In the winter an all too frequent fate for the recreational horseman is a bleak time of snow and rain and ride-less days. Not everyone may have a covered arena to escape this in, but this is not a cause for despair! Below are five things you can do with your horse in a space as small as his stall:
A stall is the perfect place to perfect your pony's P's and Q's, and winter boredom can often erode the progress you made during the summer and throughout show season. In the space of the average stall you can easily tune nearly all your showmanship skills-
Disengagement of Fore and Hind-quarters: 45, 90, 180, and 360 degrees. Perfecting these varying degrees of pivoting will make your pattern much cleaner as well as improve your communication with your horse on a more day to day level. Once you achieve this, you can work towards a smoother pivot addressing the finer details: brisker for the sluggish horse, steadier for the over-eager one, correcting the hoof that never seems to stay planted throughout the pivot (actually, for this habit a stall will work especially well because they have less room to do this), improving the "reach" of front legs crossing over each-other (instead of shuffling or not crossing at all), and maintaining a level neck and headset throughout the turn (instead of bending, twisting, or lifting the head away from your movement).
Squaring up: Standing square is a very easy action for your horse to become sloppy in. Practicing this –even just a few minutes every time you go to the barn- will take down the amount of time it takes to set him up in the show ring, improve his overall form, and develop his patience for staying square. You will find the more frequently you work at this your horse will develop the habit of naturally resting squared –in the ring, standing in the cross-ties, and at a halt under saddle.
Backing: Backing straight –even for just a couple steps is a skill every horse should have, even those not used for showmanship. Perfecting this and conditioning him to move off your body-language or the lightest pressure will not only be good for your score but make your life easier when you need him to move away from you in sticky situations.
In addition to Showmanship, there are many other things you can work on in such a small space-
Haltering/Bridling quietly: Lowering head for you, tipping nose into the halter, and accepting bit quietly.
Lowering head from poll or nose pressure: Work on more response with less pressure. You can practice this with the flat of your hand, your fingers, or even a rope.
Moving from different cues: Teaching to give or move away from a variety of pressures –touching the nose, the chest, shoulder, hindquarter, barrel, etc. and responding to a lighter touch or body-language alone. For this you can use your fingers, the flat of your hand, a rope, a whip or bridle (to condition for subtle cues under saddle), your voice, or body-language alone.
Picking up feet: This is a great time to work with that horse that jerks its foot, refuses to pick it up, or doesn't shift his weight while you pick his hoof out. Consistency, patience, and generous reward will result in a compliant and polite animal that will lift and hold its hoof quietly for cleaning, shoeing/trimming, and even administering salves/bandages for the abscessed hoof.
Manners at feeding time: Backing up when you bring food into the stall and not crowding or stealing bits from you on the way to the hay rack or manger. Insisting on politeness in this area of your horse's life will result in greater respect and politeness in all other aspect of his training and work –both on the ground and under saddle.
The bitter chill of winter can bring an uncomfortable stiffness to your horse's muscles, especially the older or arthritic steed. Stretching these muscles out will warm them up and bring relief and increased flexibility, as well as help your horse get comfortable with you handling him. Using treats to encourage extra flexion will make the session that much more enjoyable and help them catch on to the idea faster . You can find ideas and instruction of the different stretches you can do with your horse Here and Here.
Besides keeping your mount from becoming a mud-caked yeti, winter grooming is the perfect time to practice your show braids, teach your horse to stand quietly for clipping ears, bridle-path, and feathers, and simply spend some one on one time enjoying each-other's company. Grooming is a great way to bond with your horse because he can simply enjoy your presence without having to work or perform in any way. This will make him look forward to having you come to see him as well as increase his enthusiasm and work ethic under saddle. Since blankets and shaggy winter coats can be itchy and uncomfortable, try to find that special spot while grooming and give it an extra good scratching.
4. Bake some horse cookies
Though baking isn't necessarily something you would do in your horse's stall, it is certainly a nice way to spend a blustery winter afternoon. Any one of the easy-to-make recipes found Here can be made by even the most novice of bakers, and can even be a fun project to tackle with your kids. Bake a batch or two before feed-time to give your horse a pleasant surprise with his dinner.
Yet another thing you can do in the space of a stall is desensitizing your horse to things he is unsure of. That menacing pair of clippers, the purple turnout rug he is convinced will eat him, or even that saddle pad he still is suspicious of, there is all manner of things you can introduce to your horse as perfectly harmless in the confines of a stall. Halter-training the young foal or even retraining the older or abused mount, there is no end of things you can introduce in the space of the humble stall. You can even lead unfamiliar livestock past to introduce them to your not-so courageous steed –goats, cows, llamas, alpacas, even dogs. Introducing such animals with your horse safely tucked away in his stall is perfect for the initial introductions, because your horse is somewhere he feels safe and since the other "monster" is being led past or away from him he will not feel as threatened as he would if the creature was simply placed in the stall with him. In addition to these things, a stall is also a great place to get younger, abused, or wild horses comfortable with your presence. Take a book with you next time you go to the barn and set up a chair outside their stall for some quiet reading time. A book will keep your attention focused elsewhere than directly on your horse and because of that they will feel less threatened of your presence. When you consistently demonstrate this quiet, uninvasive behavior to your horse, they will open up to you and become curious of you instead of frightened or threatened. This is a great way to deepen your relationship with your horse even if he is not afraid of you.
A word of caution: Since the space of a stall is very small, never force your horse to accept something he is uncomfortable with –it could lead to the injury of himself, you, and property. On that same note, desensitizing isn't insisting a horse "get over" something and accept it. Desensitizing always needs to be approached with and acted upon the knowledge that horses are prey animals, and a fearful tendency towards something they are unsure about is perfectly natural.
With so many things you can do in inclement weather, instead of winter being a time where horses get hot and unruly, it should instead be the perfect time for bonding and brushing up on manners.
Questions or Comments? I'd love to hear from you!