As I read around the blogs and posts these days, it seems so many people seem to be lamenting that their usually calm and steady equine companion has been possessed by high spirits and nonsense. Welcome to late fall and winter.
The following are some thoughts and suggestions about working with horses in colder weather.
Change in the temperature, weather and season has a way of making old timers act like young fools and schoolmasters forget even the simplest of movements. There seems to be a heightened awareness and alertness to every sound, smell and sight and especially to what other horses are doing.
Some of this might be responses to instincts that are hard-wired into the essense of being a prey animal. In the wild, horses will migrate to warmer places and more plentiful food sources at this time of year. Wild horses would also seek out places where they are better protected from predators as prey animals have fewer available food sources when the weather turns colder, and they need to eat more to maintain body temp. So perhaps, there is a ancient survival mode that kicks in when the seasons change, increasing horses' sensitivity to sites and sounds as a means by which to protect themselves against predators. An increased flight drive so to speak. In addition is an urge to migrate, to move - a restlessness that we have rendered unnecessary by providing a stall and food but that still may exist and cause frustration for horse and handler.
Perhaps it's also the constant tingle of a chilly breeze riffling the longer fur. If the touch of a fly is an annoyance on the fur, imagine a cold breeze penetrating the coat to the skin. And a fully clipped horse will most certainly want to get moving to generate some heat to adapt to the disadvantage of being rendered naked! Unless a horse is working hard or showing during the colder weather, it's preferable to use one of the body clipping styles that allows maximum fur coverage with minimum cooling and drying efforts after working.
On a normally phlegmatic horse, a creative rider will use this newfound energy and alertness to find exercises to distract the horses' mind. A good example is to create a maze of poles on the ground and walk, then trot the horse through and over them. Patterns for such can be found in several training exercise books, such as Dr. Reiner Klimke's book, Cavaletti: The Schooling of Horse and Rider over Ground Poles". Many horses tend to have improved concentration when they have to focus about where they are putting their feet. This is good because a rider can move into the ground pole exercise at any time during their ride that they need to bring the horses' mind back from daydreaming.
Many people like to use lungeing before they ride to get the nonsense out and then mount up. This is useful but much has been made of the abuse of this practice by overdoing it in order to render a horse exhausted to compensate for the rider's shortcomings. Lungeing before riding is best done fully tacked, so the horse knows he will be asked to work. The person lungeing should ask for the horse to perform the basic gaits for perhaps 10-15 minutes as a warm-up. If the horse bucks and plays on the line, they should keep control but ignore it and ask calmly for the horse to settle down. The horse should never be forced into galloping and bucking around by excessive urging, thinking this will hurry getting the goofiness out of him. In fact, that may very well have the opposite effect. The horse might have been quite willing to lunge in a well behaved manner for a few minutes then proceed into under saddle work nicely warmed up but after being agitated by being chased around the line will be so rattled under tack that working productively will be difficult at best!
Sometimes , especially in an older horse, the colder weather can bring on increased stiffness and creakiness in the joints and body. That can be incentive enough to act up and hope you'll get off their aching back! There are now numerous supplements on the market to address joint issues. This might be a time to discuss dosage with a vet. A vet might tell you to change the dosage, sometimes what is the average dosage on the package is not enough for a particular horses' needs.
Some horses appreciate being rubbed in with a little liniment just before work, to bring the blood up to the surface and create a sensation of heat. The slight increase in blood flow to a commonly stiff exposed area, say the hocks, from a short massage and application of liniment can often improve their attitude and get them to work faster. This should never be done under boots, bandages or areas covered by tack, as the increased heat from working can produce irritation, blister the skin and create sores and other problems.
Another thought to consider is the increased sensitivity to the cold of the metal bit. Imagine putting a frigid bar of metal in your mouth, across your tongue and touching your teeth. No one would blame a horse for wanting to avoid that! If you can try a rubber or plastic (such as a Happy Mouth) covered version of your usual bit, it might make a difference since these bits are not such conductors of the cold. Otherwise, the simple act of warming the bit before bridling is a gesture of kindness sure to be appreciated. Even on the coldest of days, the bit will warm up reasonably quickly in your bare hands. It's far better to get your hands cold for a few minutes than to put a freezing cold bit in your horse's sensitive mouth. Your horse's well being is what's most important, don't you agree?