I confess I’m not a big fan of New Year’s resolutions, for a number of reasons. One of the reasons, however, that I really dislike them is because people make vague resolutions with no plan on accomplishing their goal, then give up after a short time. There are a lot of good intentions, a lot of pomp and circumstance, but little follow-through. In addition, it is also expected that people will fail to meet their goal or even follow through on their resolutions.
This year, however, I am thinking differently. Specifically, I think a resolution that people should have is to make a goal to do one different thing every month with their horse.
How can doing things differently help you and your horse? There are a number of reasons:
Get out of that rut you’re in
Those of us who have been riding for a number of years have definitely experienced this, but even those riding for a few months have experienced the banality of the sameness of riding. It could be that your exercise warm-up is the same, or you’re still working on how to approach the jump, or you’ve ridden the same trails that you (and your horse) could literally ride them blindfolded. If you’re bored with the sameness of your riding, however, think about how bored your horse is!
Help prevent your horse from acting out
Your horse is an intelligent, sentient animal. He (or she) will enjoy a sense of security with some level of repetition, but if he does the same thing day in and day out, he is going to act out. I’ve seen horses in lesson programs, vaulting programs and therapeutic riding programs start acting out because they are bored out of their minds. When their routine is changed up slightly, however, they go back to their docile temperaments.
Get past training issues
Maybe you are having difficulty getting the right lead; maybe your horse rushes his transitions. When a human wants to improve, we will do the same thing over and over again until we get it right. There have been a number of psychological studies, however, that have shown that when people are having difficulties trying to master a skill, it is often helpful to step away and do something else for a short time, and then revisit practicing the skill at a later date. Doing the same thing over and over again can be helpful, but it can also be repetitive and boring. The horse gets bored and frustrated, the human gets frustrated and stressed. The more we fail at the skill, the more stressed we get, the more practice we do, but because we are so stressed out, the more we fail. It’s a never-ending loop. I’m not saying to ignore working on those issues you need to work on; I’m saying take a short break and do something else. Obviously work within your experience and only do something that is safe with your horse, but doing something different will break up that monotony. Maybe you will find afterward that you’re able to do better at the skill; maybe you won’t. Either way, you’ll have done something fun and different that can help to break up the tedium of constant drilling.
Ideas of what to do differently
- Ride to music
- This may seem silly, but riding to music is incredibly beneficial. For example, you and your horse will naturally move to the same beat, helping you work more effectively together. Make sure you find music that has a strong beat, but not one too fast as it may stress out your horse. I’ve noticed that horses seem to prefer different genres of music, so take some time and see what music your horse enjoys. For example, Tamahome prefers country western, but doesn’t like folk, so we compromise on Lorena McKennitt.
- Go on a trail ride
- Horses often enjoy getting away from the barn, although some can become barn sour. If your horse is one of these, it can be less fun than a more laid-back horse, but it is something else to work on. Some horses do better in a group- if you do not have the option of riding with a group, then ponying a calm horse next to you can help to reduce the stress of being out on the trail alone.
- Go for a walk
- As in, don’t ride. Just walk your horse as if he were a dog. Let him sniff those interesting things you don’t let him sniff when you’re riding. Let him examine his reflection in that shiny trailer you try to pass by quickly. Let him take a few bites of grass. If he pulls, then this is a great time to practice ground manners that you have allowed to get lax because you’ve been concentrating on riding. Make sure he walks appropriately next to you and doesn’t drag you in his quest of examining his environment.
- Teach your horse tricks
- There are number of books and websites out there that show you how to teach your horse to say yes, pick up his foot, turn his head, bow, etc. Make sure you keep your lessons short and positive, and reward your horse after each session.
- Ride a gymkhana course (slowly)
- I’m not talking about taking your dressage horse full speed through poles, but they are good for practicing your bending. Going around barrels can help you pick up the correct lead on your canter. If you do compete in gymkhana, change it up a little- for example, go through the poles backwards.
- Ride bareback
- Not all horses are safe bareback- and some are downright uncomfortable, no matter how many pads are on. If your horse has the right temperament, however, try hopping on in a round pen or small arena, and work up to trotting and cantering without a saddle. I will warn you, however- you will be reminded of all of the muscles you *should* be using while riding in a saddle!
- Practice something else
- Several years ago we took in a horse, Delilah, who had been used as a polo horse for a while. She had neither the conformation nor the mindset for such a stressful discipline. As a result, she would tense up and get very stressed when I asked for the trot and even more when I asked for the canter. This stress and tension would last the rest of the entire ride- for whatever reason, she associated the canter with a negative emotion. I finally decided not to canter under saddle- at all. We walked and trotted ONLY for a month, until she was relaxed from the beginning of the ride to the end. When we had several positive rides, I started asking for the canter, and within a few weeks she was just as relaxed cantering under saddle as she was trotting. Stepping away from the “thing” that is causing you or your horse stress and revisiting it after you’ve had several positive rides will help to solidify your relationship, and stop obsessing over whatever it is that is causing that stress.
- Take up a new sport
- Last year I took Tamahome down to San Diego and practiced horse archery with the Sagittarii Horse Archers. It was a great deal of fun, and I set up a hay bale in our arena and will practice a bit with Tamahome every now and again. I’m never going to be an amazing archer, but it’s fun and different. The SCA has a number of different medieval events that you can try out with your horse. You can even purchase a polo mallet and practice hitting balls into a goal in your arena. You can even make up your own games. Just remember to introduce your horse slowly to any new equipment, and don’t rush it- enjoy the fun- don’t use it up all at once!
- Introduce sensory items
- If I see a horse spook at something, you can bet I’ll stop whatever I’m doing and spend the next 10 minutes getting that horse to pretty much ignore whatever it is that is scaring him. I think it’s better to introduce random sensory items a little at a time, however, than to take a horse to a clinic where his poor little brain is blown to pieces. For example, introduce your horse to an umbrella, then hold it while exercising him in the round pen. Your horse will eventually either get bored with new things you offer, or look for the carrot that often accompanies new and potentially scary things!
- Practice a different discipline for a day
- If you’re a western rider, try riding a training level dressage test. If you’re a dressage rider, try practicing some low-level trail trial obstacles, like going over a bridge, or closing a gate. I’ve always come away with a better appreciation of riders of other disciplines by trying to ride theirs.
- Use your imagination
- Don’t feel pigeonholed by what others have done- use your best judgment and always think of safety first, but overall, have fun. The more fun you have, the more fun your horse will have, too.