Be more efficient
1. Put together a plan of what you want to achieve when you’re in the saddle and stick to it. Set timers on your phone to vibrate or beep when it’s time to move on to the next stage of your session.
2. On some days, see whether a friend on a similar schedule can bring your horse in or even tack him up so he’s ready to go as soon as you arrive at the yard. If you’re lucky enough to have access to a horse walker, maybe they can put him on for 10 minutes before you arrive so that he’s warmed up, too. Come to an arrangement where you’ll do the same for them on another day, turn their horse out in the morning in exchange, or offer to do the evening feeds after you’ve ridden.
3. If you want to do some jumping, set up your grid or course in advance. Try to tie in with someone else on your yard so you can help each other – many hands make light work.
4. A rug with a full neck will minimise the amount of mud or stable stains you’ll have to brush off before you can tack up. Alternatively, choose a Lycra hood or bodysuit, which will also keep his coat lovely and sleek.
5. There’s no such thing as being too prepared. Get out your diary now and start planning your competition season for when spring arrives. If he’s not been working as hard over the winter, decide when you’ll need to start upping your horse’s fitness levels and how you plan to do it. Get organised now before competition dates clash with other things in your diary, like holidays, parties and family obligations.
6. If your grazing is good enough, why not switch around your routine so your horse is in during the day and out at night? Not only will this mean he has more time in the field, it will also save you time because he’ll be in his stable when you want to ride after work. It may be colder at night, but layering or buying him a thicker rug should solve that problem.
Spice up your riding
7. If you don’t have an arena with lights, investigate local indoor ones for hire. Not only will this mean you don’t have to worry about riding in the dark, but it’s also great practice for when you go competing or have lessons. Splitting the hire price with a friend will make it less expensive, too.
8. Try something new! If you and your horse are stuck in the same dull routine, have a go a something different – for example, hunting or horse agility. It’s a great way to meet new people and improve your partnership with your horse. You could also look for yards that offer lessons in polo, side-saddle or Western riding – you never know, you may get hooked!
9. Have you been struggling with something in your schoolwork? Book a set of lessons with a local instructor to guide you through it. You could also arrange to have a lesson on a schoolmaster at your local riding school to boost your confidence.
10. If Charlotte and Valegro’s recent success has got you inspired, why not try dressage to music? Video your horse in walk, trot and canter, and spend some time when you can’t ride putting together a floorplan. The music should match the rhythm of his footfalls and try to choose something that compliments his personality. It also has to be a tune that you’re happy to listen to over and over again, as you’ll want to practise your routine many times before you debut it in public.
11. If deep ground is getting you down, why not book a visit to some local all-weather gallops? Not only can you and your horse have a blast, but you’ll be safe in the knowledge that he’s less likely to pick up an injury.
12. Lungeing and long-reining can be great alternatives if you don’t have enough time to go for a ride, and they’ll help to improve your schooling, too. However, don’t just let your horse amble around, instead ask for plenty of transitions and ensure he has the correct bend, just as you would if you were riding him. Begin each session with a plan of what you want to achieve and finish with a goal for next time.
13. If he’s on limited or no turnout over winter, ditch riding for an evening in favour of taking him out for some hand-grazing. Not only will he appreciate the grass, it allows him a chance to get some fresh air and stretch his legs, too. Doing this with a friend and their horse will also give him some social interaction, which he’ll be lacking in his stable, and you’ll have somebody to chat with, too.
14. Take a stool and sit with your horse while he’s in his stable. Even just 20 minutes of peace and quiet can help you unwind after the stresses of the day, and it will improve your bond, too. Why not take a book to read? Russian Olympic dressage rider, Inessa Merkulova, reportedly spent up to an hour and a half at a time reading to her horse, Mister X, in Rio – apparently, he favours romance novels! If Fifty Shades of Grey isn’t to your horse’s taste, however, he may prefer the latest issue of H&R.
15. Every horse has a particular itchy place where he loves to be scratched, so take the time to find that magic spot on your horse. Use your hands or a rubber massage tool to explore his body with gentle pressure. The most common area is around his withers, as this is where horses mutually groom each other within a herd. Indications you’ve found it include a chewing action, lowering his neck, tilting his head and a drooping lower lip.
