Winter is a good time to condition your tack, give your horse a vacation, and put up your feet by the fire. But frigid weather and bad footing don't mean you can't improve your horsemanship and horse-management skills during the non-riding months. Use your downtime to brush up your equine knowledge, learn new things, or get a head start on next show season. The horse industry is year-round, at least in heated indoor arenas, so what are you waiting for?
1. Go To an Expo
Many states host their own equine expos and bring nationally and internationally known professionals to your local fairgrounds or show facility-for a very reasonable price. Watch the horse training demos, shop the vendor booths and tack sales, or sit in on seminars about equine liability, bits and bitting, and rider psychology.
Even during the winter months, top training talents are doing symposiums and seminars. Want to see some of the clinicians you're curious about demonstrate their own personal brand of horsemanship? Use the Internet to find out when they are coming to your area and go audit for a modest fee. Better yet, see if you can ride in a session.
2. Watch a Show
Think you've seen it all? Perhaps you have in your discipline of choice, but why not branch out and explore what other areas of the horse industry are doing? Go to a specialty breed show, watch a reining competition, or take in a ranch rodeo. Get on the Internet and find out what else is happening within a day's drive of your home.
Big hunter-jumper shows often have a grand prix jumping event on Saturday nights. The sport is exciting and easy to follow, especially with friendly folks in the stands ready to explain what they know to newcomers. A musical freestyle at a higher level dressage competition is breath-taking. And watching five-gaited Saddlebreds show rack for a cheering audience gets the blood pumping.
3. Play Ring Crew
Spectating is fun, but being an active participant behind the scenes is really rewarding. Call the show chair of a competition and ask to volunteer. With a little coaching, you could ring steward, scribe for the judge, or assist the announcer. If you want a low-key task, offer to man the gate or give out awards. Show committees are always short-staffed, and this is a great way to see a new type of competition from the inside or to make new horse friends. Be sure to ask about the time commitment and duties up front.
4. Take a Class
Equine science and equestrian programs have sprung up in community colleges and universities across the country, making continuing education for the horse owner both accessible and affordable. Some schools streamline the application process for non-traditional students and offer night and weekend courses. At Rochester Community and Technical College in Rochester, Minnesota, the new two-year equine science program's enrollment is nearly 50 percent people who have day jobs and take a class or two each semester.
You can learn whatever the college kids do: horse judging, nutrition, stable management, and even colt starting. Worried about making the grade? Pay your tuition and audit, so you can focus on learning instead of stressing over tests.
5. Sign Up for a Short Course
These accredited offerings are common at larger state universities. Often cosponsored by the animal science department and the state extension program, they provide concentrated weekend courses for area horsemen. At North Carolina State University, short courses span the spectrum from pasture management and reproduction to horse-protection officers training.
Local and regional extension offices also team up with 4-H programs, breed associations, veterinarians and local stables to offer seminars, workshops, and classes during the winter months. Specialty topics like horse and tack theft prevention, saddle fitting, and equine dentistry are taught by professionals and allow you to stay abreast of industry trends. Call your area extension educator and ask what is available for horse owners.
6. Attend a Judges' Seminar
Ever wonder what criteria judges use, or how they rank horses in a halter or performance class? Audit a judges' seminar and learn how to evaluate horses in a variety of competitions. Many state horse councils, 4-H programs, saddle club associations, and breed registries offer annual horse judging clinics and seminars designed to train and assess the judges they certify. Many accept spectators, so you can audit inexpensively and learn alongside the pros. If you have a knack for it, you may consider working toward a judge's card yourself.
Most people start with 4-H or open show cards provided by state horse councils, then work toward regional or nationally recognized cards. Although some breed association clinics are by invitation only, others are open to the public. The American Paint Horse Association hosts a learner judges' school twice each winter, in warm locales, for people who are applying for an APHA card or just want to understand how Paint Horses are evaluated.
7. Take an Education Vacation
Turn your time-off into time well spent by learning a new skill on vacation. Ranches in the southwestern states offer cattle-driving lessons, farrier schools hold short courses in trimming, and top trainers hold one or two-week clinics at their home facilities. Many even provide horses.
Companies that specialize in riding vacations can outfit you for the week of your dreams, horse, tack, and care included. If you just want to unwind, try trail riding in southern California or Arizona. Planning a family vacation around a major equestrian event is another good way to get your horse fix. Go see the Denver Stock Show, attend Equine Affaire, or spectate at the spectacular Winter Equestrian Festival in Florida.
8. Mentor Horsy Youth
Are you brimming with good information and looking for a way to share it? Invest in the education of our future horse trainers, breeders and instructors by volunteering with Pony Club, 4-H, FFA, or a youth breed association. Their horse judging, hippology, and horse bowl teams need coaches. Kids' clubs also look for clinicians to coach riders, helping hands for competitions and contests, and adult program leadership. The best way to find out if you understand an idea is to try to explain it to someone else.
Winter only lasts a few months in many parts of the country, so what are you waiting for? Get moving and make your downtime count. Your horse will thank you, but most of all, you'll thank yourself.