS in cold weather?  Young horses may have more energy, kicking up more than usual if not turned out or lunged before riding. Older horses may feel achy and stiff. I can definitely relate to that! And if we leave them alone in their stalls for long periods with nothing to do, does that have an effect on the horse’s attitude?

     Putting off our horse and human relationships until spring would waste months of opportunity. They need us now, as they deal with the stresses of cold, possible loneliness and a need for exercise, for food and water, for comfort and safety. If we dress warm and plan ahead, we can enjoy our equine partners and work on basic training issues at the same time. Do what you can to establish effective leadership with your horse before that first spring ride. Even half an hour a day now can make a big difference in a few months when we go back to riding the trails.   

     We shouldn’t put off our relationship either with a God who offers us a place in His eternal family. As I grew up, I often felt He was asking me to give more of myself, to submit more completely to His will. I wanted to be a better Christian, but I was afraid God might send me as a missionary to Africa and I wasn’t ready for that. I kept pushing Him aside, thinking “later.” I am thankful He kept reaching out to me until I understood the essence of salvation. Living the Christian life isn’t something we strive to do in our own strength. It is a spiritual renewal of our whole being through the indwelling of His Spirit. When we submit to His Sovereign leadership, He makes it all possible. He knows our needs, our fearfulness and our weakness. His love and mercy and power are there for us, if we seek His Presence and accept it. My goal for this coming year is to seek Him daily, to study His Word, and to put it into practice in my daily life. 

     It’s the early part of a new year. It’s a new opportunity for change, to choose priorities and goals and to seek a new direction in life. Seek Him now and submit yourself fully to His leadership. In the words of Charles Stanley, “Train yourself to stop and ask the Holy Spirit to reveal whether each choice will bring God glory, help develop Christ’s character in you, and keep you in the center of God’s plan and purpose. Wait on Him, and do not step ahead until you have an answer.”

(Originally published in the February 2007 issue of the Illinois Horse Network)

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