Q: I own three geldings and one mare. My geldings are all sound and can be ridden, but my mare, who is 18 years old, has some nerve damage in one leg and can’t really be ridden anymore. Are there other activities I can do with her safely to keep her active and healthy as she ages?
A: Happily, the answer to your question is a resounding yes! There are lots of ground activities for you and your mare to partake in. Here are a handful of suggestions to get you started.
The benefits of groundwork, especially for a horse that can no longer be ridden, are numerous. First, these exercises provide beneficial bonding between you and your mare. Second, they encourage mental stimulation, which is a great thing that helps prevent a horse from becoming bored and developing stereotypic behaviors such as stall weaving or wood chewing. Third, they engage movements that will help keep your mare’s joints supple as she ages.
For starters, there are numerous standing stretch exercises you can do with you mare – sort of like yoga with your horse. There are a handful of good books on this subject that provide helpful photographs. One basic, simple stretch is a lateral stretch of the neck. Have your mare stand square and hold a treat in your hand. Slowly move the treat from your mare’s nose to along her rib cage to encourage her to laterally flex her neck (without moving her body!) so that she touches her side with her nose. Another simple stretching exercise requires you to lift your mare’s front leg up and slowly stretch it out in front of her into full extension, then slowly return it down to the ground. This exercise also helps your mare with balance. Remember to do all stretches equally on both sides.
If you are looking for something with a little more showmanship, teaching an old mare new tricks can be rewarding and a great way to engage your mare out of the saddle. Bowing, counting with her feet, and even clicker training can be used in horses. This is great mental stimulation for your mare and may also allow you to learn more about the equine mind and its learning capabilities.
Depending on how severe the nerve damage is (as in, if she’s unsafe for a rider, but can still walk safely herself), you may also consider ponying your mare along on short rides behind you and one of your geldings. Another possibility is training your mare to ground drive, again depending on the extent of her injury. Ground driving is a skill that, while keeping a rider off her back, will allow her to maintain contact with a bit while encouraging her to move forward with you walking behind.
Keep in mind that copious grooming, although more exercise for you than your mare, can help too. The benefits of grooming are great as it helps with bonding and results in increased blood flow to the skin, as well as keeping your mare’s coat in peak condition.
Finally, you may also want to check out some different natural horsemanship books. Many of these programs have multiple exercises to perform on the ground with your horse.