How to use your surroundings to stimulate your horse

Every animal needs some purpose and stimulation in its life. Riding outside can provide that purpose.

Every animal needs some purpose and stimulation in its life. Riding outside can provide that purpose.

Training and riding your horse is about building a happy two-way partnership.  You can use your surroundings to make your relationship with your horse beneficial for you and also stimulating for your horse.

I want to encourage all of you to get out and about; and when you are out, to still train. And here’s why.

Be consistent
There’s nothing like having a nice, secure and safe area with a good surface to work a horse in. And sometimes we need this to work on some of our areas of foundation and high level performance training. It’s not good to put a sliding stop on a horse on a slippery grass paddock!  But something that happens quite often is that people become too secure in the arena. It’s easy to do all of our training in the arena and then when we ride outside we just sit on our horse on a trail ride. There are 2 problems with this: we can become a bully in the arena and just a passenger outside; a passenger with no leadership.  And we become inconsistent leaders.

Riding outside creates stimulation & reduces restrictive reactions
It is easy for horses to shut down in the arena – we are only riding from one fence to the next. After a while, there can become no purpose to the horse. Every animal needs some purpose and stimulation in its life. Riding outside can provide that purpose. I have found that horses that work cattle and muster or ride out with other horses generally seem to be happier.
Horses need time outside; the confinements and associated anxieties of not getting this can make them feel unsafe outside. But without this exposure they will never settle or become in partnership with us.  An example of extremely restricted horses are stabled horses and confined stallions, which are often treated with caution because of their extreme behaviours.  If only they could get more of what is natural to them by being outside.  This concept follows through to our regular horses and affects the way they are able to be trained.  Someone once told me about their horse who could cope with being tarped and desensitised to a range of objects but who still jumped at things outside. All the ground work and desensitising in the world won’t make you a better leader which your horse will feel safe under or rely on. Sometimes, you have to get on, get out and ride.

And if you do all of your training in an arena or enclosed area, don’t be surprised if your horse gets sour. Doing all your training in one area doesn’t expose your horse to new things which means when you get to a show it may not cope just because the arena might be different.

Harness their outside energy and forward focus for training
If you are training your horses for performance, there is no problem with doing a lot of the foundation outside on trail rides.  Over the years of starting young horses, nearly all of my foundation has been achieved on forest trails, in paddocks and out on our property. It’s easy to find rhythm and energy in our horses outside – they generally have more of a forward focus. We can harness this rhythm and energy and use it in our training.

So here’s what I’d like you to think about trying. Don’t let your horse go too long on a trail ride without giving them little jobs to do. Keep in contact with their brain and remind them that we are still up there, showing some leadership.  By giving them a little lesson, then letting them ride for a bit before another lesson, we are giving them time to relax. This break in stimulation avoids the drain that lesson followed by lesson can produce in an enclosed area. These jobs can be working on their foundation, giving purpose to what you are doing.  Whilst walking up a track, move sideways, walk straight and relax and then move sideways the other way.  If you stop to look at a view, stop and back up a bit, working on getting a couple of soft back steps.  Flex your horse before you ride off. Bend around trees.  Find a nice grassy flat spot and do some flat circle work. Remember though, riding outside is supposed to be enjoyable so don’t over do it.

By the time you go back to working in the arena, you will find that because of the consistent work that you have been doing outside, some of the areas that you have been working on have improved.

Remember, the arena is just another tool to advance some areas of performance.  It’s what you do in that saddle that counts – whether that’s inside or out.

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