Winter Exercises For You And Your Horse

When the weather outside is frightful what is the horseback rider to do? That fire may be delightful, but we can’t just sit inside and sing let it snow, let it snow, let it snow. It’s our responsibility to maintain a fitness program for both horse and rider during the winter months. Inclement weather can definitely put a damper in your riding plans, but there are still ways to keep both you and your horse fit during the winter.

Daily exercise is important for the health of your horse all year long. However as we all know when there is limited day light, frozen rings and dreary weather it’s hard to stick to the riding routine that is followed the rest of the year.

Using What You Have
Indoors are great to have throughout the year, but they come in particularly handy in the winter when frozen rings can bring a halt to your riding. Unfortunately, indoor rings are out of reach for many barn owners and boarders. If you don’t have an indoor the next best thing is to have a round pen or turnout field available. This way you can continue your exercise program regardless of the weather, by either getting your horse turned out, lunged or hopping on for a hack. Remember to evaluate the footing prior to turning out or hopping on to ensure that the footing isn’t too icy. Horses can be ridden in the snow; just keep in mind, riding or turnout in snow can be more fatiguing than footing without snow to move through. Another option is to try to winterize your outdoor ring to help it not freeze during the winter.

No Indoor? Plan B
If you don’t have an indoor do some research and see if there is a local facility that has an indoor you can rent. Many private and park/state owned facilities offer ring rental by the hour to “outside” renters. Another option is to contact facilities in your area that run winter indoor shows, find out if they offer schooling opportunities either before or after the show.You don’t have to compete in the show, but you may be able to school over jumps or simply ride in their arena. Ask around. The worst you can be told is no.

Back To Basics
Winter provides a good opportunity to put the focus back on basics when dealing with your horse on the ground. Just because it’s too brisk to ride, doesn’t mean you can’t have useful training sessions with your horse. Groundwork can help keep your horse working on under saddle concepts even when you aren’t astride. Exercises can be as simple as having your horse walk next to you without pulling on the lead rope and dragging you to lunging him or her on circle at the walk, trot and canter. When working on the lunge line it’s important to keep the horse as controlled as you would when you are on them. This is not the time to let them run wild and out of control, rather it should mimic the same pace and control you would expect of them while riding. Focusing on groundwork will enable you to refine your horse’s skills and keep your training on track when the weather doesn’t cooperate or when you are under the weather.

Can’t Ride? Don’t Skip Barn Time!
Just because the weather outside is not ideal for riding, it doesn’t mean you should just stay inside reading a book or catching up on your favorite TV show. Make a point of going out to the barn and visiting your horse. Even if you can’t ride because of a frozen ring or wind chills in the teens, doesn’t mean you can’t bundle up and go spend some time with your horse. If the weather doesn’t cooperate and your horse has to stay inside, he or she is likely to become bored. A good groom or walk around the barn will help your horse remain in good spirits and not develop vices such as pawing, weaving or wood chewing that can start as a result of boredom.

Rider Fitness
Growing up many horsemen are taught to put the horse first and themselves second. If you are lucky enough to have a horse in your life, it’s your responsibility to cater to all their needs. However, during the winter months it’s important to remember to keep yourself in shape too. If the weather doesn’t permit you to go out and ride according to your regular schedule you have to change it up and come up with another plan. Sure, the winter is also a great time to catch up on some educational equestrian DVDs and books, but make sure you stay active.

Get Out Of The House
Take advantage of the New Year’s Resolution specials offered at gyms this time of year. Many gyms will have introductory offers or free trial periods to hook people in while they are trying to achieve their weight loss resolution goals. Even if you don’t think you see yourself as a gym member, you never know, if you find the right class you might get the “fever”. Group exercise classes are a great way to keep you motivated throughout the winter. Led by enthusiastic instructors, these girls and guys know how to keep the class motivated and moving. Not only are there usually great instructors, but there is a sense of camaraderie that permeates through the class. Knowing you have a “gym buddy” will help keep you going to the gym so you can catch up with him or her during class.

What To Focus On
Although many people associate being fit with going to the gym, that’s not the only way to stay in shape during the winter months. With a few tweaks to your lifestyle, you can improve your riding fitness. Riders should focus on cardio, strength training, flexibility and core exercises. The key to keeping the workout interesting is to mix it up and vary your training schedule. When it comes to your fitness think about how you work your horse, you don’t focus on the same exercise you add variety to keep him or her interested. Follow the same rule when it comes to your exercise time.

Get That Heart Pumping
Fitness experts suggest that healthy adults participate in 30 minutes of cardiovascular activity three to five days a week. This is easily accomplished by rigorous training activities on your horse, however when you are less active with your riding you may need to supplement with other cardio activities. Brisk walking, jogging, cycling, swimming and aerobics are all great cardio activities. Too cold to work out in the elements? Power walk through your closest shopping mall or check out the latest exercise craze Zumba, which is popular throughout the world. A Latin-inspired fitness program, participants dance and workout to the latest international music hits. The key to staying motivated is finding an activity that you will enjoy.

Strength Training
When most people think about strength training they think about Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Universe with bulging muscles. While that can be a goal for some, equestrians need strength to help them move their thousand plus pound animals with their legs and rein aids. The best way to improve your “riding” muscles is through saddle time, but that’s not always possible. Good supplements include climb stairs to build leg muscles, picking up hay bales or even small children. Focusing specifically on your legs you can work on squats, calf raises and lunges. The key is to find out what muscles are weak and develop a program to maximize the time you have in the saddle.

Flexibility is an area that is often overlooked, however it is essential to success as an equestrian. Skilled riders appear almost motionless when in the saddle, in reality this is achieved not only through strong muscles but also through the rider’s flexibility. Tight muscles can make your movements in the saddle less fluid and can possibly even confuse your horse. The more flexible you are the easier it is to melt into your saddle and effectively communicate through your legs, seat and hands. Yoga and pilates are good exercises to help stretch and limber your body as you move through a sequence of various movements. Although you can go to a gym or studio to do yoga and pilates there are a wealth of do at home videos available both on the internet and dvd. Remember results don’t come overnight and movements that seem simple may actually make you sore in the days following your workout.

Core Exercises
Flexibility and core exercises go hand in hand. Core strength helps you, the rider, have better balance while in the saddle. It’s not just your legs that keep you up there, it’s actually all of your core muscles. When most people think of core exercises they think of the dreaded crunches, but there are more to core exercises than just crunches! You can also strengthen your core through the plank exercise. To do this you lie down face first on the floor and slowly raise your midsection to support your weight with only your forearms. Or you can flex and arch your back. This exercise helps to stretch and relax lower back muscles. Yoga and pilates, especially programs designed for the equestrian can also help enhance your core.

Stay Active
At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter which exercise(s) you choose to do during the winter, it only really matters that you keep moving. This is important for both horse and rider. You don’t want to pull your horse out of his or her stall come spring ready to compete only to find out you both have turned into couch potatoes over the winter.