When snowy winter weather keeps you at home, it’s time to get creative in your arena. Rather than riding in the same boring circle day after day, try these drills to mix up your routine, and keep things interesting and fun.
BY BLAKE CARNEY, WITH JILLIAN SINCLAIR | NOVEMBER 30, 2021
During the winter months, finding a good day to ride can be hard. You’re constantly dealing with frigid temperatures, snow-covered outdoor arenas, and wind so cold that it takes your breath away. When you’re stuck at home in your small indoor arena for months at a time, it can take the fun out of riding or even keep you from spending time in the saddle with your horse all together. But you don’t have to let cold days keep you from enjoying your horse. Here I’m going to share a few things you can do on the ground and in the saddle to keep things exciting and help your horse avoid getting bored doing the same thing over and over.
Groundwork is always beneficial to your horse and is something you can easily incorporate into your daily routine when you’re stuck indoors. Before you even saddle up for the day, take a few minutes to test your skills on the ground with these three drills.
Learn to ground tie. Being able to ground is helpful for more than just the actual act of ground tying. It teaches your horse how to stand patiently and quietly, so whether you’re trying to groom your horse, or even just throw his winter blanket on, he knows how to stand quietly.
If your horse isn’t paying attention, remind him to focus on you by gently pulling his head down and saying whoa. Jillian Sinclair
When you first start, work in an enclosed area, like a round pen, so your horse can’t get loose. Ask your horse to stand still and reinforce it by saying whoa. Next, take a step back and once again reinforce the standstill by saying whoa. If he tries to walk away, quietly gather your lead rope, ask him to stand, say whoa, and start over. If he’s focused on what’s happening elsewhere in the arena, you can slightly pull his head down to get his attention back on you.
If your horse listens to your cue and stands still, take another step back and test his responsiveness. Repeat this process as often as you need to until you can successfully step away from him and walk around him without him moving. This drill takes a lot of repetition, so don’t feel like you have to master this drill in one day. Take time to build your horse’s confidence and trust as you step away from him and ask him to stay still.
Move off your body. This is a technique you can use to help your horse better learn how to read your body language and respond to your cues. The best part is that you can do it just about anywhere you need to, whether that’s a pasture, a barn aisle, or in the arena.
Start by leading your horse like you normally would, and then stop and stand still. Your horse should follow your body language and stop when you do. If he doesn’t, that lets you know that he’s not paying attention to what you’re doing on the ground, or his focus is elsewhere.
Once he stops, stand there for a minute, and then walk off again. Take 10 steps before asking him to stop once again. If he continues to walk right past you, immediately back him up a few steps, and then stop and stand. The goal is to bring his focus back on you, and what your body language is saying.
This can also be a great tool to use if your horse tries to drag you out to the pasture. Make him understand who’s in charge when you’re leading him (hint: it’s you!).
Longe with purpose. Longeing is a great way to warm up your horse’s muscles before you get on to ride. When you longe with the purpose, you’re teaching your horse to respect your personal space and move off your body even if you aren’t directly next to him. This also helps your horse learn that he can’t just speed up or change directions without your approval.
Use your body language, and a whip if needed, to encourage your horse to stay a safe distance away from you on the longe line. Jillian Sinclair
When you start out, choose the direction you want to go and ask him to move away from you so that he’s on the outside of the circle and you don’t have any slack in your longe line (as that can be a safety hazard if your horse gets tangled up in it). The goal is for you to be actively pushing him toward the outside of your longe circle by using your body to guide him. To achieve this, you might need some reinforcement. A whip or flag can be a great extension to your arm and help him realize there’s a barrier between him and you that he shouldn’t cross. Think of the area between your whip or flag as a wall that he shouldn’t cross without you opening the door and giving him permission.
Hold your whip or flag slightly behind your horse’s hip to open the door for him to go forward. If your horse tries to fall to the inside of your circle and get closer to you, use your whip to create space and have him move away from you while still going forward.
When it’s time to change directions, move your body to your horse’s head to close the door and stop forward motion. Then use your whip, once again as an extension of your arm, to push him in the opposite direction.
Set Up Small Obstacles
When you’re limited on where you can take your horse to ride or practice, you might also be limited in the obstacles you have to use. These next few exercises can be done with things you most likely have sitting around the barn.
Navigate the circle. No matter what kind of riding you do, whether it be trail riding, showing, or ranch work, you’ll most likely be put in a situation where you need to steer in tight spaces. This drill is simple to set up and only requires six cones (if you don’t have cones, you can substitute fly spray or water bottles). Put five cones out in a circle, about the size of a longeing circle, with one in the center. Now the work begins.
