It is surprising how easily many riders and horse owners lose track of what's so grand about horses in the midst of the pressure of competition, economic stresses, and time crunches. All too often we get caught up in the day-to-day "grind" of keeping horses a major part of our life---the ritual feeding, watering, and management that takes time and energy even when you have little; the lessons that don't go quite right even when you pay a lot for them; the expensive visits from the farrier and (hopefully not often) the vet, even when you're careful to maintain good foot care, optimal nutrition, and safe stabling and turnout.
We have to take a moment to remember that, more than anything else, being with horses is FUN. Most of us came to horses because we love them, and because riding and working with them brings us joy, peace, and fulfillment in ways that little else in life can. It is important as we begin 2012 to remind ourselves not to take horses and riding JUST seriously. Sure, we can be great riders, we can be competitors (good ones), and we can make a living breeding and training horses---all of this requires a certain level of gravitas. BUT, horses are social creatures, and they thrive on interaction, diversion, and play, just as we do from time to time.
Here are TSB's Top Ten Ways to Have Fun with Your Horse---whatever your discipline, whatever your experience, whatever your age. All TSB books are available to order from our online bookstore www.horseandriderbooks.com, where shipping in the US is always FREE, and where you can receive 15% off select titles this month.
TOP TEN WAYS TO HAVE FUN WITH YOUR HORSE
1. Spend "non-work" time with him. In the stall, in the pasture, just hang out, observe, and be present without making demands. This can teach you about your horse's personality, and the way he moves, as well as improving his ability to trust in you, and you in him. It is easier to be someone's friend if they aren't always putting you to work! And as horse trainer Ryan Gingerich explains in his book Beyond a Whisper, "just watching" is the first step in building a reliable communication system you can use in training your horse, whatever your discipline.
2. Experiment with bodywork. You know how good it feels when your husband, wife, or partner scratches your back or rubs your shoulders after a long week or a hard day. In a moment, your tense parts relax and your mind quiets. Think of how this kind of interaction could benefit your horse, especially if he is in serious training or participating in a rigorous performance schedule. Again, physical touch that seeks to ease his pain and tension is different from the practical day-to-day steps of grooming and tacking up, and helps to build a special relationship with your horse. Check out Jim Masterson's new book and DVD by the same name Beyond Horse Massage, which introduce the Masterson Method---a new kind of bodywork that goes beyond typical massage modalities.
3. Work in hand instead of riding. By incorporating obstacles as well as schooling exercises in a work session from the ground, you can reinvigorate your horse's interest in the ring while improving his ability to handle distractions and potentially scary situations. Linda Tellington-Jones offers terrific options for this kind of practical, yet fun, exercise in The Ultimate Horse Behavior and Training Book, and her methods are packaged for horse-crazy kids in My Horse, My Friend.
4. Ride in a group. In his forthcoming book Horse Profiling: The Secret to Motivating Equine Athletes, horse herd dynamics expert Kerry Thomas explains the myriad benefits of using group work, in and out of the ring, to improve your horse's focus ability and increase his interest in performing. We forget that by nature horses are herd animals, and working alone, drill after drill, in a riding arena, is a lonely existence. Time your practice sessions to match a friend's, or go for a group trail ride. Not only is it a chance for your horse to socialize, it's an opportunity for you to build better friendships, as well.
5. Ride bitless or bareback...or both! The novelty of going for a ride without metal in his mouth or a tight girth around his middle can perk up any bored schoolmaster---and it will fire you up, too! You'll have to turn on all your senses and concentrate on your seat to communicate without the usual "crutches" the bit and saddle provide. This exercise is not only refreshing for your horse and good for improving your riding ability, it can be perfectly safe. Andrea and Markus Eschbach explain just how to prepare your horse for daily or weekly excursions without a bit, saddle, or even a bridle, in their joyful new book RIDING FREE. If you plan for it from the ground and learn the proper reflexes when on board, you'll find you can be at home on a horse without tack---and he'll love you for it.
6. Cross-train. That's right---variety is the spice of life, even for a horse. Get crazy and try something different, just for fun, and just to keep your horse interested in the next adventure! In The Smart Woman's Guide to Midlife Horses, author Melinda Folse describes a broad sampling of the vast array of horsey activities out there. And many of them don't require a specific saddle or outfit---you can show up in what you got and get busy. Melinda is a fan of ranch sorting on the occasional weekend, although her horses are primarily for trail riding; perhaps your dressage horse would enjoy a day of simple gridwork and small jumps; maybe your tuned-up event horse would like to try some gymkhana events; your hunter or equitation mount would surely like an afternoon amble down a woodsy trail. Go wild when no one's judging you, and just toy with the possibilities.
7. Train your horse tricks. Serious riders might lift their noses at this, but as very serious classical dressage rider Philippe Karl said in his foreword to Trick Training for Horses by Bea Borelle, "Trick training is one of the best ways to make your horse your friend." You don't have to teach your horse to sit or lie down, but simple little tricks, such as bowing, doing a curtsy, or stepping onto a podium can be great fun for the horse---not to mention crowd-pleasing! Incorporating a little trick lesson in your schooling regimen keeps your horse interested and keen to learn. Open your mind and give it a shot. You never know, you and your horse might have a future in film.
8. Try Horse Agility. That's right, this exciting new horse sport is sweeping its way across several continents! Led by the International Horse Agility Club, founded by Vanessa Bee, author of the new book The Horse Agility Handbook, this new discipline finally gives us the option to train and compete our horses from the ground, just as done in the extremely popular dog agility classes found all over the world. If you don't have a Horse Agility Club near you, it is time to start one! The book gives you great ways to train your horse, construct safe agility obstacles, and hold playdates.
9. Cultivate your horse's sense of humor. Invent little exchanges that become ritual, just between you and your horse, that make you laugh and him "smile." Perhaps he nudges you in one pocket, but the carrots are in another, and you move them around every time you visit him in the barn. Maybe you run the water from the hose right into his mouth when you fill his water bucket, then let him shake his head and give you a bit of a "shower" as the spray flies. Allow him time to be a comic, and don't hesitate to enjoy the joke. In Gallop to Freedom, Magali Delgado and Frederic Pignon share stories of the some of the funny games they play with their beautiful performance horses. "I have a special game with [my horse] Dao," says Magali. "He wants me to touch his ear so he looks around and then stares at me. If I don't react he pushes his head toward me, still staring intently. I touch his face and he pushes more. I touch his leg and so on...then I touch his ear and we have had our little intimate exchange."
10. Go for a Sunday drive. Load up, pack up, back up, and drive away---away from the training ring and home barn and usual suspects in the neighboring fields and paddocks. Truck off to someplace altogether different, a wide open plain or quiet winding trail that can serve as the space where you can commune with your horse, the ground below, and the heavens above. As Dominique Barbier and Keron Psillas write in Meditation for Two, "When man communicates with the horse, it is on so many levels, but the most important is the spiritual. Because above all, the horses are spiritual creatures. Who is closer to God than the horse? Who flies without wings, who speaks so eloquently without words, who imparts such true knowledge without avarice?"
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