Depending on where you live, winter in could mean anything from inconsistent showers and gusts to a full-on infrastructure-crippling snow dumping. Either way, chances are you’re spending a lot of time riding indoors. After a few weeks, it may start to feel like the walls are closing in on you as you go through the same routine again and again.
Looking for ways to keep you (and your horse) sane this winter? Here are eleven ideas to keep your interest piqued:
1) Swap Horses
There is no better way to mix up your winter routine than by riding a new horse entirely! Offer to trade horses with a barn friend for a lesson, a day, a week, or whenever. You will get the experience of being on a new horse, and your horse will get a shakeup to his routine as he experiences a new rider too.
While it might feel weird at first, experience riding different horses will only make you a better, more well-rounded rider. That big Percheron cross at the end of your shedrow is going to have a very different way of going than the swift OTTB next door or the big, floaty Warmblood across the aisle.
Bonus points if you can swap horses in a completely different discipline. If you’re a seasoned showjumper, the relaxing amble of a Western pleasure mount might be a nice change of pace for a few rides.
2) Invite your Non-horsey Friends to the Barn
Chances are you have a friend, classmate, co-worker, or relative who has never been on a horse before but would love to. Something as mundane as brushing a horse can be a thrill for someone who has never been close to a 1,000LB animal before.
So share the love and invite your curious civilian to the barn to meet your horse! You can lead her around the ring or give her a lesson on the lunge line, just check with the barn manager first about liability waivers, and source a spare riding helmet for your pal before they come up.
Being the teacher, rather than the student, can help solidify horsemanship principles for you, too. A new handler will be interesting to your horse, and you may have just converted a new riding pal!
3) Go Back to Basics
It may seem counterintuitive to do easier things to stay interested, but winter ring work is the perfect time to brush up on the basics that you might let slide during competition season, or the basics you need to build upon to advance to the next level. No matter how experienced you are, every rider can benefit from solid fundamentals.
If you have a tiny indoor arena without the space to ride a full test or course, basics may be your only option. Use your small arena size to your advantage by incorporating exercises with lots of bends, serpentines, and circles. Lateral work and transitions are also excellent skills to perfect in a small arena.
The web is full of great ideas for incorporating trotting poles into your routine in creative ways. Try websites like FEI and Horse & Hound, as well as books like Sigrid Schope’s Training and Riding with Cones and Poles for inspiration.
4) Learn a New Skill
Here’s the perfect way to add some interest to your usual winter routine. Try learning or teaching your horse a whole new skill.
You could give clicker training a try and teach your horse some simple commands, like touching an item with his nose. You could master a riding skill you don’t often get to use, such as being able to mount from the ground (handy if you come off during a hack), or neck reining. If you’ve been curious to experiment with anything from riding bitless to using side reins, now is the time!
For a quick idea that is almost guaranteed to make you a better equestrian, ride bareback. You’ll improve your balance and build a much more secure seat and leg position. Start at a walk until you’re accustomed to riding without the security of a saddle before you attempt anything more brazen.
5) Change Disciplines
Challenging yourself as a rider will only make you better. Get out of your comfort zone by trying out a whole new discipline this winter. Talk to your coach about what she feels comfortable teaching, or treat yourself to a few sessions with a specialist.
If you’re a hunter/jumper, consider a few dressage lessons to work on your flat position or to help your mount nail his transitions. If dressage is your life, try mastering 2 point and tackling a few fences. Likewise, a lesson or two with a different coach can give you a new way of looking at your riding and may point out flaws your regular coach didn’t notice.
If you ride in a barn that isn’t discipline-specific, swap tack with a western rider and try a few rides cowboy style. Or borrow from the gymkhana tradition and try group games like pole bending, barrel racing, keyhole racing, and egg and spoon races. These team games are a great way to help your fellow barn mates beat with winter doldrums, too.
6) Get Off My Back!
Since we’re all about changing it up and trying new things to stay sane winter, why not stay out of the saddle entirely. You can give your horse a week off and focus on un-mounted work, or throw in an “off my back” day now and then to keep you both on your toes.
Use this time to focus on bonding with your horse, without being in the saddle. Take him for a hand walk, either around the ring or around the property. Give him a schooling day on the lunge line. If you’ve never tried it before, this would be a great time to practice ground driving. It’ll be a new horsemanship skill for you and something exciting for your horse.
Another great activity is doing work “at liberty,” or in a round pen without a lunge line. Try resources like Horsefulness and Jonathan Field for information on how to do work at liberty if you haven’t before.
