Going riding is one of the great joys of spending time with horses, but did you know that there are other ways to bond with your horse? Horses are herd animals who enjoy the companionship of their humans as well as other horses. Winter weather may prevent you from riding every day, but engaging in quality time with your horse can strengthen your relationship, enhance your communication and provide opportunities for learning new horsemanship skills.
“My relationship with my horses is built on so much more than what we do while riding,” said Luke Gingerich, a professional horse trainer from Plain City, Ohio. “In my opinion, the foundation, connection and trust should be established on the ground before we ever get in the saddle.”
Part of developing trust with your horse means staying mindful, which means focusing on the present and staying engaged with what you’re doing.
“When we are present and mentally engaged with our horses, rather than letting our mind and emotions wander to the myriad other things they have a tendency to focus on, it opens the door for our horses to relax, let go of anxiety or stress and to start engaging and being present with us,” Gingerich explained.
Next time the forecast is calling for snow or rain or you’ve only got fifteen minutes to spend at the barn, try one or more of these five fun activities to achieve quality time with your horse.
#1. GROOM YOUR HORSE
In addition to caring for your horse’s physical needs, grooming can be a bonding activity. Brush with one hand, then use your other hand to massage your horse as you go. You can also use this time to check for injuries, hot spots and other skin conditions.
#2. LEVEL UP WITH LONGEING
If you’ve got a covered round pen, you and your horse can both get some exercise with longeing. Build your horse’s muscles and stamina by longeing at the walk, trot and canter. Then start incorporating voice cues to teach your horse to halt, change directions and transition between gaits on command.
#3. PRACTICE YOUR RECALL
As a liberty trainer, Gingerich likes to teach his horses the “recall” cue. This game teaches you how to use your body to communicate with your horse on the ground.
“I love to teach the recall or draw cue, as it helps people become more aware of the different ways they can communicate with their body,” Gingerich said. “The recall cue is when I start working on teaching my horses to come to me. I start out close to my horse and draw them towards me with my core energy while I’m facing them. As my horse gets more confident, the cue becomes a recall where I can call my horse to me from across the arena or pasture, for example.”
#4. PLAY GAMES
Have you ever started mirroring your horse’s behavior to see what happens? Mirroring your horse can be a fun way to engage with your horse and teaches you to be more aware of what your horse may be doing, feeling or thinking.
“I love to do mirroring work with my horses, where I mirror or match their stride, speed, body position and angle,” Gingerich said. “Horses naturally want to feel synced up and in tune with those around them, and this is a great way to do that.”
#5. TRY SHOWMANSHIP
Showmanship is a popular class at horse shows that involves a person leading a horse through a series of maneuvers. If you’ve always wanted to learn showmanship, the long winter months may be the perfect time to try it. Start out by perfecting your leading skills, then begin practicing one maneuver at a time. By spring, you might be ready to add a new class to your show schedule.
THANK YOUR HORSE
If you’re working on teaching your horse a new skill, make sure to end every session on a good note. Remember, these ground sessions are all about bonding with your horse, so this is the perfect time to bring out his or her favorite treats and give plenty of hugs and pats!