Fall is upon us. For many of us, fall is a time for finishing up all those incomplete items of our “honey do” list before harsh weather sets in. The season also marks the end or slowing of competitive horse shows. While horse showing is a great way to gauge the progress of your training program, it can be extremely rigorous for horse and rider alike. With cooler weather comes a renewed sense of energy. You have also probably noticed a renewed friskiness in your mount as well, thus making it the perfect time to reward your equine companion with a rejuvenation treatment. Now, I’m not talking about sending your horse to the horsey day spa, but rather developing a modified training regiment that gives his mind and body the ability to relax and unwind. Here are a few tips for helping your horse revive his physical and mental state before entering next year’s training routine.
Take a relaxing trail ride
Stop riding in circles for a while. Giving your horse the opportunity to look at new scenery is often a great way to help him unwind. Many national parks, forests and other areas have trails that are free and open to the public. If you don’t want to haul your horse to a location, consider hacking around your farm or ask local property owners for permission to ride on their land. The best part of trail riding is that many opportunities present themselves for you to introduce training elements into your ride without it feeling like a “lesson.” The trails pose many distractions to your horse. You should seize the opportunity to ask your horse to pay attention to you amidst these.
Furthermore, trail riding is a great time to develop your relationship with your horse. Your horse has to rely on you to keep him safe on the trails. He trusts your judgment, which can prove priceless in the show arena. He will learn to look to you for re-assurance when he is afraid rather than spooking or shying. Just the change in scenery and the relaxed atmosphere can yield a tremendous relief for you both. Besides, you may be surprised at the adventures that you find.
Cross train your horse
Just like humans, horses can become bored with their daily routine. Horses express their frustration with daily activities differently in that they can’t say “This is really boring” or “I’m tired of always doing the same things over and over and over again.” Instead, they begin swishing their tails and pinning their ears. They can have a glazed over look in their eyes. Or they may refuse to perform the same movement that they have performed effortlessly 100 times before. To help your horse maintain optimal performance year round, it is essential to give your horse’s mind and body a chance to rest. Cross training your horse gives you the opportunity to explore other areas of interest. You may find that your dressage mount likes the thrill and excitement of taking a few small jumps. I’m not saying that it is necessary for you to change your primary discipline, but just to inter-mix other disciplines to keep excitement in your training. You will find that many disciplines build on the same principles. They just do it in different ways. After training the same movement over and over again, you and your horse can become complacent. This can result in movements that are less than stellar because they lack enthusiasm. Looking at how other disciplines train certain movements can help you develop an effective training program that will improve your horse’s focus and liven up your training sessions. In addition, changing training procedures, forces your horse to look to you for the appropriate aids rather than anticipating what comes next. This can result in a much more animated and heightened level of performance in the show ring.
Back to the basics
As we rigorously train for the show season, we often overlook the basic behavioral training elements that go into creating a well-rounded, well-behaved mount. The close of the show season is a great time to re-evaluate your horses ground manners and over all disposition. Now that the pressures of showing are off, take a few weeks to freshen up your horse’s ground manners. Blow the dust off those old, beginning level training techniques and go back to ground handling 101. This will not only help your horse behave better, but it will also help him rebuild his confidence by giving him something to work on that you both know he can do. After all, he was well-mannered at one point or you wouldn’t have been able to get him clipped, shod or loaded into the trailer. Taking the time to re-visit these areas will also help to make your show time routine more enjoyable next season.
Break the routine
Send your horse on a horsey vacation if you will. And no, he doesn’t have to leave your facility do this. Turn him out to pasture for a few days, give a couple hours a day to kick up his heels is the arena or round pen or just spend some time with him that doesn’t require a saddle or bridle. Your horse can sense the difference in your attitude when you are there to ride or just to spend time with him. Most horses enjoy spending non-riding time with their human. Take out the dandy brush and groom him, sit in the pasture with him while he is grazing (this is a great time to catch up on your reading, by the way), sit by his stall while he is eating his breakfast or dinner, or even just talk to him. Many studies have been done on the horse’s ability to mirror human emotions. This is especially true when the emotion is stress. Horses can sense when their humans are stressed whether we show it outwardly or not. Taking some uninterrupted time to spend relaxing with your horse can prove to be therapeutic for both of you. Not to mention, you will reap the rewards of a more symbiotic relationship with your horse. You will no longer just be horse and rider, but rather companions working towards the same goal.
Trail rides, cross training, revisiting old lessons and breaking up his routine are excellent ways to provide emotional and physical respite for both horse and rider. Slightly modifying your training routine periodically can be beneficial to you both. Not to mention, this is an excellent way to build your relational foundation. By taking some time to relax, you will rejuvenate both you and your horse’s spirits to create a more fluid and respectful relationship. Often times you will find that your horse will accomplish new movements more quickly and with greater enthusiasm when he is given an opportunity to “just be a horse.” In addition to the obvious benefits, this new companionship will give you a competitive edge in the show arena because your horse will be more willing and energetic. He will display an overall happiness with his work, which is the essence of dressage. So, take some time and just enjoy being with your horse – no strings attached. After all, that is what your horse does for you daily.