Riding It Out

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For most of the country, trying to ride and train in the winter can be tough, but here’s how two top riders find inspiration to gut it out until spring.

By Jennifer M. Keeler  

Ah, winter. By now, the celebratory mood of the holiday season is long gone. Unless riders are lucky enough to live in the Sun Belt states, the task of trying to ride our horses often involves donning heavy layers of clothes, dealing with mud/snow/frozen footing, biting wind chills, and training in darkness. Even with spring shows right around the corner, just the thought of having to go outside and face the cold and gloom for a few precious moments in the saddle can be daunting.

Ellen Murphy (Lisa Michelle photo)

“It can be hard to stay motivated and positive during the winter months because everything just feels harder,” explained Ellen Murphy, a USDF Bronze, Silver, and Gold Medalist based out of Ellen Murphy Sporthorses in Georgetown, Kentucky. “It’s really easy to talk yourself out of riding, and I think sometimes just getting on the horse is half the battle.” 

So when riders near their breaking point of simply wanting to hibernate until April, where can they find inspiration to face Old Man Winter one more time? For Murphy, she has a barn full of horses of a wide variety of breeds and backgrounds all in full training as well as students taking regular lessons, keeping her busy even in the misery of winter – so she has to keep going, no matter the weather.

“It’s often considered more of a ‘southern’ state, but training horses in the winter in Kentucky is not glamorous!” Murphy laughed. “We fluctuate between freezing temperatures and rain and mud and we tend to add plenty of wind and dark, grey, gloomy days to the mix. Because the weather is unpredictable and we do not have an indoor, it is harder to have a weekly plan for training because it has to be adjusted based on weather conditions. We get plenty of fine days where you can carry on as usual, but sometimes you have to do something else. So as a rider, it can be very discouraging and frustrating to try to train here in the winter with consistency, but it is absolutely doable.”

Nadine Schwartsman

On the other side of the country, Nadine Schwartsman is a USDF Bronze, Silver, and Gold Medalist and international Grand Prix competitor based out of Les Bois Dressage in Eagle, Idaho, home to around 45 horses year-round – which means that she also doesn’t have the luxury of taking the winter off just because of the weather. “In a typical year, I compete between 15 and 20 different horses from Training Level and Young Horse classes through Grand Prix, so even in the winter, there’s never a dull moment for me and my team,” said Schwartsman.

Schwartsman notes that, while her facility is located in Boise doesn’t usually receive a lot of snow, it’s the cold that can be brutal. “Even so, our horses actually live outside 24/7 for the majority of the year and only come in for grooming and riding,” she explained. “I have found that living outside with a lot of social interaction is best for our horses’ mental and physical health even though that means we often have to scrape off a thick layer of mud before we can ride!”

So how do these riders pull themselves up by the bootstraps and climb into the saddle even on the coldest, darkest days? Here are some tips:

RIP OFF THE BAND-AIDS

“I actually like to think of the winter as a time to improve and move up the levels with all the horses and also my students,” said Schwartsman. “During show season, we can get busy with preparing and perfecting certain tests, but in the winter we can play, experiment, and evolve.” Murphy agreed. “During the competition season, riders often get focused only on riding the test and put a ‘band-aid’ on issues rather than going back and fixing them. This is never a good thing but I think it is human nature, so winter is a good time to take an honest look at things and pursue training solutions, which may take some time to figure out.”  

SOAK UP KNOWLEDGE

Both Schwartsman and Murphy say they utilize the winter months as a great time to improve knowledge and understanding, and then come to the barn with new ideas and exercises to try. “These days not only can you read a great book about dressage, you also have access to amazing articles and clinic videos thanks to the internet,” Murphy noted. “I absolutely take advantage of this during the quieter winter months, because education is so essential to improving your dressage.”

WORK ON THE WALK

Want to improve your dressage score? Spend time this winter working on the most boring gait: the walk. “I love to work on walk exercises in the winter because they’re all things that have huge training benefits even though they can be a bit boring to some riders, plus the walk is worth a LOT of points in a dressage test,” Murphy explained. “Walk, free walk, extended walk, medium walk, collected walk, walk pirouette, turn on the forehand, halt, rein back, walking lateral work… when it’s still a little too crunchy out or too cold to do a lot, it is a super time to focus on these exercises.”

Ellen Murphy

UTILIZE THE LANDSCAPE

No indoor? No problem. “One of the great things about the Bluegrass region is our rolling hills, so when our outdoor ring is a bit frozen, we like to take the horses out to walk, trot, and canter the hills,” said Murphy. “This is such a good way to mentally give horses and riders a break while sneaking in some fantastic fitness and strength training. It also teaches the horses to balance themselves better and be more sure-footed.” 

