Dealing With Fresh Horses

It’s the time of year when even the saintliest of horses can get spooky and sharp, making handling and riding them a challenge.

The dropping temperature isn’t the only reason your horse may be feeling fresh. He’s spending more time in his stall and likely isn’t moving as much when he is turned out, preferring to park himself by the round bale rather than exert much energy.

Here are some tips for surviving this season’s high spirits.

Warm yourself up. If you’re cold, you’ll be tight and less able to ride effectively. Jog around the arena, do a few jumping jacks to get your muscles warm and looser. You may want to do a few stretches too.

Get all your gear assembled and ready before you catch your horse, so you’re not leaving him in crossties to get anxious while you run back and forth getting brushes, saddle, boots, etc. Warm saddle pads and quarter sheets may be a good idea, especially if your horse is cold-backed.

Ride where it’s safe

If there’s a brisk wind blowing, it’s likely not the best choice to gallop around an open field. The indoor arena is probably a safer option. If your horse is distracted and energetic while you’re leading him in from his paddock or tacking him up, spend some time working from the ground first.

If you are feeling nervous or impatient, it’s likely best to stay out of the saddle entirely and concentrate on groundwork. Use a rope halter or bridle even when working from the ground so you have some control. Practice walking the horse forward so he’s not forging ahead or lagging behind, stopping, moving his shoulder and hindquarters away from you and backing up. Ask for prompt responses. Walk over poles or introduce him to objects he might find spooky, such as flower boxes, yoga balls, tarps.

Lunge, then lunge again

The lunge line is your best friend when your horse is spooky. Always lunge in a bridle and put boots on your horse if he’s apt to strike himself. Keep lunge circles large, 15 to 20 metres in diameter. You might want to use a surcingle and side reins, or saddle him up.

Don’t let your horse gallop wildly or put on a bucking bronc show. He has to learn to be as mannerly and respectful on the lunge as he is on the lead rope or under saddle. A forward canter is fine as long as you have control – and if he’s especially fresh, keep him cantering longer than when he decides it’s time to break into trot. He gets to slow down when you say so, not when he decides it’s time.

Once the edge is off, practice upward and downward transitions on the lunge line, asking for walk, trot, canter. You can trot a few steps, ask for a few strides of canter, back to trot and either back to canter or down to walk. See if you can get prompt reactions to the changes of gait.

Exercises under saddle

If your horse is still distracted once you’re in the saddle, you don’t want to get into a fight with him. The goal is to get his focus on you and build his confidence. You have to stay calm (take some deep breaths) and focussed despite his antics. Singing or talking out loud can help keep you relaxed.

If your horse is fresh when you get on, you can start with the canter on a 20-metre circle to expend some of that energy and get him to relax and soften over the back.

Don’t trot aimlessly around the perimeter of the ring. You might want to start with 20 metre trot circles rather than using the whole arena. Or you might want to start in walk, riding 15 or 10 metre circles.

When changing direction, use short diagonals and ride two-thirds of the arena, rather than the entire arena until he’s relaxing. Then you can use the whole space.

Lateral work is an excellent way to get him focussed. One exercise is to trot a 20-metre circle, spiral in to 12 metres, then leg yield back out to the bigger circle, moving him over with your inside leg while trying to keep contact with the outside rein.

Another fun exercise to get your horse’s focus on you: Ride on the left rein from A, deep into the corner and along the long side of the arena past F, B and M. Between M and C, execute a 15 metre half circle to the left and ride across the shallow diagonal to F, keeping as straight as possible. Between F and A, execute another half 15 metre circle on the right rein  and ride across the shallow diagonal to M. To make it more challenging, leg yield coming out of the half circles across the diagonal to F and M.