It's that time of year for us Northern folks. As the ground in the arena goes from brown to white and the needles on the Tamaracks cover more dirt than branch we start thinking about laying off our horses for winter. While many people do continue to ride in the winter, just as many pull the shoes on their horses and don't climb on again until the round pen thaws enough to "restart" them in the spring.
Luckily we are no longer in the camp that has to forgo riding for the winter months. We are blessed to be able to board a few horses at a local barn so that we can continue to work on some training through the winter. It's gone a long way towards keeping us sane during those long cold months.
But, even though we aren't laying off our horses completely in the winter it still is a time for reflection. We look back on our year with our horses and take stock of where we started and where we would like to go next year. We check off goals that were attained and set new ones for both rider and horse.
Often in the rush of late summer and fall riding I tend to get distracted a bit with just riding. I love to get out in the mountains and cover ground and just be with my horse seeing new country. Especially as the daylight and nice weather start dwindling I spend less and less time in the training pen. While it's a great way to put miles and exposure on your horse, there isn't always much training that occurs on the trail. Winter time is a time for me to slow down and concentrate on where we are and how we are going to move forward. It's also a time for me to concentrate on just one horse at a time. In the summer I am rotating between my horses trying to keep the time spent with each of them equal. In the winter I board one at a time, usually for 30-60 days and concentrate on just that one horse for that time.
One of the tools that we use in the winter months to fix any holes in our horses or ourselves is the Pyramid of Training. This illustration is provided by Cowboy Dressage. You can call it any number of different things and the concept is anything but new. Buster McLaury spent quite a bit of time during our clinic this past summer relaying a story that Ray Hunt used to tell his students about the importance of building the foundation. You can't spend too much time on foundational training because it's what holds every thing else you do together.
In the world of horsemanship, foundational training starts on the ground. This where you teach the abc's and communication between horse and handler. It doesn't matter if your horse is 2 or 20, there are times when going back to the ground to reiterate certain points is immeasurably valuable. We spend a lot of time doing groundwork exercises during our winter months. Every single thing that you do with your horse in the saddle you should be able to do on the ground as well. If you can't do it on the ground, how do you expect your horse to do it in the saddle? This foundation of communication is so important with a young horse. If you don't establish the communication, trust and bond in a young horse through careful handling on the ground, everything else you do with him will be a waste of energy. It's like skipping kindergarten and going to algebra. You may be able to hammer the concepts in with enough time and repetition but why do that to your horse? Teach your horse to learn and he will reward you with better attention, try and heart throughout your time together.
For me, in my winter training, this is where I get really picky about my groundwork. I want exact foot placement in my groundwork. I want to stop a foot in midair and direct it's footfall. Often in the summer I am too anxious to just get out and ride and let some of this stuff get sloppy. Winter is a great opportunity to slow down and concentrate in a quiet setting.
Another thing that we spend a ton of time on in our winter training is transitions. This is the next level up on the pyramid. Walk, jog, stop, back. You cannot do too much of this. If you spend a half hour in the saddle and all you do is walk, jog, stop, back transitions with as much lightness and softness as possible, you will be further along in your training than if you had done an hour of loping patterns and working on flying lead changes. The key here is building lightness and communication. If you have to beat your horse into a slow lazy jog lacking in energy and then drag him down again to a stop and back you are not capturing the essence of this exercise. Over and over again ask your self, "How little does it take?" Can you move that horse up into a jog through just raising the energy in your body? Can you bring him back down again by just stopping riding in the saddle? What about foot fall patterns? Close your eyes and feel where those feet are landing. How can you direct the feet without knowing which foot is off the ground? You have to remember that it's not IF you can get it done with your horse, it's HOW you get it done. You want to get to the point where you think it with your body and they respond. It becomes a game to see how closely your horse is listening. You'll be surprised at how closely they pay attention when you still the other chatter that usually clutters our riding. Make the horse responsible for listening to you and making that change rather than forcing the response from your horse with your hands or feet.
Once your horse has begun to master these things in a straight line, you can begin work on softness and suppleness. Lateral suppleness comes first in the pyramid. I almost hate to even go on to talk about the peak of the pyramid because so many people want to jump up to this level before they and their horse are ready. It's like the flying lead change. Everybody wants to do it before they can even really lope a circle. There is a reason that these things are at the top of the pyramid. Lateral softness should start with your horse in the groundwork so that when you begin to work on it under saddle it makes sense to the horse. Suppleness and bend isn't just referring to the head and neck but to the entire body. With good lateral flexion through the rib cage you can create a very arced horse that curves around your leg in a small circle. By getting lateral flexion through the hips you can achieve a haunches in. Lateral flexion in the shoulder creates a shoulder in. Each of these body parts should be soft and easy to direct.
Finally at the top of the pyramid is soft feel. Now, I think of soft feel in every interaction with my horse, but in this illustration we are specifically talking about what other people think of as vertical flexion. This is asking the horse to get soft in the bridle, shorten his body by rounding his back and stepping his hind end underneath him. This is the beginning of true collection and is something that must be built slowly one step at a time. You can't hold a horse in soft feel. You can ask him to come to you and you can reward him doing so but if you try to hold him there without him holding himself you create a brace and false flexion by breaking at the 3rd vertebrae or creating a horse who is heavy on the front end and has his energy fall out behind him. Soft feel in true horsemanship where lightness is valued beyond everything else is like a ballet dancer going on point. It takes years of preparation and training and building the proper form and discipline before you can do it right. It's not something you can master in 30 days.
The Pyramid of Training is also a great illustration because it emphasizes how much relative time you should be spending on each of these exercises with a horse that is the beginning stages of training or retraining. With my 3 year old (when he goes into light training this spring) I will be spending the majority of my time at the ground levels working on basics of communication. He'll get a short session of work under saddle with some forward movement and transitions. Then at the end of my session I usually do a short suppling exercise and work on breaking the hind end over and bringing the head and neck around laterally. The last thing I work on at the end of our riding session is just the very beginnings of soft feel. I'll pick up on the bosal just a little until I feel him soften and shift his weight backwards. Then we're done.
I have specific goals in place for each of my horses for their winter work. We enjoy the leisurely time together just hanging out in the indoor arena with friends who are also dodging the weather. It's a great time for exploring new techniques, trying different exercises and experimenting with mastering footfall. So, while I hate to see the summer come to an end, it's kind of like the excitement of starting a new school year. Class is in session!