When the chill is on, we undaunted horse lovers are wrapped mummy-like against the elements waddling to the barn or pasture to provide care for our equine companions. While our four-legged friends aren’t lacking for life’s essentials, they do often miss out on physical and mental stimulation. Exercise and training routines are often sporadic and keeping your horse’s mind and body active during the winter months can be a challenge. However, there are fun and stimulating activities to keep your horse engaged and better prepared to return to work when warmer days arrive.
- Target training – Make a target using anything that’s easy for your horse to see and for you to manipulate. A piece of PVC pipe, a crop, or a plastic cone will work. You’ll also need a reward. Carry a bag of small treats or know your horse’s favorite scratching spot. The idea is to teach your horse to first touch and then follow a target. Begin by holding the target near your horse’s nose. If she touches it, immediately use a cue phrase such as “Good girl!” (or boy) in a high-pitched and enthusiastic voice. Use this voice and phrase cue specifically for target training. Follow the verbal cue with your reward, the scratch or small treat. If your horse is a treat hog, do this work from the other side of a fence or stall door. Only reward with a treat or scratch when she’s performed the behavior you want. Once your horse masters this exercise standing still, teach her to follow the target at the walk. This training can be transferred to other tasks such as trotting in hand and trailer loading.
- Desensitization – Winter is the perfect time to work on your horse’s confidence. Empty feed bags are inexpensive (free!) and effective equine bravery builders. They can be used to sack your horse out and as a walk over obstacle. Despite their size and the crinkly noise they make, your horse will be intrigued by their attractive aroma. Work with your horse in a roomy space – a stall will be too confining and claustrophobic if she gets scared. Introduce the bag folded small at first to make it less intimidating. Hold it in front of your horse and encourage her to investigate it. Touching and nibbling at it shows confidence. The next step is to rub your horse’s shoulder in a relaxing grooming motion. Then work your way up her neck and over her body. Stop anytime she becomes tense, take a break, and go back to a point where she was more comfortable. You can also lay the bag open on the ground and invite your horse to examine and eventually walk over it. Move on to tarps as your horse’s confidence grows.
- Cavalletti – A few poles are all you need to create a challenging walk-over course. Use your barn aisle, lane, or any area that’s shielded from the elements and has safe footing. Cavalletti will engage your horse’s mind and encourage her to flex joints and activate muscles. Outfit your horse in splint boots to protect her legs in case she takes a misstep. Set poles on the ground 3-4 feet apart – adjust based on the length of your horse’s stride. Start with them in a straight line and graduate to a staggered pattern, a curve, a fan, or even circled like the spokes of wagon wheel. As your horse masters each challenge, add new elements such as elevating the opposite end of every other pole or raising one or more poles off the ground a few inches. Increase the complexity of patterns by stages that are within your horse’s comfort zone so that it’s challenging and fun without being stressful.