Starting Back After a Winter's Rest.

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It happened last Tuesday afternoon. I was finishing up midday chores and I braced as I came around the side of the barn where I usually get slapped by a polar wind. This time the breeze was warm. Just barely, but I don’t think I was hallucinating. In Colorado, it was a bitter December, and January hasn’t been better. There’s a layer of weathered ice in the shady places and nobody remembers green. I miss riding and teaching. I miss being able to muck without a pick ax. I am, however, current on my whining. Thank you.

I’d love to say horses miss us riding as often in winter but I doubt that’s true. For the majority of horses, it’s probably a welcome break from tight saddles and strong bits and sharp spurs. There’s a ranch tradition of tossing horses out to pasture over the winter, as much for their sanity as anything. It has a less-than scientific name; we call it letting them be horses. Because being ridden is something else.

But we’re not like ranchers. We fret that our horses are lonely and worry that they have no life without us. Kind of like the light in the fridge; we think they go into suspended animation, not quite fresh and not quite spoiled, if we aren’t there. Worse yet, we worry that they will forget who we are, or how to wear tack. What if all of their training is lost to too much herd time?

Two reminders: First, horses don’t have creative thought, but they have strong, clear memories. They forget nothing. Second, we humans do have creative thought and the chances of having a runaway in our own minds is better than in the saddle.

Seriously, I’ve had a couple of conversations lately about starting a horse back after time off–whether it was a holiday break, or a season of particularly ill-timed storms. You know what I’ll say: Go slow! Here’s the example:

If you have a pen or arena that he can run in, let him go. If he bucks, cheer him on. He’s got some winter kinks in his spine. If he wants to drop and roll, again, thank him for his self-chiropractic. Remind yourself that what he does at liberty is supposed to be playful.

Then catch him and bring out your wardrobe of curry gear. Long toothed one first; a well-done curry job improves blood flow in his skin and has all kinds of therapeutic value. Not to mention, it warms up your shoulders and back. Be aware of reaching and stretching as you go. In the process, ask your horse to take a step now and then, just to move his feet. Consider grooming a sort of Zen groundwork.

Finally, tack up. Be gentle with the girth. Ask his permission, scratch his face some, and then go extra slow putting on the bridle. Now check your own girth; are you tight in your stomach? Take some slow breaths until your shoulders are soft. Then take a walk in-hand for a few moments.

Check your helmet, adjust the strap. And if that isn’t a part of your usual routine, make it a new habit and respect yourself a little more this year. Pretty please.

When you are both a bit bored with walking around, go to the mounting block (yes, ground mounting is for people who should know better) and climb on. Sit still, take some more breaths. Feel your legs as soft as bird wings on his side. Take a moment to say thank you for your outlandish good fortune to be right where you are. Finally, ask for a quiet step forward.

If your horse is antsy and needs to move right off, no problem. For today, take some breaths but let him walk. Don’t jerk him right back; he might have some anxiety, too. Hold the reins but try not to pull. See if he calms in a few strides, encouraged by your long slow exhales.

The next part is the most important part, whether your horse is young, or a midlife warrior, or a seasoned school master. After walking just a very few moments, ask for a quiet halt. Use your seat and legs, but settle to a halt. It won’t be perfect. Give him a scratch and a kind word, and then dismount. And by that I mean, get off, even though you’ve been only be on five minutes. Loosen the girth and stroll on back to un-tack him.

Celebrate this moment of messing with your horse’s mind, but in a good way. Too many times we ask for too much, too soon, with too much anxiety of our own. Instead, leave your horse rewarded for easy work–happy and hungry for more. And it wouldn’t hurt if you felt the same way. No one’s in Marine boot camp here. Show him who’s boss–in a slow kind way.

Do they really need to carry our weight for an hour, or is engaging their brain enough? If the goal is serious work, invite him to it without harshness–for your horse or yourself.

On the next ride, try this experiment. Don’t be reckless; check in with him and if he’s attentive, then give him the chance to show you what he’s learned since your last ride. Prepare to be surprised.

When horses improve between rides, as they commonly do, it because less really is more to a horse. A short happy ride opens a door that is impossible to find by drilling repetition. There’s less mutual anxiety, the horse/human conversation is polite, and the tendency is positive, whether you are starting back or training something advanced and complicated. In other words, it’s how to train a horse to make it look easy.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm

Relaxed and Forward 3D Cover GREENIt’s shameless self-promotion: If you like this blog, my new book is a collection of essays just like this one. Relaxed & Forward: Relationship Advice from Your Horse is available now. Click this international link (here) for Amazon. It’s available from other online bookstores, iTunes, or if you’d like a signed copy from me, click (here).

Anna Blake

0 thoughts on “Starting Back After a Winter's Rest.”

  1. I had shoulder surgery on 12/22, and have been fussing about not being able to ride my mare – I’m off of her for six months, or so they say. I appreciate you reminding me that they don’t forget what they’ve learned. I’ll be grooming and hand walking her soon, and that will be enough for now.

