Yes, it's a tough economy and we're all feeling it. But that doesn't mean we're ready to give up our precious horse time. In fact, we're finding we need it now more than ever to ease the stress of life in these uncertain times. Finances are a factor, however, so the things we choose to do with our four-legged friends need to be pocketbook-friendly. Expensive shows and long-distance hauling might be deferred for the time being, but that doesn't mean there isn't fun to be had. With that in mind, we've brainstormed a trove of activities that pack a punch without costing a bundle. They emphasize positive interaction with your horse, contact with likeminded friends, and, in many cases, terrific learning opportunities as well. Most will cost little more than your time to organize them. Sound good? Let's have a look.
Try this: You've heard of "play dates" for kids; this would be a "ride date" with one or more of your own horse-loving friends. Have them haul over and share your arena or other riding space for mounted fun and lots of gab.
Think about: Where your friends will park their trailers; liability issues (for any activity where you invite friends over, see "Playing It Prudent" at the end of this article).
Benefits: Getting your horse accustomed to being around other horses; informal learning by watching others ride and work with their mounts.
Variations: Make it an informal playday, with one of you serving as the judge (or take turns). Or, pool your resources to hire a local trainer for an hour or so to judge and provide off-thecuff feedback.
Resources: None needed other than your creativity and organizational skills.
Try this: Plan a horse-makeover extravaganza, where friends converge with their horses to help one another bathe, clip, pull manes, condition-and- bag tails, and do other "beauty maintenance" chores. Those with long-tressed horses can also experiment with fancy mane- and tail-braiding techniques.
Think about: Who in your group is best set up to host this activity? Plan to have everyone bring some of the supplies that will be needed.
Benefits: Learning, or brushing up on, various grooming techniques.
Variations: Get the kids involved; let them finger-paint their own mounts with washable, non-toxic paints before the bathing part of Spa Day. (Come to think of it, this could be fun for the adults, as well!)
Resources:"Spa Day! Mane and Tail Makeover"; Braiding Manes and Tails by Charni Lewis.
Try this: Use your imagination to dream up a good excuse for a great barn party. For example, throw a birthday party for a special horse; a victory party for a show horse's big (or notso-big!) win; or a foal shower for an expectant broodmare. Have everyone bring a snack to share and an inexpensive joke gift.
Think about: Amusing party games with a horsey twist. Pin the Ponytail on the Human, anyone?
Benefits: Pure fun.
Variations: Make it a "roast" for a deserving friend.
Resources:"How to Throw a Foal Shower."
Try this: Have friends gather with their horses at one friend's barn. Video-record each other riding, then watch the videos afterward at a potluck lunch or dinner. You can also review a how-to article or educational DVD together (sample topics: flexing and the one-rein stop, equine sports massage, clicker training), then try it out on your horses.
Or, simply share the problem-solving skills some members of your group already have (such as, perhaps, trailer loading the problem horse).
Think about: Who has the best video-recording equipment? What new learning will appeal to, and be useful for, everyone? What will be doable and manageable in the time and space allotted?
Benefits: Obviously, the learning involved, but also the additional ideas for future "clinics" that will arise.
Variations: Instead of meeting at someone's barn, leave the horses at home and audit an educational/ training clinic as a group. Auditing is much less expensive than participating; your group can then try the hands-on part of it later at another Do-It-Yourself Clinic. Also, consider field trips to a local veterinary school, feed dealer, or saddle maker for a lecture/demonstration, or a symposium put on by pharmaceutical companies on health topics (such as equine ulcer prevention). Symposiums are typically free of charge, and they sometimes include refreshments to boot.
Resources: Past issues of H&R, plus how-to articles on this website; www.EquineNetworkStore.com for educational books and DVDs; your local feed or tack store for area publications with information on upcoming clinics, seminars and symposiums.
Try this: If you don't already know how, teach yourself to ride bareback.
Think about: Whether or not your horse is broke enough for you to attempt it (use the information you'll find in "Resources," below).
Benefits: It'll boost your balance and fine-tune your cueing.
Variations: Help your friends learn to ride bareback, too (see "Do-It-Yourself Clinic"), then plan a dollar-bill showdown (see "Game Time").
Resources:"Bareback's a Blast," the complete tutorial from Team H&R member Stacy Westfall, featured in our April '08 issue.
Try this: Form a trail-riding group that meets on a regular basis once a week or once a month. Have participants schedule it on their calendars--just like other important "to-do's." Choose a favorite local destination that everyone can haul to in under an hour. Pack lunches and picnic it, or plan to meet afterward for lunch or an early dinner.
Think about: Whether or not everyone's horse is already "trail friendly." If not, plan a learning session beforehand (see "Do-It-Yourself Clinic") to practice riding-out and riding-together skills.
