While some people detest the off season or quiet work, I really love it. My goal is that every horse I have coming back into work after vacation from a long season or big three-day comes back stronger and more mature than before. In my training, I use this time to stay away from physically strenuous training and instead focus on filling in holes. To someone who hasn’t experimented with the progression of bringing horses back into full work after a long season, or hasn’t ever had to do any rehab work, the time in the saddle can be mind-numbing, and the time until they are back competing can feel like an eternity. But this time, used wisely, can produce a horse that is stronger, better trained, and more mature than ever before.
I don’t make this point because I believe the winter months need to consist of a regimented slow progression back into work. I stress this because there is so much that can be accomplished even when the work is light, and we’re not in peak competition season. To start, there’s so much that can be achieved from the ground.
When you lead your horse in from the field, and he’s walking slowly, do you just accept he’s the lazy type and pull him along? Or do you get behind his shoulder and cluck or give him a light tap with a dressage whip behind you and make his shoulder stay slightly in front of you until he’s marching with you into the barn? Does this same horse in fact start out behind the leg when you ride him? More often than not there’s a correlation between their behavior on the ground that carries over under-saddle. This may seem like common sense, but it’s often ignored and overlooked.
When your horse dances around in the cross-ties, do you accept she’s just the fidgety or nervous type, or do you spend the time standing her center and still no matter how many times she tries to move to the side or wiggle?
Perhaps your horse is pushy and always on top of you when you’re leading him out of the barn, or maybe he always tries to walk away from the block as you are about to throw your leg over. Do you spend time working on this? Or do you just accept that’s how he’ll always be because he used to be on the track?
If your horse finds it easier to travel with her haunches slightly left and shoulder slightly right, do you mix in lateral work on a hack in the woods and ask her to walk in haunches-in right? Or do you allow her to walk crooked and continue to build and develop unevenness because it’s not natural to mix in lateral work on the buckle on a ride out?
If your horse is spooky and starts out tight and reactive, do you just get on and ride until it decides to stop, or do you spend time working on the rope before you get on? If your horse starts out really stiff every day when you begin but is great after warming up, do you spend time doing carrot stretches before you tack up? If your feedback from dressage judges often says “falls on forehand in downward transitions,” but you just jumped foot-perfect through an exercise in your jump lesson, do you take the time to ride a downward that would score at least an 8 in the dressage ring EVERY TIME?
These details may seem trivial, but they aren’t, and they bring me back to my original point: Don’t ever waste a second of time you could be using to train your horse no matter what you’re doing. This same concept applies when we are in easier off-season type work with them.
When you have a light flat day of just walk and trot, are you walking on a loose rein and trotting some circles both directions? Or are you working on your transition from working walk to free walk, medium to extended walk, turn on the haunches, halt/rein back, perfecting the angle in your half pass, or working on your straightness on the centerline? I haven’t even touched on the trot yet!
So much can be done in walk work. It often the most overlooked gait, yet double scored in dressage tests. If you can’t get the leg-yield perfect at the walk, how do you expect to be able to get a high mark for it in your dressage test? If you can’t do a proper turn on the haunches, how do you expect to make the 90-degree turn in four strides from the table to corner on cross-country?
It has nothing to do with assuming the role of a mean and super strict parent. It’s about being consistent and disciplined in your expectations. Training horses and improving their strength, performance and manners requires discipline no matter how much we love them and how great they are. It’s not about telling them what they can’t do; it’s about showing them what they can do and rewarding them for it—when they give you the right answer they get a pat, a verbal praise, a break (or occasionally a treat; those who know me well know I do not over-treat my horses, and this only comes at the end of working). You want the work to become easier for them without making it any easier. Through consistency, the right answer becomes the easier one.
Horses need variety or they get bored and sour. Training your horse the same way just because you’re trying to be more disciplined is not the answer. They need to go on hacks and have days off just as much as they need a tough flat session or challenging jump school. But the days off don’t have to be feral days off. You can visit your horse in the field or the stall and work with him on the ground on a day off. You can work on easy transitions on a hack day. You can go back to basics and work on filling in the holes in every gait on a lighter flat day, even if you’re only walking. You can work over poles on a jump day in the off season so you don’t tax their bodies.
I’ll admit—I am definitely guilty in letting things slide. When riding my own horses that I sit on day-in and day-out, I sometimes find myself saying, “Why am I letting this horse get away with (insert basic training issue here)? I wouldn’t accept this if it were a horse sent into training with me!” We all are guilty of this in some degree. It’s because they aren’t only horses we ride and compete. We love them, become empathetic to their struggles, and develop a real relationship with them. We develop a partnership that leads to a marriage, and we start to overlook the little things that all add up at the end of the day. We want them to like us so they will perform for us. But in doing this our horses are training us just as much as we are trying to train them. To be trained, they need leaders. To get stronger, they need to be positively pushed. To stay sound in their minds, they need variety. And to stay sound in their bodies, they need a vacation and a lighter off season that encompasses all of these concepts. It’s the art of training more without ever over-training. Sounds easy right!?
One of the Chronicle’s bloggers, eventer Lynn Symansky placed fifth at the 2013 Rolex Kentucky CCI**** and 13th at the 2013 Pau CCI**** (France) with her Donner. They were also part of the U.S. team gold medal effort at the 2011 Pan American Games. Lynn and Donner have been named to the 2014 Eventing High Performance Winter/Spring Training List as World Class Talent. Lynn runs her Lynn Symansky Equestrian out of Middleburg, Va.