Christmas in the countryside: drinking spiced mulled wine next to roaring pub fires. Walking through frosty fields, glittering and glistening under a sharp blue sky. Wrapping up warm in cosy jumpers, well-worn boots and blanket-sized scarves.
Oh, what a life that would be. For as a fellow horse owner, you know that Christmas – and winter – in the country is more about scraping thick mud off boots. Covering yourself in horse hair while clipping. Hanging onto neck straps and lead ropes for dear life. Turning up at work sopping wet and covered in strands of hay. Seeing your once-green fields disappear into a sea of mud. And attempting to keep your horse in enough work to avoid certain death every time you set foot in the stirrup.
From November to March, it’s fair to say that us equestrians are motivated by one, single chant: “it’s only 147 days until the clocks go forward… it’s only 146 days until the clocks go forward… it’s only 145 days until the clocks go forward…”
Because while the mud might be knee high, with adhesive properties stronger than nails on shoes and Velcro on boots, it’s not the worst thing about winter. The worst thing, by far, is the dark mornings and afternoons. For those of us who aren’t lucky enough to nip out during daylight hours, keeping a horse fit and schooled is a nightmare. As is trying to keep a young, fit horse in enough work to avoid rodeo re-enactments every ride.
So, when you’re working full time and only see daylight for five minutes during your lunchbreak, how do you keep a lid on fresh, fit horses? How do you survive those rare rides, without risking your life? Well, here’s a few tips to help get us through the remaining dark days (at time of writing, we’ve got 102 days to go…).
Break up for the holidays
If you’ve got the right set up at your yard, you could give your horse a holiday over the winter. Turning them away for a month or six weeks during the hardest part of the winter gives you a bit of breathing space. However, this isn’t always possible. It might be more work than it’s worth to turn your horse away and then reintroduce it to work again. Or you might not have the grazing for 24/7 turnout. Or you may own a delinquent thoroughbred who forgets how to be ridden after just two days off…
Organise your life and get motivated
We all know someone who has a high-flying career with a three-hour commute, a picture-perfect relationship, and a house filled with dogs, cats and kids – yet still manages to ride her horse every day. Surely, we think, she must have a few extra hours in the day. Maybe, we ponder, she’s a robot and doesn’t need sleep? But as we admire her riding around the fields with a head-torch, in our envious hearts we know she possesses just three things that set her apart: will-power, organisation and motivation. We could all leap out of bed at 5am to catch a 30-minute hack in the weak morning light. We could arrive at the yard after work and set up a fun pole exercise. But we’re tired. We have housework to do. We have a series on Netflix to binge-watch, and a bed that’s been calling our name since 6am.
All I’m saying is that it’s possible. If you can get into a routine, finding new and inventive ways to exercise your horse becomes much easier. Get organised: do all your housework at 5am one morning a week; make a week’s supply of hay-nets on a Sunday afternoon; sacrifice the last half-hour in front of the TV for an early night. Resuscitate your motivation: start making goals, and try to plan out your ridden activities for the week. And then get going.
Keep an eye on what you’re feeding
We’re all guilty of making a rod for our own backs from time to time. So, if your horse isn’t doing much over the winter, do you need to feed him the same as when he was in full work during the summer? Of course, there are always going to be exceptions, like veterans and horses who drop weight. But on the whole, feed for what you’re doing. If leading your horse to the field is akin to taming one of Daenerys’ dragons, then maybe it’s time to cut some hard feed out.
Find someone to help out
If upping the schoolwork isn’t a possibility, turning away isn’t going to help, and cutting out feed doesn’t make a difference, then it might be time to call in the forces. Consider paying a freelance groom (or time-rich livery) to hack your horse once or twice a week. Yes, it gets expensive, but remember it’s only short term. Word of mouth recommendations are usually the best place to start, so ask around among trusted friends. Or, if you’d rather not put up an unwitting stranger, see if you can find someone to muck out for you once or twice a week. It might give you enough time to hack down the lane and back in the mornings, or save your energy before a schooling session.
Invest in safety gear
Exhausted all of the above, and no joy? Welcome to my world. I’m afraid I have little other pieces of wisdom for you, other than invest in a neckstrap (an old stirrup leather works wonders), and buy sticky-bum breeches (I have, on many an occasion, thought I was doomed, before realising my posterior was somehow still glued to the saddle). I can’t turn my horse away; I can’t school him more; I can’t cut his feed down, and I can’t afford to pay someone to hack him out. So instead I persevere with a very fresh, fit horse – and the above save me from unscheduled dismounts on the regular.
Got any other tips for coping with a fit horse in the winter? Please do let us know in the comments (please).
Written by Jess Crandon (@jessssicarr) of www.whiskersandwhinnies.wordpress.com0 Comments