Safe Winter Rides

If you are like me and don’t have a heated arena to ride in, you may not get much riding done over the winter months.  But when there is a nice day, it’s great to catch a few hours in the saddle.  Winter riding can be dangerous.  Here are a few tips to keep you and your horse safe.

Check the Footing

Footing is a major problem in the winter.  A nice layer of fresh snow will provide nice footing for a bare-foot horse, provided there isn’t any ice under it.  Of coarse ice is dangerous for both the horse and rider.  A horse carrying a rider is more likely to slip.  Mud can be just a dangerous as ice.  Many times only the surface is muddy and the ground underneath is frozen, creating a very slippery surface.

Dress for the Occasion

This is important for both you and your horse.  If your horse is typically stabled or blanketed, you may consider a rump rug or quarter sheet to help keep your horse warm.  For yourself it is best to dress in layers.  Make sure to have gloves and a hat along.  Even if it seems warm, the temperatures in the winter can change suddenly.  Bulky snow boots are probably not your best choice for foot wear.  It is important to wear boots that won’t get wedged in your stirrups.

Warm the Bit

We all remember the scene from The Christmas Story where Ralphie gets his tongue stuck to the flag pole.  If you don’t warm your bit your horse is going to feel like Ralphie.  Even if your horse’s tongue doesn’t stick to the bit, it isn’t comfortable for him to have a frozen chunk of metal in his mouth.  I try to keep my bridles in the house, or warm the bit with my hands before bridling up.

Stay Close to Home

When riding in the winter, it may seem warmer than it actually is.  For that reason I like to ride close to home.  I try not to  ride far enough away that I can’t make it back to the barn in a half hour.  Usually I make several short trips out, instead of setting out for one long trip.  That way if my horse happens to pull a muscle or I get cold, we aren’t too far away.

Familiar Ground

To avoid any unforeseen riding hazards, I try to ride in an area that I am familiar with.  Snow covering can hide holes that your horse can step in and injure himself.  It is best to ride on paths that you know.

Pedicure Please

If you plan on riding often in the winter months you may consider horse shoes with pads and ice caulks.  If you are an occasional winter rider you can help prevent snowballs from forming in your horse’s hooves by coating the sole of his hooves with petroleum jelly.  Also it’s not a bad idea to take a hoof pick along and occasionally check your horse’s hooves for packed snow.

Slow and Steady

Because your horse has extra fur (and maybe some extra pounds), it’s best not to work him too hard and get him sweaty.  A sweaty horse can cool too quickly and become cold.   If it is necessary to work your horse up to a sweat, make sure to take the time to properly cool him down before turning him out.

Getting out for a winter ride can definitely help fight cabin fever. Just make sure to play it safe. Consider your horse’s health and safety when deciding when and where to ride.

Pre-Flight Check

Any good pilot checks his aircraft to insure it is flight worthy before boarding.  Why shouldn’t a good rider check the safety of his mount before climbing aboard?  Before I even think about putting my foot in the stirrup, I have a check list of maneuvers I put my horse through on the ground to insure he’s safe to get on.  Like people, horses have good days, and they have bad days.  I like to find out what kind of day my horse is having  before I mount up.  Some days my pre-flight goes great.  My horse does everything I ask of him perfectly without hesitation.  Other days my horse may be feeling a little frisky and requires a little more ground work before we go for our ride.

To perform my pre-flight, I saddle and bridle my horse.  I don’t tighten the cinch completely. Just have it snug enough to keep it secure.  I then fasten a 15 to 20 foot long rope (I use nylon rope bought at a farm supply store) to the curb strap of my bridle using a bow-line knot.  Since the bow-line knot won’t pull tight, it will allow my rope to move to what ever side of the horse I am working on.

Flex My Horse Laterally √

First on my pre-flight check list is making sure my horse will flex when asked.  There will be several times during my ride that I will ask my  horse to flex, so I like to make sure he is flexing well.  To do this I pick up the rein on the same side that I’m standing and pull it up to the swell of my saddle.  If all goes well, my horse will tip his nose over to me as pictured.  If he doesn’t I hold pressure on the rein until he turns his nose to me.  Once he does one side well, I check the other side in the same manor.

Disengaging the Hindquarters √

After my horse is flexing well to both sides, I disengage my horse’s hindquarters.  To do this I  tip his nose slightly towards me with one hand, and using my other hand I cue him with the stirrup where my foot would be if I was riding in position three.  We go around in three circles with his legs crossing well. Stop and back.  Then go three circles the other direction. Stop and back.  If your horse is being a little stubborn, you may have to cue him a little harder.  If he is being a little naughty, make him turn three more circles to each side.  The reason I like to disengage my horse’s hindquarter is because it is part of my emergency stop.  I want to make sure my breaks are going to work.

