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Dear Dana: How do I work my horse with short, cold days

By DANA HOKANA - Horsetrader columnist - January 17th, 2013 - Q&A Dear Dana

DEAR DANA: Days now are shorter and I can’t ride my horse as much as I could before. It is so much colder, and my horse has a lot more energy. It feels like I need to work my horse twice as long, and I have half the time. Any suggestions?

DEAR DEAN: Good question! Almost all horse owners are dealing with this right now, myself included! When it rains and we are working our horses less, they get even fresher. I definitely sympathize with your situation, and am dealing with it myself! Let me share with you some of the things that I do with my horses this time of year.

* Realize your limitations
* Be patient
* Work on ground work
* Pay attention to feed
* Plan
* Details make Champions
* Spend time suppling

1. Realize that you do have limitations this time of year.
Sometimes it is easy to get frustrated with our progress with our horses, especially when we are limited by things out of our control like daylight hours or cold weather and rain. So, in seasons like this, just realize what your limitations are, stay calm — and plan. Give thought to your rides. Ride mindfully.

2. Be patient.
Horses can be like children. To have a great ride, we have to capture and keep their attention. Cold weather and a fresh horse are both going to work against us. Our horses may be less likely to pay attention to us, so realize that you will have to be patient. Do your best to not lose your temper, but be firm and clear with your commands. When I know that I am about to ride a horse that can be trying, I reel in my thoughts and focus on what I am about to do. My attention is on my horse and not on all of the other things that I have on my mind. Take a deep breath and be determined to have a good ride.

3. Spend extra time on ground work.
There are times that if we have just had several days of rain, I will have my first day back be one of working and improving my horse on the ground. When I longe my horses, I pay special attention to keeping their bodies on the arc of the circle. Improper longing can teach a horse to travel on a reverse arc, which will make them drop their shoulder in on the circle. Month-after-month and year-after-year of this can develop many bad body habits and lead to improper muscle memory and, ultimately, incorrect travel. When a horse is traveling incorrectly, it puts undue stress on all of the parts of their body. By spending the extra time to demand that my horse longes correctly I know I am helping my horse to move better, stay sounder and last longer. I also spend at least 10 minutes warming up and cooling down my horses. On a rainy day, I may spend extra time grooming or sacking out my horse, all the while being mindful and working toward developing his respect and focus on me, and developing a relationship with my horse. If my horse respects me on the ground, he will respect me in the saddle. If you have the ability to turn out your horse or put him in a larger stall, then that may help with his energy level, too. The larger the area, the more he can move around and expend his excess energy.

4. Feed a lower-energy feed.
If you are feeding a high energy feed or a high protein diet, you may alter your horses feed or adjust it to a lower energy feed in times when he isn’t working as hard. I’ve seen some of my horses’ energy levels change drastically due to their feed. Others aren’t as affected by feed. Your veterinarian can help you to adjust your horse’s feed to match his energy needs.

5. Plan your ride time.
If your lifestyle and work schedule permit, plan to ride your extra fresh horse early enough in the day to be able to finish what you start. It’s no fun to start your ride late in the day on a fresh horse and have to end your ride on a bad note because it is too dark. You don’t want him to feel like he can be naughty, that he “got the win” because you got off. I ride my more difficult or younger horses at a time of day so that I am assured I can end on a good note.

6. Details make Champions.
Make sure that every cue that you teach or give to your horse is responded to in the way that you want. In other words, make sure that you give your cue properly, that your horse understands it, and that he says yes and responds to your satisfaction. I have learned that if I separate the maneuvers that I am requiring my horse to do — and if I evaluate the way my horse reacts and responds to me each and every time — I will develop and maintain a willing and broke horse. Many people ride mindlessly and may not even realize that their horse is saying subtle “no’s” to them, or is developing a bad attitude. Determine to strive for excellence, and if you separate and refine each maneuver, you will eventually greatly improve the whole horse. The benefit to having this kind of focus on the small details on a cold day is that you will find that you will require more, thus demanding that the horse gives more of himself. When you are focused and determined on a goal, you will achieve greater results. I usually plan my next ride as I am completing my current ride. In other words, I’m already setting goals in my mind as to what areas still need more work. Every time you perfect areas of your ride you are gaining your horse’s respect. A high, energetic horse with respect for you will give you a better ride than a high horse with little or no respect for you. Two or three effective quality rides a week (where you really get it done and make breakthroughs) will be better for you and your horse than six rides where you never really got it done.

7. There is power in suppling exercises and circles.
Suppling exercises help to release your horse’s tight muscles and have a relaxing effect on the horse. These also really help to loosen up a stiff horse. Training in circles is also highly beneficial to get your tighten your horse’s focus to a smaller area, allowing you to refine the details and to work on the areas of resistance you may be having. A hot horse can be calmed down in a small circle because you are remastering control of their focus.

I hope these tips help you. Good luck and have a great ride!


Do you have a question for Dana? Simply go to www.horsetrader.com and click on the “Dear Dana” section, then submit it! If your question is selected, you will be entered into a monthly drawing for a FREE “Winning Strides” DVD from Dana’s training video series.

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