Benefits: Trail riding is great for improving horsemanship skills and strengthening the horse-rider bond, plus riding with one or more pals is safer than going alone. Over time, your group can explore other trail-riding venues to expand your riding-out options.
Variations: If your friends all live in rural areas with access to trails within riding distance, start the ride from a different person's home base each time. That person can then host an informal (al fresco?) lunch for the group upon its return.
Resources: Books on trail riding, including Clinton Anderson's Training on the Trail.
Trick 'n Horse Treat
Try this: Teach your horse a trick or two. There are straightforward, time-tested basics, such as shaking the head "no," nodding the head "yes," and yawning, as well as more elaborate stunts, such as bowing and sitting. It's highly entertaining and, with the right technique, easier than you might imagine.
Think about: Which tricks might be especially useful to you. For example, if you ride bareback, the bow will enable you to mount with ease.
Benefits: Training your horse to do anything new enhances his ability to learn and yours to teach, plus strengthens the bonds of trust between the two of you. And, tricks such as the bow can improve your horse's suppleness by stretching muscles and working joints.
Variations: Keep it simple and, instead of teaching a real trick, just do some "carrot stretches"--great for your horse's flexibility.
Resources:Advanced Trickonometry: The Secrets of Teaching Your Horse Tricks by Carole Fletcher; a how-to on carrot stretches.
'Set Up' for Fun
Try this: Even if you never plan to show in it, teach yourself and your horse to "do" showmanship (or another event).
Think about: What event or sport have you always wanted to try? This is a low-cost, stress-free way to put your toe in the water and see if you like it.
Benefits: It'll build that teaching/learning bond; plus, if showmanship is your choice, you'll end up with a horse that has impeccable ground manners.
Variations: Endless. For example, rent feed barrels from a local feed store and try barrel racing. Or, bring friends over (see "Do-It-Yourself Clinic") and learn a new sport together.
Resources: Past issues of H&R, plus this website for inspiration and how-to articles. "Pole Power," a three-part series in H&R, provides an easy introduction to the ground poles of a trail class. Call 877-717-8928 to order back issues.
Try this: Host a Game Day where you and your friends explore various mounted games. An old standard to try: informal Cowboy Polo, played with brooms and a large rubber playground ball. The latest thing: Horse soccer, played with extralarge soft balls that the horses themselves bat forward with their front legs.
Think about: What game will best match the existing skills and abilities of the horses and riders in your group?
Benefits: Concentrating on the game (as opposed to obsessing over your riding) helps you become a bolder, more fluent rider.
Variations: Find an existing game group in your area and join it.
Resources:Games on Horseback: Having Fun, Learning Safety, Improving Horsemanship by Betty Bennett-Talbot and Steve Bennett; www.horsesoccer.com for information on this game. Also, Google "gymkhana" for additional game ideas.
Do-it-Yourself Reality Show:
Try this: Create a variety of unusual challenges for you and your horse to surmount, using whatever whatever you have on hand or can acquire inexpensively at a lumberyard: poles, railroad ties, gates, so on. Make it like a low-level trail course, only more creative--say, for example, add jumbo-size stuffed toy animals acquired at a thrift store on either side of the standard L back-through (created with poles or railroad ties).
Think about: Safety, of course. Be careful not to overface yourself or your horse. If you're not sure about the suitability of a specific "challenge," seek an expert opinion before proceeding.
Benefits: Approached sanely and the way you would any other training opportunity, this activity can provide excellent desensitization for your horse.
Variations: Have friends haul over and make it a real competition. Plan it so all the obstacles can be done in-hand instead of (or as well as) mounted.
Resources:Clinton Anderson's "Creative Groundwork" article.
Drill, Baby, Drill
Try this: Start an informal drill team. Synchronized riding is terrific fun that requires no out-of-the-ordinary equipment or specialized training.
Think about: Starting slowly, with the horsemanship level of all participants in mind.
Benefits: Drill-team work hones your horsemanship skills and your horse's responsiveness. Like mounted games, synchronized riding helps you become a more natural and fluent rider. As a bonus, it sets your group up for another fun, inexpensive activity: riding in parades.
Variations: Buy or make color-matched shirts to foster the esprit de corps among your group.
Resources: Google "equine drill team" for endless information on this entertaining pastime.
PLAYING IT PRUDENT
Before inviting guests and their horses over to your place, check your homeowner's insurance policy to make sure your coverage is up-to-date and adequate. Also read the articles "Equine Activity Liability Laws" and "Four Strategies for Avoiding Liability" for additional tips and safeguards.
RENT A RIDE
For something totally different, leave your horse (and any problems related there to) behind and rent a mount that's custom-trained to carry you where you crave going: up and down wilderness hills, through real-ranch chores, or galloping on the beach. True, this one's not inexpensive.but it's worth saving up for that once-in-awhile splurge. Find lots of riding tour information on this website.
This article originally appeared in the January 2009 issue of Horse & Rider magazine.