16. If he’s spending more time inside, stable toys are a great way to provide your horse with some mental stimulation. You don’t have to spend lots of money, though – here are some DIY alternatives that will help promote foraging behaviour…
- hang willow, hazel and other edible, leafy branches around his stable
- put apples in his water bucket so he can bob for them
- hide slices of apple and carrot in his haynet
- divide his hay ration into several smaller nets and spread them around his stable
- string together carrots, apples, swedes and turnips to hang in his stable, or skewer slices onto tree branches
- offer several different fibre feeds, such as chopped fibre, soaked sugar beet or grass nuts, in different buckets around his stable
- wash out a large, empty milk carton and cut a few small holes in the bottom, then fill it with a handful or two of pelleted feed and hang it from the ceiling with a rope. When your horse investigates the carton, the pellets should fall out in a similar way to a trickle treat ball
- hide treats or pieces of carrot inside an old cereal box and leave it on the floor of his stable
17. Treat your horse to the type of full-on, 45-minute groom that was drilled into so many of us by The Pony Club. After picking out his feet, use a dandy brush or rubber curry comb to remove dirt and scurf from his coat. Start at his poll and work over his whole body and legs, avoiding sensitive areas or clipped coat that might be irritated. Work in a circular motion, employing plenty of elbow grease! Next, work on his mane using your fingers or a wide-toothed comb, untangling a few strands at a time. Starting at the ends and working up to the roots should help prevent hair breakage, and you can use a detangling spray to loosen knots. Once you’ve finished, use a body brush to reach right through your horse’s coat and remove dirt and dust. Use a metal curry comb to clean the bristles of the brush after every few strokes. You can also use the body brush or a paddle brush on his tail a few strands at a time. With several sponges and some warm water, clean his eyes, nose and dock, taking care to stand safely to the side while working around your horse’s hind end. Finally, give him a rub over with a stable rubber or microfibre cloth to polish his coat and make it shine, and add hoof moisturiser for a finishing touch.
18. Groundwork stretches are a great way to strengthen and supple your horse, helping to maintain and even improve muscle tone when you can’t ride as often. They also help to mobilise his joints, and improve balance, flexibility and self-carriage. Sometimes known as carrot stretches, these exercises use bait – usually a carrot – to encourage your horse to assume various positions, including bringing his chin…
- to his chest
- down to his knees
- to his girth
- down to his fetlocks
- to his flank
- down towards his hind fetlock
Each position should ideally be held for several seconds and repeated three to five times before moving on to the next one. As your horse gains strength and confidence, you’ll be able to push the stretches further, such as encouraging him to put his chin between and beyond his knees, rather than just touching them. If you’re unsure, ask a professional for advice.
19. Keep all your kit in clearly-labelled plastic boxes and make sure everything goes back into the correct box when you’ve finished using it. This means you won’t waste time hunting for that elusive pair of brushing boots when you could be halfway through your schooling session. If you have more than one horse, colour-code your kit with tags or electrical tape so that you know at a glance who it belongs to.
20. The colder weather means vermin will be looking for a cosy place to hole up for winter. Make sure your feed bags are in vermin-proof bins, store treats in Tupperware boxes so they don’t become a tasty snack and sweep your feed room floor regularly. If vermin become a real problem, consider setting traps – you can buy humane ones – or many animal charities now offer stable cats for adoption. These are cats that either don’t appreciate human contact or are unsuitable for living in a house, and they only need feeding, somewhere warm and dry to sleep, and veterinary attention if required.
21. Have a thorough audit of all your tack and kit, and sort out any bits that you don’t need or haven’t used in a while. Donate these to a horsey charity or sell them at your local tack sale – you may even find a few bargain items you do need while you’re there!
22. Of the things you do keep, make sure they’re in proper working order and stored correctly. Repair any damage to your rugs, and have them sent away to be professionally cleaned and reproofed – some rug wash companies also offer a repair service. When they’re clean, store your rugs in clearly-labelled vacuum bags so they take up less space, and will stay clean and tidy until they’re needed again.
23. Take all your tack home, including the bits you don’t use everyday, and give them a thorough clean with an old, soft scourer. Check all the stitching – a cobbler or your saddler may be able to make repairs to loose or broken threads.
24. Make up a week’s worth of haynets and feeds in one go to save time during the week. If you don’t use haynets, store each portion in an old feed bag so you can tip it straight into your horse’s manger. Feed portions can be stored in Tupperware containers or sealed sandwich bags, but take care as some supplements can only be added just before feeding – check the instructions on the packaging if you’re not sure.
25. Go through your human and equine first-aid kits. Make sure there’s nothing missing and that all products are within their use-by dates. If your first-aid skills are a little rusty, practise the different types of bandaging or putting somebody in the recovery position, and read up on how to do common tasks such as poulticing and taking your horse’s temperature. Get together with some friends at the yard so you can quiz each other – there are some great videos on the Horse&Rider YouTube channel to get you started.
26. As you’re probably going out and about less over the winter, take the time to give your lorry or trailer some attention. On a dry and bright day, give it a thorough wash, both inside and out, then take it to an experienced mechanic and have the floor, tyres and lights checked. It’s often easier to get appointments with a mechanic in winter, as there’s less demand, so if your lorry’s plate expires in the spring, consider moving it to a late winter slot instead. This means that you’ll be ready and raring to go at the start of the competition season.
