When it's wet, cold and dark outside, it sometimes takes a little effort to leave the cosy warmth of the house to go to the stable. Especially when there is not even an indoor riding arena and the riding arena floor is hard-frozen and completely unsuitable for riding. Winter training is important, though. Why you should exercise your horses even in the cold season and what you can do as an alternative to riding is revealed in our article.
Horses are animals that move. However, the conditions under which horses are kept today usually offer them less room to move than they actually need. This is especially the case in winter, when there is no pasture. If a horse is also kept in a box, it lacks movement even more.
What happens when there is a lack of exercise?
The horse's entire organism is designed for movement: digestion, metabolism and of course the locomotor system. If there is a lack of movement, the organism cannot work properly. For example, lack of movement promotes the development of colic, and tendons, ligaments and muscles are weakened.
But of course it is impossible for someone who works full time and enters and leaves the office in the dark in winter to give his horse the exercise he can give him in summer. But not going to the stable at all and only getting in the saddle at the weekend and then making up for what was missed during the week is not good for the horse.
You certainly know this from your own experience: If you go jogging regularly, your muscles are designed for it and running is relatively easy for you. But if you take a break, you will notice that jogging is much harder and more strenuous. You will also have sore muscles on the following days. And by the way, this doesn't just apply to jogging, but also to riding. The first ride after a two-week holiday gives most of us a nice full-body muscle ache.
This is exactly how it is with the horses. They may look quite strong and stable, but this impression is deceptive. Anyone who has themselves filmed sitting on the horse's back after a break from training will see that it bends down quite a bit.
The horse's trunk is built like a bowstring bridge: The spine is the arch of the bridge, the roadway is the sternum and the straight abdominal muscle, the struts are the ribs and the transverse abdominal muscle and the legs are the bridge pillars (vgl. Ergotherapie für Pferde, Thieme Verlag 2019).
The torso is therefore stabilised primarily by the deep muscles along the spine and by the abdominal muscles. If these are not sufficiently trained due to a break, the spine sinks downwards when riding. Your horse cannot use its hindquarters sufficiently to step under the centre of gravity. Healthy training is then not possible.
To keep the musculoskeletal system healthy, it is important that the muscles are trained and strengthened from the inside out. Because while the superficial muscles primarily provide powerful movements, the deep muscles stabilise the spine and help the horse to move in a balanced way. These muscles along the spine have the main task of coordinating the spine and the limbs. That is why they are addressed in particular through coordination exercises ( Bewegungsapparat Pferd, Thieme Verlag 2018).
One-sidedness in training is never good. For a horse to be able to carry its rider well, all muscle groups should be addressed. That's why a weekend ride in daylight is a must. But during the week, when you are at the stables after dark, have little time and the ground conditions leave a lot to be desired, coordination training can be integrated wonderfully. It helps you to keep your horse fit with little effort and to strengthen the relevant muscles.
What is coordination training?
Coordination is defined as the harmonious interaction of the sensory organs, the muscles and the nervous system. It's a bit like an orchestra: if each musician just plays what he or she is good at, what comes out in the end is pretty ghastly. But if there is a conductor who determines what and how each musician plays, a musical work of art can emerge.
In terms of the horse, the muscles are the musicians and the conductor is the nervous system. This means that the brain acts as the control centre. It ensures that movements are executed precisely and in an orderly fashion.
Coordination includes various coordinative abilities such as the ability to react, the ability to rhythmise, the ability to balance or also the ability to orientate.
Coordination training thus includes exercises that address these different aspects, improve coordination skills and thus ultimately provide more trunk stability and improved movement quality.
In the following we present a few coordination exercises that you can do from the saddle as well as from the ground. One more note: Always make sure to warm up your horses sufficiently. On cold, wet and windy days, we also recommend that you put a Cooler Rug on your horse's back for the cool-down phase after training, so that the warm and loosened muscles don't tense up again immediately because of the uncomfortably cold draught on the back.
Whether from the ground or under saddle, whether at a walk, trot or tölt: tempo differences are a wonderful training tool! Transitions within a gait ensure that your horse expands or shortens his frame.
A very slow step, for example, supports an even limb load, activates the muscles, improves strength, endurance and balance.
Classic track figures
Heart to heart: How many of the classic track figures do you know? And how many do you use regularly in your own training? In addition to the common track figures, such as the whole track, change through the whole track, circle and volte, there are a few more that you should definitely actively incorporate into your training. Ridden at a walk or from the ground in hand, on the long reins or on the lunge line, they also help you to keep your horse fit. Because of the many changes of direction, they strengthen both sides of your horse and they help to improve balance - at least when the straight lines (whole track) alternate with the curved lines (circle, serpentine line).
Pole training is great for the horse's coordination and great for training in winter. Pole training is much more than just trotting poles and can be done wonderfully even on a (flat) frozen riding arena at a walk from the ground.
During pole training, the horse must pay attention to where it places its hooves. Here it is a good idea to train with alternating distances. This ensures that the horse must either lengthen or shorten its steps according to the distances. It is also possible to break up the movements so that the horse steps over a pole hoof by hoof and with small pauses. You can try out for yourself how effective it is to break up the movements: All you have to do is move in slow motion. Do you notice how your trunk muscles have to work? It's the same with your horse. By the way, it becomes more difficult if you don't use a floor bar but a cavaletti. Or if you do the exercise backwards.
By the way, pole training does not have to mean that the horse steps over the poles. With poles, for example, you can also lay a maze or a pole L through which the horse is led or ridden forwards and backwards. Here, too, the horse must be able to place its hooves in a targeted manner and react quickly to your aids. For this, it needs a certain body tension.
How about a few circus lessons for a change? Your horse can also benefit a lot from this. With the plié/bow you can stretch and arch the horse's back. At the same time, your horse has to use his abdominal muscles to stabilise himself.
In plié, the horse puts its head between its front legs and stretches backwards at the same time. The exercise is easy if you feed your horse a carrot or a treat downwards. It is important that your horse does not bend its front legs.
But also the Spanish walk or the Spanish greeting, crossing the legs or games like rolling out a carpet, recognising colours or retrieving can be worked on wonderfully in the rain-soaked darkness of winter.
If you would like to learn more about circus lessons, we recommend the book It’s Showtime: Zirkuslektionen: Lernspaß für Pferd und Mensch by Sylvia Czarnecki.
Creative lead training
Does leadership training sound boring? Not if it is done creatively! Because while most horses can be led well from the left, it becomes difficult when they are to be led from the right or even at a distance. Lead training is a nice thing to do in winter. You don't need a perfect riding surface, nor do you need light.
By the way, a nice leadership exercise is counting steps: You start at 10 steps, stop, take 9 steps, stop, and so on. Until you have reached one step. Then you count up again. This exercise trains your horse's reactions wonderfully and strengthens the trunk at the same time. In order to stop at the right moment, your horse has to have good body tension, put more weight on the hindquarters to be balanced and be able to stop promptly, and place its hooves in a targeted manner - this is especially important when it only has to take one or two steps.
How do you organise your winter training? And what challenges do you face in the dark season? For even more exercises that can be performed under difficult conditions, we recommend our article: Injured: Keep your horse's muscles and brain fit with ground work Take a look at at our Authors Blog .