The red cones make up the outside of my circle. I will jog between them toward the middle blue cone. Jillian Sinclair
Start on the outside of your cones and enter the circle between any two of your cones, going straight toward the center. Once you get to the center cone, pick an outside cone to go back to before steering your horse around to enter the circle again.
With this drill you can decide if you want to do a sharp U-turn around the center cone or if you want to make a wider turn toward a different part of the circle. ?
It’s important to keep your eyes up when you’re doing this drill, so you can better plan where you need to go.
Because I chose a cone at the top of my circle, I hardly have to turn to aim toward my next destination. If I would have chosen a cone toward where I started from, I would have needed to make a very sharp turn to go back the direction I came from. Jillian Sinclair
Change this drill up every time you do it by including different gait transitions in between cones. For example, you can jog into the middle of your circle, but once you make the turn, extend trot out of it. The next time you can break to a walk, or up the degree of difficulty by doing this at the lope.
Back through cones. Having control when you ask your horse to back is an extremely important skill set to have, and can keep you out of trouble if you’re out on a trail ride. All you need are a couple of cones and a small area that you can navigate through.
Start by setting up three cones in a straight line with approximately 6 feet between each cone. If your horse is especially green at backing up, you can space them even farther apart to begin with.
Position your horse with his hind end about 3 feet from the first cone in your line on your right side. As you back, you’ll want to guide your horse’s hind end through the center of the two cones and then straighten him back out once the cone is on your left-hand side. You’ll repeat this process, but this time moving your horse back to the left until the cone is back to being on your right-hand side.
Now that I am in between two cones, I’m going to continue backing toward the second cone while paying attention to where my horse’s feet are placed. Jillian Sinclair
There’s no need to rush this exercise. Take it one step at a time and evaluate where your horse’s legs are in the process. If his feet start to get too close to the cones, you can reposition his hips before taking another step.
Once you’re comfortable backing through cones, you can move them in a foot or two and try again.
Work on You
If you’re stuck indoors, now is the perfect time to focus on your riding position by working on your core strength and balance. You can do these drills at the beginning of your ride while you’re warming up your horse, or you can incorporate them throughout your riding routine. Learn your body’s limits and gradually build up to doing these three drills for longer periods of time; building strength and balance takes time in the saddle.
Stand in your stirrups. Standing in your stirrups is a great way to test your balance, and helps you adjust your legs so they’re underneath of you and in an athletic riding position. If your leg is too far back, you’ll fall forward when you stand up. And if it’s too far forward, you’ll likely fall backward.
Start by standing up and out of your saddle about 2 inches while your horse is at a standstill. Take time to assess where your legs are in comparison to the rest of your body and reposition them so that they’re underneath you. Once your legs are in the correct spot, engage your core muscles and use your thighs to keep you in position.
Once you can stay balanced in the saddle at a standstill, try standing in your stirrups at a walk or trot. To increase the difficulty, you can then drop your stirrups and see how well you do “standing up” without them.
Here, you can see I am balanced because I am able to stay in this position without falling forward or backward. My legs are under my hips to put me in the most athletic riding position possible. Jillian Sinclair
Drop your stirrups. Kick your feet out of your stirrups and test out your balance when you’re stirrupless. Once your feet are out of your stirrups, focus on keeping them in the correct position with your legs underneath you, so that your heel lines up with your hip and shoulder. Also, remember to keep your heels down.
Start by walking a circle, and then gradually build up to the trot. If you find yourself sliding around at the trot, your horse is going to try and do anything he can to get you back underneath him, so go back to the walk and get centered before trying the trot again.
When you can master riding without stirrups at a sitting trot, try your hand at posting without your stirrups to continue building up your leg and core strength.
Find your balance. This third drill is one of my favorites and will help you better find balance in the saddle. When you aren’t centered in the saddle, you’re more likely to lean forward and hunch your shoulders toward the front of your saddle. This throws your body’s equilibrium off, and chances are, if you’re not sitting centered in the saddle, your horse is going to wiggle around trying to get you back underneath him.
Moving my hand to the middle of my back causes me to become centered in my saddle and opens my chest to prevent me from falling forward. Jillian Sinclair
When you’re in the saddle, place your hand behind your back with your palm facing outward. This opens up your chest and aligns your body in a way that keeps you straight and balanced in the saddle. Once you feel comfortable standing still with your arm in this position, try it at the walk, then the trot, and eventually a lope. Make sure you’re switching arms regularly, so you are building the strength equally on both sides of your body.