Yielding the Front End √

Now that I have the back end of the horse moving like I want, it’s time to move the front end.  Standing by your horse’s head, start, leading him forward.  Turn and face your horse’s head and walk towards him.  I typically put my hands up, one by his face and one by his shoulder.  Start by asking for one step, where your horse crosses his front legs.  After one step, turn and walk forward again.  Take about ten steps forward then turn and step toward your horse again. If my horse is doing well, I perform five or six turns each direction, more if he is not doing well.  The first few times you perform this maneuver with your horse he may only take one crossover step.  As he progresses he should be able to take more crossover steps.  Horses that I have been working with for awhile can easily turn a half  to a full circle. Until you and your horse get the hang of this exercise it may seem a little tricky.  At first if my horse doesn’t want to turn I will take my thumb and push on my horse where his neck and shoulder connect.  I only push hard enough to get my horse to move.

Moving Hind End and Following the Rein √

This is another test I perform to get my horse’s hind quarters moving.  However, this time I’m going to use rein pressure to get him to move his hind end around.  While my horse is standing still, I take my rope and run it down his side opposite of where I’m standing.  I then bring the rope around my horse’s back legs, making sure to stay above the hocks, and stand  a couple steps away from my horse’s shoulder.

Now I gently apply pressure on the rope.  The object is for my horse to follow the pressure of the rope, turn around disengaging his hindquarters, and end up facing me.  To start you may have to pull a little harder, but after your horse gets the hang of this, it should only take a small amount of pressure.  Also the first few times you do this exercise your horse may try to turn the wrong direction and move around trying to figure out what you want.  Just hold steady pressure until your horse turns the direction you are asking him to move.   I typically run him through this two or three times on each side or until he performs the maneuver smoothly.

If you notice, when I put pressure on the rope, Dollar’s nose starts to come around, and as he’s turning he crosses his back legs, disengaging his hindquarters.  When he has finished, I reward him with a pat on the head and let him stand a few seconds.Lunging √

I finish up my pre-flight check with lunging my horse.  There are a few theories on lunging.  One is that you run your horse in circles to get him worn down.  The problem with this theory is that, much like an athlete, the more you run your horse in circles, the better shape they are in.  The first few times you longe your horse he may get tired in five minutes, but over time it takes him longer and longer to get tired.

The second theory is that you run your horse in a few circles, changing direction often, to make sure he’s paying attention and listening to you.  If the horse I’m going to ride is well broke, I only trot them in this exercise.  If it’s a green horse, I may push them up to a lope a couple times around, but loping in this small of circle can be hard on the leg joints, so I don’t lope them much.

Start with your horse facing you.  We’ll start going left.   Hold the rope in your left hand and stick your hand out to the side.  You will hold the tail end of the rope in your right hand and swing it at your horse’s left shoulder.  As your horse starts to move away from the swinging rope you  keep him going in a circle around you.  If you need him to go faster, you can swing the tail end of the rope.  I try to direct my swing around the saddle area.  If he needs more encouragement you can pop him on the rump.  I try to keep my body positioned in the drive line of the horse, which is about level with your stirrup.  If you get in front of this line your horse will stop. Behind it and your horse will end up turning  his nose toward you.  Usually, I go three circles and switch directions.  To switch directions you disengage your horse’s hindquarter by bending your body and looking at his hind end at the same time you will gently pull his nose in toward you.  He should cross his back legs, moving his hiney away from you.  As you straighten back up, reach across your body with your right hand and grab the rope out of your left. Pick up the tail end of the rope in your left hand and swing it at your horse’s right shoulder.  From here it is just repeating what you did with your horse going to the left.  I typically go three circles to the left, switch and go three to the right. I perform this exercise over and over several times until my horse is paying attention to me and moving how I want him to, when I want him to.  The most important part of this exercise is not the running of the circles, but the changing of direction.  The more changes of direction you do, the better your horse will pay attention to what you want him to do.  Also this shouldn’t be a tug-a-war with your horse.  If he is pulling on the rope don’t pull solid pressure back on him.  Instead give the rope three good tugs and see if he quits pulling.  If not give him three more tugs.  I have found over the years that little bumps or tugs work better than solid pressure.

