Off Season: 6 Things to Focus On This Winter
November 3rd was our final show day of 2019. After the excitement of a banner weekend settled down and I had spent Monday morning recouping, I found myself thinking, “what now?" For the past several months, I’ve worked mine and Arli’s schedule around our busy show season. We were chasing a year-end championship and some other goals, which made it easy for me to determine what we needed to do each week. With nothing on our schedule until maybe February, I suddenly lacked direction. Arli isn’t young, or green, and there’s nothing major that sticks out right now as needing urgent work or more training. Without anything that begs to be fixed, and without anything to really be working toward, I felt a little uninspired.
I imagine many riders start to feel this way about this time of year, especially if there’s nothing big on their calendar in the foreseeable future. Maybe you’re just a little burnt out from a busy season of horse showing, or you feel you and your horse could use a little break from the grind. Maybe you’re on the other side of the coin; perhaps you’re preparing to move up a division in the new year, and you’re stressing and unsure where to begin. After I got over my bout of existential dread (okay, maybe that’s a little dramatic), I started to pin down some things that I know riders can spend the next few frigid months working on...
First Things First: Rest
First and foremost, I think it’s incredibly important to look back on the past several months and consider your horse’s workload. If you’re a super goal-driven rider, you might end the show season on November 30th and want to hit the ground running again on December 1st. However, I’m willing to bet money that your horse doesn’t feel the same way! If your partner has been in a diligent five-plus-days-a-week training program for the past nine months, or has gone from show to show during finals season, I urge you to give him some time to rest! Let him be a horse for a little bit! Let him grow his mane a little long, let him spend more time in turnout, and forgive yourself for giving him a couple extra days off each week. It doesn’t have to be a long-term thing; even just a few light weeks can be enough to have your show horse feeling refreshed, more focused, and more willing when it’s time to buckle back down.
Now, for those 6 aspects of your riding to focus on this winter!
Improving rider fitness.
Riding alone isn’t enough to keep you fit enough to ride your best! Growing up, I never did much exercise outside of riding and gym class. When I went away to college and rode for a varsity equestrian team, all of that changed! And, in a hugely noticeable way, so did my riding. I became stronger, more balanced, and more focused. The biggest difference I saw was in my core strength. I had never done abdominal exercises before, but they were a huge part of our conditioning program on the team at both workouts and yoga. I was able to ride better than I ever had. I’ll never forget, we once did an entire practice jumping 3’+ courses without stirrups and I was on the biggest, laziest horse we had (keep in mind, I’m only 5’4”). It wasn’t easy but I never felt like I was going to fall or lose my balance. The difference in my fitness was everything!
Since then, I’ve had a whole new appreciation for rider fitness. The winter season brings with it icky weather, winter break, and holiday feasts. What better time to hit the gym, or even just your living room, and work on getting fitter! It can be difficult to know what exercises to do, how many reps, how often, all that jazz. For that exact reason, I strongly recommend the Equitation Bootcamp program from The Fit Equestrian! Even if you’re not an equitation rider, this program is an absolute must-have.
Improving the horse's fitness.
Last winter, I completely rebuilt Arli’s fitness from the bottom, up. I gave him a little break over the holidays, then consulted with my vet to create a program that would provide him with the best foundation for a great year ahead. The program included a lot of walking, a lot of hill work, and a lot of getting outside the arena. Arli felt refreshed and excited to work, and his excellent conditioning laid the groundwork for a successful season!
This year, I’ll likely give Arli a little break again, but not as much as last year. For November, he’ll drop down to three or four work days each week instead of our usual five to six. I plan to keep his rides varied in order to improve his fitness from all sides.
Want to get your horse in tip top shape this winter, the safe way? I urge you to consult your veterinarian and work together to create a conditioning schedule that works for your individual horse. Then, the biggest part of all, stick to it!
Building horse and rider relationship.
Just as with all sports, the better you and your teammate(s) know each other, the more successful you’ll be. Riding ups the ante with one of the teammates being non-verbal, highly emotional, and weighing half a ton. While we get to know our horses pretty well while mounted, the true relationship building can lack a bit when we’re focused on finding distances, improving our sitting trot, so on and so forth. Some of the best horse and rider relationships I’ve seen are those that were built on the ground while a horse was rehabbing from an injury. There’s just something about spending dedicated time with the horse during its time of need while not in the saddle. But don’t panic - your horse doesn’t have to get hurt for you to form a better bond!
Activities such as diligent grooming, hand walking or grazing, and round penning/groundwork are excellent ways to form a stronger relationship with your horse. Horses feel safer with owners who are compassionate and empathetic. I often spend time with Arli just hanging out in his stall or taking him out for a hand walk and graze around the farm. Take some of the rush out of your barn visits and devote time to just hanging out with your horse. You’ll be amazed by how well you get to know them, and how much it improves your connection when you are in the saddle!
Bolstering your horsemanship skills.
When we’re busy bouncing from horse show to horse show, we tend to run out of time to learn about all of the ins and outs of horsemanship. This off season is a great time to work on developing your horsemanship skills and knowledge! Consider spending a rainy or chilly day reading up on topics such as conformation, injuries, or nutrition. Plan an afternoon with your barn friends to bring snacks and study the USHJA Horsemanship Quiz Challenge study guide! See if your trainer would be up for an unmounted wrapping and bandaging lesson. There are so many ways and opportunities to become a better horseman, there’s no excuse not to take some of them!
Developing your confidence.
For many riders, the winter season is when they’re seriously gearing up to move up a division or level. Maybe you just got a new horse and you’re trying to learn to ride something different. One of the main ingredients to success is confidence. Spend the winter season developing your confidence both in and out of the saddle. With the little reprieve from showing every weekend, you can take a few steps back and really strengthen your confidence.
First, convey any concerns you have to your trainer so that she can help you to the best of her ability. While many of us professionals have a good radar for a nervous nellie, we’re not always mind readers. Let your trainer know what makes you nervous or where you feel you’d like to improve your confidence. The same goes for your horse - if you notice places where your horse tends to feel unsure or lack confidence, let your trainer know so she can hone in on making those skills stronger!
You can also do quite a bit of confidence building out of the saddle! Many of the nerve issues riders face are more mental than they are physical. Take your non-riding time to read Tonya Johnston’s Inside Your Ride, or subscribe to the Noelle Floyd Masterclass and check out Annette Paterakis’ series on confidence. Spending time to improve your mental relationship with riding and competition will pay off in a huge way. Just ask some of the sport’s top riders, like Mclain Ward!
Finally: Having FUN!
It’s easy to get caught up in getting better, faster, stronger. If you’re anything like me, getting out in the ring and working on improving is fun! But, it’s important to find balance. Horses don’t love to be drilled on skills, and riders need a mental break too to keep things fresh. Find time this winter to just have some fun! Go cross country schooling. Go for a gallop out in the open (safely, please). Go for a trail ride or play some games with your friends. Remember to always keep your “why” in mind, and have a great ride!