Out of the saddle
27. Get together with other people on your yard and organise a talk from a local equine professional, such as a vet, farrier or physio. It’s a good chance to brush up on your knowledge, and you can turn it into a practical session by including a demonstration.
28. Work out if your horse needs to gain, maintain or lose condition over winter. Many feed companies offer a yard service with a portable weighbridge or see if your local veterinary surgery has one you can use. Combine this with body condition scoring, which uses a five or 10-point scale to determine whether your horse is over- or underweight. Regular body condition scoring will also help you spot if his weight starts to creep the wrong way. The Blue Cross has a helpful guide to condition scoring your horse on their website, so visit bluecross.org.uk to find out more.
29. With many horses needing adjustments to their feeding plans over winter, now is a good time to sit down and review what goes into his bucket feed. Check your feed bags and supplements to make sure he’s getting everything he needs and you aren’t doubling up anywhere. With new products appearing on the market all the time, there may be a new one out that does the job more effectively or with better value for money. Speak to your chosen feed company if you’re unsure and they’ll be able to help you formulate the perfect ration.
30. Challenge yourself to polish your skills. See if there are any demos or talks happening in your local area. Many equine colleges and equestrian centres offer training courses in practical skills such as clipping or lungeing, or you can improve your general horse knowledge with a theory course such as the British Horse Society’s Horse Owners Certificate scheme.
31. Spend an evening investigating your horse’s family tree. If he’s registered with a studbook or breed society, he should have the first few branches already in his passport – sometimes up to seven generations are included. To go further back, or find other foals by the same dam or sire, search online or contact his studbook – you never know, he may have some famous relatives. Social media can also be a great help, too. See if his breed society has a Facebook page and reach out to other members to find out if anybody owns a half-brother or half-sister. It might be surprising how many relatives he has out there.
32. Get your Ordnance Survey (OS) map out and plan some new hacking routes. Horses are permitted to use bridleways, which are marked with long green dashes, and byways, which are marked with green crosses. Riding on footpaths is only allowed if you have the express permission of the landowner. You can download OS maps onto an app on your phone, which also allows you to plan a route, and gives you an idea of distance and the length of time it will take to complete.
33. Brush up on your horsey knowledge by visiting the Horse&Rider YouTube channel, where you’ll find loads of great videos with advice from the experts on how to improve your riding and management skills. Here are just five examples to get you inspired…
Or download our app, where you can buy past issues or some of our standalone training series, such as gridwork with John Smart or training the young dressage horse with Dan Greenwood. You can find both of these and loads more at pocketmags.com
Get away from things
34. We spend a lot of time thinking about the fitness of our horses, but what about our own? Although it may be tempting to huddle up on the sofa on a cold, winter’s evening, challenge yourself to get active – join a Pilates or yoga class, or look back at our ‘Fit to ride’ series. Keep it up and you’ll soon see an improvement in your riding. If you’re struggling to find motivation, involve some friends from the yard so you can get fit together and have fun at the same time.
35. If you’re struggling for time, consider getting a sharer to help you out. Try to find somebody through word of mouth or put an honest ad up in your local tack shop. Ask for references and arrange a trial period to make sure you’re happy with your potential sharer. A contract is also advisable so that your arrangement is in writing. Having a sharer can take the pressure off having to see your horse every evening and, as sharers normally pay a contribution towards upkeep, can ease the financial pressure, too.
36. To get your horsey fix away from the yard, try going to a point-to-point meet or go as a foot follower with your local hunt. All-weather racetracks usually have winter fixtures and some will run evening racing during the week.
37. Winter on the yard can feel like an endless struggle. To cheer everybody up, ditch the dirty wellies, scrub the scurf from under your nails and organise a fun evening with your friends at the yard. Going out for a nice meal, a drink at the pub or a night on the dance floor can lift your spirits and help you bond as a group.
38. Do something for less-fortunate equines by arranging a fundraiser at your yard. A bake sale, Christmas fayre or quiz are potential ways to raise money, or you could get together with some friends to do a sponsored ride, poo-pick or tack cleaning marathon.
39. It’s hard to feel blue about winter when you’re galloping down a deserted beach with the tide lapping at your horse’s hooves, so go on a day trip to your local beach or plan a horsey mini-break somewhere further afield. The British Horse Society have a downloadable guide to beach riding on their website, including a list of beaches that allow horses. It can be found at bhs.org.uk
40. Everybody needs a night off, so don’t guilt-trip yourself if you need some time away from the yard. As long as his other needs are met, your horse isn’t going to be too disappointed with an evening off or even a week’s holiday. If you’re really struggling, give him some time off over the winter and bring him back into work in the spring when you have more time and the weather is better.