By Betsy Kelleher
The Illinois Horse Fair in Springfield the first weekend in March is something that Russ and I greatly anticipate. It has extra meaning for us, since it marks our anniversary. We actually spent our honeymoon at the fair!
It also signals the beginning of another riding season. Weather should be staying warmer (hopefully), horses will be shedding out, and we’ll soon be out on the trails again. We can’t wait! This was perhaps the first year we did not ride the trails sometime during January or February. It was often too muddy, or we had other things to do. Our boarding stable has an indoor arena, fortunately, and I was able to ride each of our three horses at least once every week or two (my goal was to ride each horse once a week, but I didn’t always make it).
When I owned my first horse, I lived near Springfield, on a farm near Loami. We usually had lots of snow, and I never rode all winter. When April came, that meant cleaning up Fanny and Dude, scraping off a winter’s supply of hair and manure (Ugh!) and lunging away the winter kinks and bucks before I could enjoy riding again. That first ride of the year brought a bit of anxiety and excitement and it took some planning and preparation.
This is a time to be extra careful. If a horse hasn’t been ridden all winter, he can get pretty excited on those first few rides. And he probably isn’t as fit as he could be; that comes with exercise and conditioning, you know. And some horses forget their manners. It helps to have a few sessions with your horse in a controlled area to renew the relationship and reconsider principles of safety and respect. If you’ve been working with your horse over the winter, you definitely have a head start!
I want to include a little advertising here for two events this month. On two Saturday afternoons, 1 to 4 p.m., March 11th and 25th, Wendy Koerkenmeier will conduct clinics at the Cornerstone Farms (formerly Double K stables) near St. Jacob. The first clinic will help you to prepare your horse for a safe first spring ride after a winter off. The second clinic will help you prepare for the coming show season. You can RSVP by calling 618-644-2500 ($15 per person, $30 per family).
Whenever I haven’t been on a horse for awhile, I must admit that certain fears arise from somewhere in my subconscious mind. I think of all sorts of things that could happen, things I don’t want to happen, and things I need to stop thinking about! Instead, I need to think of how I want things to be. To visualize success sometimes helps to realize success. On the other hand, success doesn’t happen all by itself. If we want a good riding experience, we need to have a workable, reasonable plan to make it a safe and successful venture. For some, it’s ok to just get on and ride. Those riders probably feel confident of themselves and the horse will feel that confidence and everything will probably be fine. But for those who don’t feel so confident, it’s best to take things slower, and build confidence by wiser actions. Before we can be in control of our horses, we need to learn to be in control of ourselves—our minds as well as our bodies!
If the horse hasn’t been out getting regular exercise, I wouldn’t advise riding him down the road on a cool windy day, for example, unless you know your horse and your own abilities. Usually, when getting back into the saddle for the first time after a winter layoff, it’s best to work with your horse on the ground first to regain your confident authority and be sure you have a respectful relationship. Lunging can be very beneficial, if you use this exercise to work with your horse, not just run him around to tire him out. Or be sure he is first turned out for exercise on his own so he can run and buck and play a bit before you ask him to settle down and work for you.
We often take this for granted, but a horse must be healthy and sound to do the work we ask of him. Just be sure he isn’t coughing, or isn’t sore (frozen ground with deep footprints can sprain ankles or worse), or his weight hasn’t dropped too much (often when a horse sheds out in the spring, you may find he is thinner than you thought he’d be). Take a good look at him, maybe have the vet check him over if there’s any question, to be sure he is ready to go. If you take the time for thorough grooming and cleaning out the hooves, there’s a better chance you will see any problems before you saddle up.
Sometimes we are eager to get back in the saddle and ride, and then we find we aren’t working together as good as we were last fall. Why not take the time to go through basic exercises to supple the horse, to determine what he remembers (Does he still respond to pressure? Does he still listen to your cue? Does he still stop nicely when asked?)? You don’t need to spend a lot of time here, but it helps to work first in the indoor arena, if possible, taking him through the basics, doing circles, bending, stopping, backing, turning, whatever helps you both to remember how to work together as a team. You’ll build confidence for both of you before going out on the trails again. If you find problems as you go through these initial exercises, you’ll know what needs work. If you don’t have an indoor arena, you can work on the ground in a paddock or pasture before trying the same exercises from the saddle.
The goal for this renewing of the relationship is to be sure that you and your horse will have a safe and enjoyable first ride out on the trail. If you haven’t been on this horse for a few months, he may have lots of built up energy. He may have forgotten some of your cues. You may be rusty yourself on how to react to your horse’s instincts. Take the time, in a safe environment, to renew that special relationship you want with your equine companion before going out into areas you haven’t visited since last fall. The older you are, the more you should understand the importance of groundwork and preparation. Your life and limbs may be at stake!
On the spiritual side of this issue, we may feel at times that we’ve gotten away from our relationship with God. Things happen. Humanity is easily distracted to selfish pursuits. We get busy. We neglect our daily quiet time once or twice and suddenly realize it’s been weeks! But God is the loving Father, waiting for us to return to His open arms of welcome and celebration. From my own experience, I can say that He holds us close with reassuring love before He tenderly shows us our failings in ways that are meant to help us grow. Returning is much better than continuing to run away.
If it’s a new beginning you want, and you wake up in the morning and take a deep breath, then you can begin right then and there. You can start over right now. God’s forgiveness is always available to a truly repentant heart. He is always ready to give new guidance, new strength, and new hope. I am thankful for a reader’s recent card in response to my last column. Yes, God is able and willing to supply our needs, and He supplies fresh hope each morning. He has promised to never leave us. Philippians 1:6 reminds us that “he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” And in Romans 8:28, we are told, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”
We grow too soon old and too late smart (my grandpa used to say that). March is the third month of twelve, so we are almost one-fourth of the way through the year! It’s time to do what is important and not waste any more precious days, and to do it with patience and wisdom. It’s time to renew and rebuild relationships, hope and courage. Time to think on things good and meaningful, to do things the right way the first time, and to provide wise guidance to our horses and to others around us.
(Originally published in the March 2006 issue of the Illinois Horse Network)