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Winterizing your Horse

Published: 12/1/2014
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Editor's Note: Amy Skinner is a regular guest columnist and a horse gal since age six. She runs Essence Horsemanship, rides and teaches English and Western. Skinner has studied at the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art in Spain, with Buck Brannaman, and many others.

Read more about Amy here.

Read more Journals & Journeys here

By Amy Skinner

With winter now upon us, many of us in colder climates sadly bid goodbye to our nice outdoor rides. Here in northern Michigan, everything in the winter takes more time:
  • You may spend all morning chopping ice out of a frozen trough and digging your horses out of the snow just to feed them.
  • Trying to maneuver while wearing an extra 10 pounds of clothing can be a pretty daunting task.
  • Cooler weather leaves them naughtier and a little more high-strung than usual.
The temptation to abandon it all together is strong, but do not despair, Dear Reader. Winter months don't have to be totally unconstructive.

Here are some things you can do through the winter, even if you can't ride, to keep your horse light, respectful, and handy, so that when the long-awaited spring months roll around, you can thaw out your horse and pick up right where you left off. Or better!

Check out your lateral flexion:

Experiment with less. How little does it take you to draw your horse's head around to the side? Remember that you want 90 degrees of bend with his ears level, and you'd like to get it to where you keep a float in the rope. Try drawing him around with half of the pressure you think you need and just wait. When that gets good, halve it again. Don't pull. Just wait. Spend time to get this really good and you will reap the benefits of this light feel in other aspects or your groundwork and rides.

Backing one step, leading forward one step:

On the ground, see how little it takes to get your horse to step back and then forward without any lag or tension on the lead rope. The goal is to get your horse to rock back and forth off of your body energy in a straight line. Try to make your movements small and refined, and time up with your horse’s feet. You don't need a whole lot of waving around in his face. Not only does this dull your horse, it makes him ruder, too. Try less, but if that doesn't work, send a bigger wave down your lead rope. Remember to release the smallest change and try.
The intent is not to bully your horse backwards and pull him forwards, but to operate off of a float, forward as easy as back. Accomplishing this keeps the horse balanced, helps liven up the dull horse, and helps even out the flighty horse with too much “go.”

Catching your horse in the pasture:

This is the time of year to get this really good, because you probably don't really want to ride anyway, which takes all the pressure off. Teach your horse to shape up to be caught. Nobody wants to chase her horse down in the pasture, and you can't put a halter on your horse’s rear end.
Experiment with how to draw him in so he faces up to you. Release him when he does, and take as many fresh starts as you need if he walks away. Don't be too intent on “catching” him. Since you have no time limit, spending the winter doing this will get him really eager and relaxed about being caught. Get him really good about lowering his head and putting his head in the halter. Remember, you don't want to do things “to” your horse, but you want him helping you out. Take your time. I recommend wearing warm, waterproof clothes and boots so you don't throw in the towel just because your toes are frozen.


If you have spent the time to get your horse caught nicely and lower his head for haltering, bridling should be a cinch. But if he is braced about being bridled, work on lowering his head and release, and start over. Don't push his head down, this will only reinforce a brace. Ask him to lower his head with a light touch of your hand behind his ears and wait, when he lowers a bit, release. Get it so you can lower his head all the way to the ground nice and relaxed. He may yawn, lick and chew, or fall asleep. That's great. Now get him good about keeping his head here while you pretend to bridle him. Take the bridle away when his head is soft in position. Make sure his muzzle, ears, and whole head are good to handle, but don't stay in any trouble spot for too long.
And finally, after you have spent all this time getting him relaxed about being bridled, do NOT shove the bit in his mouth, bump his teeth, crumple his ears, poke his eyes, or do anything that makes your horse resent being bridled! I cannot stress this enough – if your mother zipped your skin in your pants every day when you were a child, you would be pretty hard to catch and dress, too!

Lining up your horse:

In this situation, mounting blocks are used as a tool to get your horse to lead up to something. They should not be used as a crutch for your lack of fitness.

Get a good sturdy mounting block to stand on, one that won't “buck” you off. If you don't have a mounting block or anywhere indoors to do this, find a stump, a wooden crate, a fence, or anything sturdy you can stand on or sit on that your horse can't knock over by getting too close to. The object is to teach your horse to come pick you up nice and straight. It's almost like circling groundwork, except you stand on the block and bring him around to you. When he is straight and lined up to where you would like to get on, release and pet him. If he can't stay or isn't straight, you just send him back out, roll his hindquarters over and start again. Anything that gets your horse handier and thinking about how he can help you is golden, and this small detail can make a huge difference. You will be grateful in the spring when you don't have to chase your horse around or have someone hold him so you can get on.

There is plenty more you can do through the winter months if you are creative, and dedicated to your horsemanship. You don't have to let winter put a damper on your horse's progress. I love to ride in the snow in the winter, so long as the footing is not too slippery or too deep. If I can't ride, these simple exercises make a big difference in my horses.

Read more ideas for spending winter wisely.

View Reader Comments:

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12/4/2014 Julie
Great, great ideas!!! The more pre-ride work that can be done in the winter makes the spring riding that much easier.
1/7/2015 Kathie Tuck
Great ideas. My guy just loves to have all the attention too.

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