Here is my strategy for getting through the winter in good shape. I consider the time after the last event (somewhere in October/November) until the end of the year as a sort of “letting down” period. Workouts are typically lighter and may be less frequent. I assess the competition year that just finished and think about my horse’s strengths and weaknesses and make lists of what might need to be improved before the next season starts. I also like to assess their overall veterinary health and soundness. Competing can take a lot out of a horse, and some people like to give their horses time off which I think is not a bad idea if you are going south and will be competing again in January or February. However, if you have access to an indoor for the winter (if you don’t, you might want to consider it), I think it is better to keep horses in light to medium work. Generally, we can keep riding outside off and on through December so although we may need to start using the indoor a lot more, we can still hack outside, and if above 32, continue riding and schooling in our outdoor rings. Once indoors, I have a number of exercises I like to do with my horses over the winter months to keep them going, and not all of them involve riding because sometimes it is good to give the horses’ backs a break. Some exercises improve the rider because let’s face it, when we have a competition coming up, we don’t tend to make riding without stirrups a priority!
Position: riding without stirrups, although dreaded, is a great thing to do in the winter. Just make sure to do a little warm up for your horse first since it is likely to be cold when you are attempting this. You don’t have to ride the whole time without them, but even just a few minutes in the beginning of your ride (after your horse is warmed up) can help improve your position. If your horse lunges well, consider taking some lunge lessons or find a horse that does lunge well and invest in some lunge lessons. A correct position is the foundation of all else!
Lunging/Groundwork: since I hate doing an endless routine in a small indoor, I like to vary my winter work outs. This helps relieve stress on the horse’s body as well as general boredom. I like to concentrate on developing my horse’s strength and confidence (as well as listening skills) through lunging exercises and groundwork. If your horse doesn’t know how to lunge, now is a good time to teach him (or you). I don’t advocate lunging every day –maybe 2-3 times a week, and it MUST be controlled exercise and not a free for all. You should teach your horse to act just as politely on the ground (in hand) as under saddle. I like to use the Pessoa system when lunging to make sure the horse is using itself correctly, or consider learning to long –line. When you are doing this type of work, you should be thinking of it as “riding from the ground” and have the same expectations as you would if you were in the saddle. **The right equipment and technique are imperative in order to be successful so please have a knowledgeable professional help you if you do not know how to do these things yourself or are not confident.
Cavalletti: Ingrid Klimke has a wonderful book out written with her famous father, Reiner, all about using cavaletti to help strengthen a horse for any level and discipline. It is called, Cavalletti for Dressage and Jumping, and I consider it my winter Bible. She describes exercises for the walk, trot, and canter and jumping and how to properly execute them both on the lunge and under saddle. They are very adaptable, and one of my favorites is to set up walk poles and trot poles in different parts of the ring and just practice transitions into and out of the poles at different gaits keeping the horse balanced and the rhythm good. Also, just putting trot poles on a circle is quite a challenge! But when done properly, a great exercise for horse and rider without a lot of added pounding.
Jumping: I don’t like to do a lot of course work in a small indoor as it involves a lot of tight turns so instead, I concentrate on gymnastics and straight line work. This is another good way to focus on rider position as well as horse strength and confidence. Jimmy Wofford has a great book out on gymnastics for horse and rider called Modern Gymnastics which I keep very handy for easy reference.
Hacking: In addition to the above three things, I like to keep my horses hacking outside whenever it is possible. This is good for them mentally and physically. Even when the snow gets really deep, I will bundle up and hack down the road. Obviously, your horse needs to be safe to do this, but if it is, don’t be afraid to get out of the ring! Most horses have winter shoes on so even if things are snow covered, they can negotiate. Find a flat place (might be your outdoor arena) and do some work in the snow. Lifting their legs out of the snow acts like cavalletti work and will help to strengthen them. I will even lunge in the snow provided my horse is polite for this kind of work.
So in conclusion, winter work is all about strength and confidence building for you and your horse so that when the pressure of competition season is here again, you are ready. Try some new exercises and stay positive and have fun. It’s possible! Seek the advice of a confident professional if you think you might need some help. Spring will be here soon….