If this winter is anything like last year, the chances are your horse will have to spend a lot of time in the stable. This can lead to boredom and stiffness and a very fresh horse when it comes to riding again!
Never fear, though, we have 10 great ideas to keep your horse happy this winter!
These exercises will entertain your horse, engage his brain, stretch out his body, build your relationship together, improve your riding, sort out problems and give you both something to do when the yard is sheet ice and it’s sleeting sideways!
Please note: when I say ‘reward’ I mean anything your horse finds enjoyable. If you’re using clicker training, that’s great, click and treat through the process. If not, use praise, a piece of carrot or a polo or a good scratch.
1. Improve Body Awareness
Put different things in your stable for you horse to stand on. Start with something easy like a small rug and reward your horse for sniffing it, then pawing it, then walking over and standing on it. Change textures and colours, so get lino offcuts, children’s foam mats, wooden boards and rubber car mats. You can also build up to a pedestal which is a great tool for helping your horse learn where his feet are and how to shift his weight and balance. Begin by asking for just the front feet, then walking over it, until your horse can stand with all 4 feet on the pedestal.
2. Stretch Your Horse
Use Carrot Stretches to stretch your horses head, neck and back and stretch all his legs out too. Horses aren’t deigned to stand around all day, so doing these simple stretches will really help your horse stay loose and healthy over winter.
Here are two youtube videos on stretching your horse (these are not my videos):
3. Spook Busting
Have a spooky horse? Use this time in the stable over winter to help him conquer his fear! Take spooky objects into the stable (or start over the stable door if he’s very anxious, you don’t want to scare him further) and reward your horse for looking at, sniffing it and exploring the object. If he does really well and is very brave, reward him more by taking the scary object away – that way, next time it comes out, he’ll be more prepared to sniff it and make it go away again! By next spring, your horse will be much calmer and braver!
Objects to try include: plastic bags, balloons, umbrellas, raincoats, tin foil and how about a christmassy theme – what about some tinsel and some christmas bells?
4. Teach a Trick
Horses love learning tricks and they’re great fun for you too! Some tricks to teach include fetch, nod the head, kiss, counting, bow, football and more.
Here’s how to teach your horse to SMILE:
Tickle your horses top lip. The instant he lifts it, reward him!
Repeat until your horse lifts and holds his top lip up when you tickle it. Give him lots of rewards.
Start to wiggle your finger just in front of your horse’s muzzle. If he even thinks about lifting his top lip, reward him! Repeat this until he lifts his top lip when you wiggle your finger in front of his muzzle.
Congratulations – you have a horse who will smile on cue!
Now you can get him to laugh at your jokes:
5. Improve Yard Manners
Does your horse have an annoying habit around the yard such as not standing very well for the farrier, barging out of his stable door or pulling back when tied up? If so, winter is the perfect time to work on it and you can do it in the stable. Reward your horse when he’s doing what you want so that it’s clear for him and he’s motivated to keep trying for you. They key to success is to repeat, repeat, repeat, calmly restarting if he reverts to old habits and rewarding him for doing it right. Bad yard manners will soon be a thing of the past!
6. Set up Games
Entertain your horse by setting up some games for him in his stable. Hang a swede or turnip up for him to chew, hide carrots around the stable or put some apples in a bucket of water for some apple bobbing!
Youtube video of horses apple bobbing (this is not my video):
Backing up is a great exercise for your horse’s body and mind, teaching him to shift his weight, improve body awareness, engage his abs and lift his back. Work on it in the stable, including backing him all the way around in a circle. Begin by asking for 1 or 2 steps and rewarding those and build up slowly to asking for more and more. You can also introduce the mats from Number 1 (above) and back over different surfaces, too.
8. Rein Work
How are your rein aids? You can work on getting them tidied up, clear and light in the stable. Begin on the ground and ensure your horse understands all your cues for lifting his head, lowering his head and flexing left and right. Reward him for getting it right then being prompt and soft in his response. If the roof is high enough, you can even sit on your horse bareback while you do it, which is great for getting your aids solid when riding and also for keeping you toasty warm in the meantime!
If your horse can’t get out and roll in a lovely sandy arena or delicous muddy gateway or get the chance to groom with other horses, he’ll appreciate a good brushing and a scratch from you. Take the time to find out which brushes and techniques your horse likes best – does he love a good hard scratch with a currry comb or prefer a soft, relaxing stroke with a body brush?
10. Lateral Movements
Ok, so in a stable, you’re pretty limited and certainly won’t be able to get a canter half-pass, but you can ensure your horse knows how to move his hindquarters and shoulders. Look for him stepping right under with his hindlegs as he moves his hindquarters over (turn on the forehand) and that he’s able and willing to move his shoulders over too, when you ask (turn on the haunches). You can also do this exercise while sitting on top, too, and you’ll find it’s very easy when you get back to riding in the arena!