Since we’re already taking off the tack, why not try some free jumping? A staple of warmblood tests, this is an excellent activity for horses of all disciplines. It gives him some exercise and jumping practice and also lets you see his natural jumping style.
7) Play Games
Give your horse (and yourself) a mental break and change of pace by playing some horsey games. Playing games with your horse also builds trust, communication, and connection between human and horse, strengthening your bond.
You might be surprised to learn many horses enjoy squeaky toys (rubber chicken, anyone?) and can even be taught to play fetch, a handy skill if you drop a glove or crop. Just like a dog, you can teach him to come and to play games like tag and follow the leader.
You can teach your horse to push a ball around with his legs and chest. Once he’s confident and comfortable with this, you can progress to bouncing the ball on the ground, and even bouncing it while you’re on his back!
8) Condition, Condition, Condition
Hate feeling like you’re missing out on the show scene during the winter? Get yourself ribbon ready for next year by using the winter months to focus on conditioning your horse, and yourself, for next year.
For you, this may mean joining a gym, starting a home workout routine, or working with a personal trainer to meet your fitness goals. Most riders choose to do yoga to improve balance and flexibility, and the cold lonely days of winter are a great time to start.
Take a good look at your horse, too. Are there any old injuries that you’re worried about aggravating? Is he has flexible on his left bend as he is on the right? Would he benefit from stronger hindquarters or a lighter front end? Does he have the cardio to do what will be asked of him next show season? Now is the time to speak to your equine bodyworker, vet, or trainer about what you can do to set yourself up for success for next year.
Use this “boring” ring time to desensitize your horse. Help him become calmer and more confident by exposing him to different stimuli under safe, controlled circumstances now.
A tarp is a great training tool for this purpose: it’s cheap and readily available and can be scary to horses at first. Start by slowly introducing the tarp to your horse. As trust grows and fear diminishes, he’ll be able to walk and ride over it, and eventually, tolerate it flapping all over his body.
Doing exercises like this builds his trust in you and his confidence in himself, making him a calmer, more confident mount. It’ll also make those water jumps less scary!
Get your horse desensitized to small spaces by playing the Squeeze Game, by having him walk through two barrels placed a few feet apart. Each time you repeat the exercise, gradually move the barrels closer and closer together, until he’s comfortable squeezing in between them.
10) Enjoy your Barn Buddies
Guess who else is stuck inside and going loopy? Pretty much EVERYONE else in your barn! Why not unite to fight the winter blahs?
You can organize a Holiday party complete with hot chocolate, secret Santa, a holiday-themed costume contest, and a potluck (this goes for human food as well as homemade horse treats). Keep the kids in the barn occupied with a screening of a holiday horsey movie, like Christmas Ranch, the Christmas Colt, or My Broken Horse Christmas.
If your barn doesn’t already have one, you could organize a winter schooling show. You can use the same classes your barn mates usually show in, or create games and pairs classes. You can ride mock dressage tests, small courses, or create an obstacle course inspired by competitive trail classes. You can have an instructor or other riders judge each class. Whatever you chose to do, you’re limited only by your creativity and budget!
The important thing is getting your fellow riders together for some winter camaraderie.
11) Get Outdoors
It may be snowy and cold, but it’s not the end of the world! There’s no reason not to ride outside if it’s safe to do so. Just make sure you and your horse dress for the weather. Make sure to layer up, and consider investing in winter riding boots if you’re going to make winter riding a habit (which, by the way, you totally should).
If your facility has trails, find out how they’re maintained during the winter. Winter is an excellent time for a trail ride, and you may be pleasantly surprised to find footing on the trails is even better than in an outdoor arena. Long farm driveways and tractor laneways can also make functional outdoor winter riding areas.
Even if riding isn’t practical, a good hand walk is an under-appreciated and underused way to bond with your horse. He’ll enjoy the fresh air and a change of scenery, and you can use the opportunity to desensitize him to seasonal spooks like snowdrifts and plows.
Footing permitting, brush up on your trot in hand (trotting the horse while you lead him in a straight line) while you’re out for a winter walk. This will help if your horse ever comes up lame and needs to be trotted for the vet.
Sure, nothing beats a good hack on a bright, warm summer day, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to love about winter! With a little creativity and ingenuity, there’s plenty you can do to stay sane and thrive this winter.
What do you do to help beat the winter blues? Let us know below!