Here in Northwest Montana, we have settled into our typical winter routines. Short, bleak days with less than ideal footing. Morning and evening chores are done in the dark and about the only time you get to see your horses in the daylight is on weekends.

What’s a horse person to do? Unless you have access to an indoor arena, quality horse time can be somewhat limited. But there are options. Don’t let those limits stop you from working with your horse. Now is the time to get out there and ‘do nothing’ with your horse.

Let me clarify, every interaction with your horse is doing something. It may feel like or look like you are doing nothing with your horse, but it all has meaning. Many times people get stuck in the notion that they have to be doing arena work, jumping fences or chasing cows, etc. …but it’s taking small bits and pieces and working on improving them which make the big stuff better.

Here are some simple ideas to get you going:

  1. Feeding time- You always have to be careful and mindful during feeding times, some horses get quite excited about their groceries, but this is an excellent opportunity to strengthen the relationship with your horse. Ask that your horse maintain a safe, respectful distance from the feed pile you just placed on the ground. This can be done with a flag, waving your hands in the air or slapping your hands together to keep them back. Once they present an ears up attentive look, allow them to approach and eat. You can then remain standing by the pile for a few minutes and pet or scratch them. This is a great bonding time and it also provides you the opportunity to give your horse the once over to check for cuts, scrapes, swelling or any other possible issues that are hard to see this time of year due to the lack of day light. This is how I noticed a nasty skin fungus on one of my geldings last winter. He packs on an extremely heavy coat and unless I check him closely, some issues go undetected. It’s easy for things to go undetected if I don’t take the time to check him over regularly beyond a glance that he is on all four feet in the pasture.
  2. Hind quarter and front quarter Releases- Halter your horse up and work them through some releases on the ground. Hind and fore quarter releases are always better in the saddle when we polish them and create increased sensitivity from the ground. Work on leading them around. Work on hand trotting alongside of you. Do you have to pull them with the lead rope, or will they come with you on a loose lead? Do they try to get ahead of you? Working on the hind and front releases also goes along ways to teaching them to use their hind quarters better, for things such as rollbacks or canter departs. If you can get it going on the ground, it will be better in the saddle.
  3. Hot Spots- It is surprising to me how many times I work with a horse that is supposedly dead quiet and described as “been there, done that”. Most horses have hot spots or in other words, areas that bother them to have you touch or have anything close to. An example is having his /her ears touched, or maybe your horse is head shy. Can you work your horse around a tarp or walk him /her over a tarp? What about their feet being handled? Is your horse well behaved for the farrier?  What about their tail? Can you lift their tail with no tension?

When you’re working around your horse, think about how he reacts to things and then find a way to work on making these things less of a trouble spot for him. It will build your relationship and trust with your horse if he can learn that he doesn’t have to be afraid or worried about something.

Be careful and mindful of the footing, but beyond that you are limited only by your imagination. Stay safe and warm and have fun with your horse. He’s probably just as bored with the weather and lack of activity as you are!

Thanks for reading

Tom Kelner