Ten: Curry, Baby Curry!
And I don’t mean delicious Indian food. Horses are herd animals and physical touch is as important to them as it is to their herd based counter parts, dogs and us humans. A pat on the neck after a ride or a scratch of the mane is all well and good, but in their natural environment horses have extensive grooming sessions which not only serve to keep up hygiene, but also reinforce relationships between herd members. Think about it, in the pie chart of physical contact with your horse, how much of it is utilitarian (tacking up, mounting) or negative (kick of the leg, tap of the whip) and how much is purely positive? Breaking out the grooming kit is a great way to get to know another side of your horse and reinforce the connection between your own herd of two.
Nine: Carrot Stretches
While I believe that treats should be given to horses sparingly (it encourages nipping and mouthy behavior), carrot stretches are a great way to incorporate treats into a regiment that requires your pony to work for his food. There are multiple articles out there that will give you instructions on how to perform carrot stretches (click here for a particularly good one). Carrot stretches not only give you time with your horse, but can also give you a good baseline for the range in your horse’s movement. Is he (or she) stiffer on the right to the left? Can they not reach all the way down to their foot on the right? After you get a baseline on your horse’s range of movement you can monitor how it improves or changes with time. If you have a tough lesson and the next day during your carrot stretches your horse cannot stretch left, well that tells you something. Wouldn’t it be nice to know that your horse is not being naughty but is actually sore? Wouldn’t you ride her (or him) differently if you knew that?
Now this one here is a combination of the two – you have the positive touch time of grooming paired with the body monitoring of carrot stretches. This one here will take a little learning on your part. There are equine massage books out there that will give you general guidelines. I encourage you to be gentle and use your massage time to get information and relationship build with your horse. If your horse reacts painfully to something, or negatively, store the information away but do not attempt to fix it yourself. Get an experienced body worker out there to help you. They might be able to give you follow up techniques to help with your horse’s healing process.
Seven: Hacking Out
On your day off rather than going into the ring yet again, why not take your horse out and about? Many people are nervous about taking their horse’s on the trail for the first time. This is understandable but no one is saying you need to blaze out into the great white north your first time. Find someone with a trail experienced horse and take it slow. Start by walking around the property and rings, then move out into the trail a few hundred feet at a time. Before you know it, you will have built a circuit that you and your horse have confidence in. Hacking is a great way to incorporate the strengthening effects of hill work as well.
Six: Hand Walking
Yes, yes folks. Hand walking is not just for lay ups and colics. By hand walking your horse you might be brave enough to take him (or her) places you might not otherwise. It gives your herd of two a chance to get to know one another in a non-riding capacity. It reinforces ground rules that might have gotten a little rusty. Remember, respect on the ground and understanding what is expected is the first step when starting any young horse and just because they are under saddle does not mean those rules should diminish.
Five: Riding To Music
Are you in a rut? Are you plateauing in your riding? Why not do something a bit different? Music can establish a steady rhythm for you and your horse to follow. It can lighten or power up the mood. It can distract you from the voices in your head (What, you don’t hear them too?) It can give you a chance to touch on the thrill of riding that sometimes gets lost between all the drilling. And who knows? This might be your very first baby step to a musical freestyle!
Along the same vein as riding alone to music, quadrille DEFINITELY gets you out of your own head. You will most likely need someone orchestrating the whole shebang from the ground, but it is worth it. Horses, especially young horses, love working with their fellows. This is a great way to get comfortable with warmups at shows, build confidence in the both of you and build camaraderie with your barn mates.
Three: Turn Out
Many people believe that the chance of injury to a very expensive horse is too great to turn out. I firmly disagree. Turn out should be a part of every horse’s life. It is where you as the owner get to see them as horses, in the purest form that we can manage. They get to roll and stretch their backs, socialize with their fellows, soak up some vitamin D and frisk about. I love to watch horses I know playing and bouncing around in the turnout. They get to be themselves and you have the privilege of watching. Just make sure that you boot them properly and if you have an exuberant horse, perhaps wait until after they have been worked the first few times.
Two: Spa Day
These are great for those hot summer days. The horses are refreshed and clean, the owners are wet and dirty…. But really these days give you a chance to really go over your horse. What do his or her legs look like? Are there any new bumps or swellings? Was that patch there last week? This takes grooming to the whole next level. It makes sense for you as the horse’s owner to have an idea of what your horse’s body baseline is. Just make sure that these check in days happen AFTER the turn out.
One: Be There
After all this is said and done, the more you can be there for your horse, the better. A few years ago I owned a very insecure and neurotic horse. I spent a huge amount of time with him, working to build our relationship. I groomed him, tacked him up, fed him, gave him biweekly massages, bathed him etc. This went on for months, until one day I was working and a freak hail storm came through the area. The hail was as large as marbles and crashed on the metal roof of the barn. This created a level of noise that I did not think was possible. I ran to my horse and found him in a panic. Against logic (and I do not recommend this) I entered the stall to stand with him, and began massaging. At the start he would not stand and his muscles were rock hard. But minute after minute passed and he slowed down his pacing. He was still trembling but he let me handle him and after the storm had passed, let me calm him. As I felt the tone leave his muscles, smelling the ice in the air and thinking about what had just happened, I knew that I would not have been able to bring him back to me had I not put in those countless hours of building our relationship. I knew to run to him and I knew how to calm him. He knew my voice and to associate me with structure and security. Be there for your horse, and they will respond.