Wide open spaces

GO BACK TO BASICS

“I also love to take time in the winter to go back to some basics for my riders, such as no stirrup work and position correction work,” Murphy added. “I also love to check in on how honest my horses are. How little of an aid can I use to get a transition? How straight can I keep the horse? How honest to the aids? Can I refine some aids?”

MIX IT UP

Winter work doesn’t have to be boring. “During the winter we try to mix up our activities with in-hand work, some lungeing, long-lining and physical therapy sessions,” said Schwartsman. “Variety is key and keeps our horses motivated and happy!” Murphy agreed. “If the horses need it, I also swim or Aquatred some of them over the winter to build strength, fitness, cardio, and flexibility. This can be a super tool if it is available in your area.”  

TRY SOMETHING NEW

“I also love using the winter to introduce in-hand work to the horses and riders who are interested in learning how to do it,” Schwartsman explained. “It’s the perfect time to get started on half-steps and piaffe without having to worry about your Third Level horse demonstrating his new party trick at the horse show that weekend!” Murphy is even brave enough to experiment with in-hand work out on the frozen tundra. “Even if the ring is a little frozen we can often use our round pen or our grass jump field or a grassy lane to work a little piaffe/half steps with the horses,” she added. “And we don’t even have to take off our snow suits to do it!”

KEEP UP THE FIGHT

Murphy encourages her students to try to keep up with regular lessons, despite uninspiring weather conditions and a seasonal lack of enthusiasm. “Knowing you have a lesson schedule helps keep you honest in your work in between,” she explained. “I try to give my students exercises with several possible modifications so they have good homework to work on in between lessons and they can make things harder or easier as they need to.” 

SWEAT IT OUT

When the temperature drops below freezing, it can be hard not to curl up on the couch with a big bag of chips, but both riders encourage others to take care of their own physical fitness. Schwartsman makes time to work out with both strength and cardio exercises in her home gym. Murphy encourages her students to try yoga, pilates, and rider-specific workout programs, all of which improve fitness, flexibility, and body awareness for riding.  For some great rider-specific workouts, check on Julie Luther’s Fit to Ride Series on YourDressage!

COMPETE IF YOU CAN

Even though it may involve tackling a long road trip or braving a snow shower, both riders try to find a way to get in the show ring even during the winter. “We travel to California to train and show when possible,” said Schwartsman. “It’s always so nice to get away from the cold weather for a few weeks and to keep our test skills sharp.” Murphy also braves both the cold and the antics of frisky youngsters. “I like to use the winter months to take the babies and green horses on field trips,” she explained. “We take them to schooling shows and to neighboring farms to school with no agenda or pressure. We do have a few nice options for dressage schooling shows in the area, and sometimes I even take them to do the flat classes and cross rails at local hunter schooling shows. I love doing this in the winter when the babies can get out and get my undivided attention. It is harder to do that the rest of the year when I also have the seasoned horses out competing.”

Nadine Schwartsman (SusanJStickle.com)

HAVE A PLAY DAY

While Schwartsman does have the luxury of a fully insulated and heated indoor arena in Boise, it comes at a cost: being in the same 20m x 60m arena day after day is an easy recipe for boredom. So she takes creativity to a whole new level in trying to keep things entertaining for her horses and riders during the winter.

“Every Monday, I set up different cavalettis and ground poles in the indoor arena, usually with multiple stations, so that there is something for everybody from barely-started three-year-olds to the FEI horses. The patterns build every week on something that has been learned in the weeks before and we can see real progress in the horses’ strength, range of motion, and coordination. It’s also great for the riders as it requires different skills from the usual dressage work.

“In addition, every two to three weeks I set up a big play day in the arena with tarps, umbrellas, flags, pool noodles, trash bins with plastic bags, bicycles, four wheelers, fog machine, caution tape, and we even had a blow up T-Rex visit one day! We let every horse explore at its own pace. Some take all winter just to get a foot on the tarp, others do one-handed flying changes on top of the tarp while being wrapped in a smaller tarp and me swinging an umbrella on their backs after one session. It’s not so much about desensitization as it is about putting the horses into an unknown situation and helping them to cope. That way you and your horse have a plan when you encounter something new and scary at a horse show or on a trail ride.” 

No matter if you decide to stay curled up in front of the fireplace all winter or brave the elements and train diligently, both riders emphasize that focusing on your own journey is important. “It’s easy to look at Facebook posts of people having a grand time down in Florida and feel like throwing in the towel, but with a little effort there really are a lot of productive things you can do in the winter,” Murphy concluded. “At the end of the day, I think that it is also important not to be too hard on yourself about missing rides or not getting in all the training that you would like to. Horses enjoy a little down time, and I think it keeps them sounder and happier in the long run.”

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