Tack Check √

Checking your tack before you mount up is an important part of your pre-flight check.  Most horses will puff out their bellies when first being saddled.  Because of this your saddle is probably fairly loose.  Take this time to tighten your cinch and make sure all the rest of your tack is on correctly.

Now that you’ve done all this work with your horse, you should have a good idea on how your horse is going to act this ride.  Remember sometimes your horse will have bad days where his mind is on something besides you.  On these days he may require a little more ground work before you go for your ride.  Other days, your pre-flight may go smoothly without any hitches, and you can get to your ride shortly after saddling your horse.  But unless you preform a pre-flight check you won’t know what kind of day your horse is having, and you might find out the hard way that he was having a bad day.

One Rein Stop

So imagine, it’s a beautiful October day. You are riding your horse quietly down the road along a corn field.  Suddenly, without warning, a couple of deer run out of the field in front of you.  Which spooks your horse.  His spins around and takes off in a dead run.  Of coarse you want your horse to stop, but no matter how hard you pull back on the reins your horse won’t stop.  Now what are you going to do?  In an instance like this, it is important that you know how to perform an emergency stop or one rein stop with your horse.

The one rein stop is a fairly simple idea.  You use one rein to stop your horse while disengaging your horses hind quarters.  This is one of the most important maneuvers you should learn how to do with your horse for the simple reason that any horse can spook or buck, no matter how broke they are.

There are basically two parts of the one rein stop: lateral flexion and disengaging the hindquarters.

Lateral Flexion

By lateral flexion I mean, bending your horse’s head to the left or right with a single rein. By being able to do this you can control what his body does. So how do you teach your horse to flex?  First, I found it is easiest for your horse to learn to flex in a snaffle bit.  Snaffle bits work off of direct pull on the corners of your horse’s mouth making it easier for them to follow pressure.  While sitting on your horse pick up one rein, making sure the other rein will be loose enough for him to bend his head around. Pull the rein back toward your hip till there is pressure on the bit and hold. Now this is important: you don’t want to try to pull your horse’s head around.  You just want pressure on the bit.  At first your horse may move around or pull against your hand.  It is important to not release any pressure until he stops and tips his nose slightly to you.  If you do you will teach him to pulling against you will get you to release pressure.  Be patient, eventually he will quit moving and tip his nose.  When teaching your horse to flex you have to have good timing.  The second your horse tips his nose toward you, no matter how little, release all pressure.  That is his reward for doing the correct thing.  Now you pick up the rein and repeat, repeat, repeat.  As your horse figures out what you want, he will get better about not moving around or pulling against you.  After his is flexing well to one side, work on the other. If you notice in the picture, Dollars head comes around and down.  This is what you want in a good flex.  Flexing is one of the things I make my horses do ever time I ride.

Disengaging the hindquarters

The second part of  your one rein stop is the disengaging of the hindquarters or yielding the hindquarters.  This simply means your horse moves his hind end around and crosses his back legs.  Your horse’s power  to run or buck comes from its back legs. Making your horse cross his hind legs you take away that power to run or buck. To get your horse to yield his hindquarters you must first tip your horse’s nose one direction. Then with your foot on the same side as his nose is tipped, cue him in foot position three.  When you first start working on this, you only want to flex his nose over slightly, then cue with your foot hard enough to get him to move.  To start I walk my horse in a big circle. Slightly turn his nose in and cue with my foot.  As soon as he turns and crosses his hind legs once, I release him and let him walk forward.  Then repeat, repeat, repeat. After he is taking one step well, move him up to two. Then three, four, five, ect. Pretty much till you can get him to turn in a couple of circle for you without any problems.  When one side is going good, work on the other.

Now that your horse is flexing and yielding his hind quarters well we can put it together.  Walk your horse forward. Slide your hand down the rein (around 18 inches to two feet from the bit depending on the horse), and pull back to your hip while cuing your horse with your foot (remember rein and foot on same side of horse).  Hold until your horse flexes, disengages his hindquarters and stops.  Repeat at a walk till you are comfortable, then move up to a trot.  After you are comfortable at a trot, work on stopping at a lope or canter.

Practicing and mastering the one rein stop can be a life saver.  I know that there are many times I’ve been out on the trail and have had a horse spook, and the one rein stop has proven very useful and effective.  Knowing your horse has emergency brakes can give you peace of mind as you ride.  The more you practice the one rein stop, the better your horse will respond if he becomes frightened.  Also practicing will help you become familiar with the movement it takes to cue the stop.