Here at Horses with Hope we have a ‘no riding’ policy currently in place. We don’t want to risk needing medical attention when our health industry is already stretched to the max, and so we’re getting creative about other ways to work our horses.
Luckily, there are many other great options to keep our horses happy, healthy, and learning new skills. Groundwork is already an essential part of our program, but now is a fun chance to take that to the next level. If a horse has the basics down, we can introduce them to movements normally done under saddle, such as leg yield, shoulder in, or haunches in. If they know how to back up nicely, can we back them in a circle, or between poles? If they have sidestep down can we ask them to do that over a pole, or away from us and then back toward us? It doesn’t take much to significantly up the challenge for both horse and handler!
At any point when working with a horse, it can be fun to spend some time massaging into their large muscle areas to see if we can help them stretch and soften. If we press gently into some of the big neck muscles, does the neck feel stiff as a board or is there some give? Does the horse brace against our hand, or soften into it? Often, if we start working into some tighter areas like the neck or jaw, our horse will start to get some releases (licking and chewing or full on yawning). Just as with people, horses carry tightness and tension in their bodies, and having a tight area worked on can encourage relaxation. Horses are individuals and will respond in different ways; some love this work and release tension easily, while others can take a long time to let down. Either way, it’s nice to experiment and discover ways to help each horse relax and soften to touch.
While we could spend hours on groundwork alone, it’s also important to add in some less detail-oriented activities. Even though we’re not riding, we can still hit the trails and work on fitness! Handwalking is a great way to spend time with our horses out of the arena, getting a good workout in and exploring new obstacles. You can introduce your horse to water, logs, ditches, up and down banks, bridges, anything you can find, all while building their base of conditioning and practicing good manners in hand.
Keeping that conditioning in mind, we’ve made sure to add in cavaletti and poles when working on the lunge or in the roundpen. Another great exercise for building muscle and softness is backing a horse uphill. This is a lot of work for their hind end, so we start with just a few steps at a time and build from there. Can our horse trot downhill on the lead, stop softly when we stop, and back up smoothly for 5 or 10 steps? Can we lead them just as easily from their right side as from the left? At any time, can we move just the hind end, just the front end, or the barrel (sidestep or lateral movement)? There are truly endless ways to let your horse move and enjoy themselves, while at the same time building on their education and your partnership.