During the winter period mostly the paddocks are frozen and any tempo faster than walking is nothing but suicide. This is anything but motivating and also horses easily get bored, dissatisfied and frustrated. Everyone is just waiting for the end of the winter.
Only some riders are lucky and have a riding area which offers perfect riding possibilities also in winter. However many horse owners have to search for alternatives because riding on areas covered with snow, mud or frost is anything but fun. Nevertheless you can use this time of the year for some training units in ground work. The exercises have many positive effects: they strengthen the relationship between horse and rider and bend and prepare the horse for the summer. Moreover many exercises train the horses´ concentration and discipline.
The trainer must have warm clothes (especially warm and thick shoes) and a lot of motivation. Then you need some ground bars (especially in yellow or blue), your horse, a caveson, a snaffle and a halter. Additionally it is really useful to have some creative ideas. We want to give some input and present the creative ideas from Claudia Obenhaus from Bielefeld in Germany.
Basic training unit: horse lowers his head
It is really useful if the horse learns to lower his head on command. You can use this exercise to get his attention or to simply clarify your dominance. The horse learns to stay in this position and wait patiently for your further instructions. A lowered head is the base for many different training units. If the horse does not keep this position during the exercise it is crucial to get it back. The rider needs to stay calm and start the whole training unit from the beginning on. If the head of the horse is up in the air he does not pay attention to the trainer but is unconcentrated and nervous.
The entire learning process can take some time. Patience of horse and rider are the most important prerequisites. Additionally the rider needs to reward the horse because this a great motivation for the him and therefore a recipe for success. You stand in front of the horse and carefully pull the robe in the direction of the ground. As soon as the horse lightly lowers his head you stop the pressure with the robe and show the horse that he did a good a job and behaved in the right way (e.g. treats). We recommend to combine this exercise with a certain commando of the voice. This makes it easier for the horse to remember the whole exercise and to know what you want him to do. In most of the cases horses learn very quickly and understand that they are asked to lower their head as soon as they feel the light pressure towards the ground.
The lowered head is important for the activation of certain parts of the muscles. It activates the neck muscles and therefore also back muscles. The latter is needed to carry the rider on the back of the horse. Referring to this it must do a great job and needs a special training. The whole exercise is senseless if the horses´ head is lowered but turned into a certain direction. In this case the rider must react quickly and try to get the neck into a parallel and straight position. A turned or twisted neck does not activate muscles but causes cramps in the neck muscles and the cervical vertebrae.
Beginners should start with the ground training method invented by Michael Geitner. This special training is about the activation of the two sides of the brain and therefore a kind of brain jogging for horses. Through the help of reciprocal stimulations both sides of the brain become activated. For this kind of activation it is very helpful to use yellow or blue bars because these are the two colors which stimulate the horse best. Michael Geitner only makes use of these two colors. The bars are on the ground (parallel to each other) and there only is a little distance between them (lane). It is helpful if the bars are filled with foam because this prevents injuries in case of stepping on them. If you want to increase the level of difficulty you can easily reduce the distance between the two bars.
In this training unit the horse learns to turn his hindquarters around his forehand. This means that the hind legs move in a semicircle around the front legs. The front legs keep their position (they should not step to the side, front or back) and just turn with the movement of the whole body.
In the next step you take two bars and position them in a right angle. Then you ride parallel to the one bar until you reach the cross bar. The horse stops and stands in this position. The rider tries to lower the head of the horse. When the head is lowered and the horse is completely concentrated the rider starts with the exercise “turn on the forehand”. The horse turns his hindquarters around his forehand until he stands parallel to the second ground bar. All steps need to be carried out really carefully and with full concentration. It is crucial that the horse reacts on the commands of the rider and does not do the exercise on his own.
If you do this exercise for the first times you should guide your horse. Only if the horse already understood how the training unit works you can start to ride. In general it can be a long process until the horse finally understands what to do and how to behave. Therefore it is crucial that the rider stays patient and tries to motivate the horse even in case of failure.
Walking along a line
For this exercise you simply take to ground bars and lay them in a line on the ground. The first aim is to simply guide the horse along the line. This means that the rider walks before the horse and shows him how to walk along the line. The rider is the direct example for the horse: If he does not walk confidently or not directly next to the bars the horse will do the same. When the horse understood what he is asked to do you can also ride the whole exercise.