  2. Here in the East – we are having our FIRST winter storm. December and January were mild for us. We have an indoor arena and last night was quite chilly…..but when we put Ima in the roundpen to play (always do this and she knows she can have fun) before riding – she changed from a quarter horse to an absolutely amazing dressage horse. Did the most georgeous extended trot and piaff’s. The funny think that is a little scary is she blows like a stud while doing this….so you always wonder if riding is going to be a challenge. And guess what – she was a dream! Thrilled me again while riding with absolutely perfect lead changes! I firmly believe in letting them have a moment before work!!!

    • They really do know when we are on their backs; playtime is understandable to them and sounds like she said Thank You when you rode. Yay, for showing her alter-ego! Thanks, Suzanne.

  3. Thanks Anna for reminding me that my horse doesn’t think like I do. What a great description of how to get started again… how nice for the horse too. When I do my walks out into the pasture to check on the horses I always like to keep the communication soft and respectful. Maybe asking for a hoof to stretch a little, maybe letting me rub my hands all over them or maybe just some kisses. They are very patient and seem to enjoy it (or maybe that’s just MY thinking). This also allows me to move them out of my space, if needed, and check in mentally…. for both of us. I love this time and being able to reconnect.

  4. I would like to share my winter riding story.

    I spent the fall doing groundwork with my little white mare after a few rides that did not go well. She has anxiety issues, and I so do I, ‘nough said. We learned to ground-drive, and I tried to show her that sticks on the ground are not scary (she has a terrible fear of getting her feet caught). I learned to make my cues feather-light, and not pull or clutch, because these things fueled her anxiety. If horses had nightmares hers would probably be about heavy handed riders with spurs and shank bits.

    We had a good snowfall a few weeks back and I was desperate to ride in the way that a 12 year girl who got riding lessons for her birthday is desperate. So, with a childlike sense of fun and determination, I climbed on bareback with a halter and lead-rope. We went about three steps before I stopped her, and slithered off, overcome with glee. The next day I did it again, and the day after that. The footing was bad (I don’t have an arena, just a large lawn), so we stayed in a small area in front of the barn that was safe.

    After another good snowfall the footing improved, and we expanded our rides to include more of the yard and some of the forest. After about a week we were doing bareback in a halter what I had found impossible a few months before: walking calmly on a loose rein.

    At this point I need to thank you Anna, from the bottom of my heart, for the regular gentle reminders, that I am in charge of the quality of my riding. Many good things have come from changing my attitude and approaching my riding with a sense of play instead of a sense of work. I keep my rides short, and stay out of my little white mare’s way as much as possible. She rewards me by coming up to me in the paddock, sticking her nose in her halter, and moving out with a loose relaxed walk that’s easy to sit. We are both having fun again, and “less is more” is my new catchphrase.

  5. Congrats on the new book (will there soon be a reading in our area?) and thank you for the amazing blog! I really appreciate your gentleness and kindness and so does my mare! It is our outlandish good fortune to be riding. These partnerships are playful while both horse and rider learn more about each other, ourselves, and maybe a new and improved exercise or game. Been riding all winter but plan to do the get on for just a few minutes and be happy! Yes, what a surprise for Susie Mare! Ev

      • Susie and I are in the north canyon of Palmer Park in the middle of town at Mark Reyner Stables. Home is only 1/2 mile away so this the best I can do. Susie is in the front row if you are ever near the 770 acres of Palmer Park. If you call her name she will whinny and come to the gate. I am the gal at the reading at Bingo’s who requested the first chapter read by you and then asked you politely to pose for a photo op w/me….

        • Oh, I was hoping I would hear from you so I could apologize. You were polite! No one has ever asked for a photo before and I was fflabbergasted! And a bit embarrassed. Sorry if I was rude. No plans right now for another reading, but I hope for more.

          • No prob, you celebrity, you! Hee! Hee! I was so pls’d to have the photo then to send to everyone I had sent your book to! Ev

  6. Thank you for the wisdom of this. Since Tessie has been acting up in my lessons–bolting and bucking at the canter, something like this to start would be good. My trainer suspects a balance issue, which sounds about right to me. I want to check on this saddle when the weather eases…And have my vet out…

  7. I actually have accepted the need to hit the reset button whether it’s bad weather, time off, his or my anxiety, or loss of confidence after a spill. And I’m happy to reset because the gains and the rebuilt trust far exceed the disappointments and frustrations. My horses and I are out to impress no one and we will enjoy doing our own thing as partners. I have liberated myself from so much pressure by adopting this attitude.

  8. We recently shared a ride for the first time in months. Our routine is pretty much as you outlined above, with the addition of the (expected) cookie before we leave the mounting block. After a few halts, walk-ons and volunteered turns on the forehand, I thought – one nice circle and we’ll be through. Reading my mind (as I know he can), we completed a forward + round circle, and on to the post-ride celebration.

  9. Excellent advice for starting back or starting up! Boo on anyone who admires the “1 day to a trained horse domination shows”

  10. Hi Anna, In your last blog you had two wonderful words that I commented on that I wanted to remember forever…of course I forgot them! the essence of these words was to encourage and support a horse through a tight spot instead of discipline. you responded to my comment that they were tattooed on your forehead! I understand the concept but would like to record the words in my riding diary. Can you help me? Love your blog. IT is so positive and encouraging. for my first day back after a long stretch we ground drove through the trails for 1/2 and hour and my little mustang was so happy to get out and back to work. Cheers, Heather Powell River, BC


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