In the next step you practice leg-yield. The horse stands in front of the line in an angle of 45°. The trainer stands on the other side of the line and uses a riding crop as a help to lead the horse in the laterally movement along the line. During the whole exercise the horse needs to keep his body in an angle of 45° and his head low. At the end of the ground line you stop and turn the horse on his forehand. Then you lead the horse the whole way back along the ground line.
With this exercise the horse learns to react and move laterally when the rider give the respective commands. Additionally the laterally movement activates the stomach muscles which are connected with the mandible. Therefore an activation of the muscles also activates the chewing process and this leads to relaxation and well-being.
Turn on forehand and hindquarters in a square
Take four ground bars and position them in a square on the ground. The bars have to be long enough because the horse needs enough space inside the square. Guide or ride your horse inside the square until he stands parallel to one of the bars. The horses´ head is low and lightly bent into one corner of the square. Then you start with the first turn on the forehand. When the horse stands parallel to the second bar you continue with a turn on the hindquarters. In the next step you do again a turn on the forehand and then again on the hindquarters. After four turnings your horse has the initial position.
This may sound easy but in fact it is not. You need a lot of concentration, endurance and patience until you have a first success. Before every turn on the forehand or the hindquarters you need to make sure that the horse lowers his head. Therefore the whole exercise has many single steps which are important for the concentration of the horse. The animal has to react and move to different sides and the visual stimulations change all the time from one eye to the other. These are many things the horse has to deal with and the horses´ brain has a lot to do. Referring to this it is really normal that it takes many times until the horse will be completely able to turn on forehand and hindquarters inside the square.
Take two ground bars and position them in the form of a parking bay: two bars are parallel and the third one is the connection on the one end. The aim is to guide or ride the horse backwards into the parking bay until the horse stands with his hindquarters directly before the cross bar. The horse needs to keep this position for several seconds before he then walks out of the bay. This exercise is more difficult than you might expect.
You start with a volte in front of the parking bay. Then you catch the attention and concentration of the horse what means that the horse has to lower his head. When the horse keeps this position for at least one minute you can begin to lead or ride him backwards into the bay. Step by step the horse comes closer to the cross bar. He horse gets the impression that he also is asked to step over the cross bar and activates his hind muscles of his hindquarters. Instead however the horse shall stop right in front of the cross bar and just keep the tension inside of the body. The rider slowly counts until eight (if your horse generally is really nervous it will be difficult enough to count until three or four). Then you slowly guide or ride him outside the parking bay. You can increase the level of difficulty if you reduce the distance between the two parallel ground bars. In cases of good weather you can give the commando not to walk but to trot out of the parking bay.
Lunging your horse- warm up
In this exercise not only the horse but also the rider moves and warms up- this is good against cold feet! Just take eight ground bars and position them in a square (every single side has two parallel bars so that there are small lanes). This training unit activates both visual sides of the horse and bents him in different directions.
There are two different ways to lunge the horse. The first one is to simply stand in the middle of the circle and lunge the horse. In this case the rider stands on one point and just turns his body towards the direction of the horse. When there are minus degrees this can be really cold for the trainer because he does not move much and easily gets cold feet. In this case you can make use of the second lunging method. For this method the square has to become a bit wider so that there is enough distance between each lane. The trainer runs next to the horse (outside the lane). In each corner the trainer guides the horse outside the lane and bents him into a small volte before entering the next lane. Horse and trainer have to be highly concentrated. The horse gets perfectly bent because his body position always changes between different positions.
The second lunging method does not only move and warm up the trainer but also strengthen the relationship between horse and trainer. The horse feels that the trainer wants to support him and that he is not alone. You could compare this to the behavior of a stallion in his herd who always tries to accompany and keep together all members of his herd. During the volte however the trainer stands still in the middle of the circle and just holds the lunge.
To sum up: with the help of some creativity you can use the cold and dark winter period for some effective training units. They bent the horse and therefore prepare him for maximum performances in summer. Moreover many exercises strengthen the relationship between horse and rider because the rider can clarify his dominance and at the same time show the horse that he can rely and trust him. Just try out some training units and invent your own ones- have fun with the experimentation!
- Ground training: exercises with colorful ground bars activate the awareness of horses
- The importance of the right communication between horse and rider- how to understand the body language of the horse
- Get past the fear: training units that help horses to overcome their anxieties- Part 1
- A recipe for success: Praising your horse