“Two consecutive days of training in the arena is as much as most horses can mentally cope with,” explains national dressage judge Debi van Wyk. “They need a break to think about what they have learned, and absorb what they have been taught. After a break, I find that they come back better.”
Van Wyk has seen the benefits for herself with her own mare, who is hacked out by her husband on Saturdays and Sundays. “They go out and have fun, gallop down the bridle paths, jump the little cross country jumps, and as a result, my mare is divine to work in the arena on a Monday – keen, fresh, and easy.”
Van Wyk understands that not everyone is able to do this. Riders are often short on time, limited by the riding space they have available, or would prefer not to canter or gallop their horses on outrides. She explains that this is not a problem, because even going for a half-hour walk down the road and back again is still an outing for the horse, and will make a positive difference to his mindset and attitude.
Training in an arena six days a week is tedious for horses, and Van Wyk has observed that horses worked in this way often appear bored and switched off, lacking in sparkle. “I tell the riders I teach that they must include riding out at least once a week as part of their training programme. Not only will it improve their horses’ strength and balance, but also their mental outlook. This is important for riders in all disciplines, not just dressage,” she emphasises.
Rene Brinkman, Masterson Method practitioner based in Kyalami, explains that accumulated pain and tension in horses can result from many causes, most commonly repetitive motion and overexertion of the muscles. “Variety helps to slow that tension build-up – variety of work, variety of pace, variety of surface, and variety of environment,” she says.
Brinkman has observed that in general, the eventing horses she works with have more evenly developed musculature and fewer one-sided issues than other horses. She believes this is firstly because they are fitter, and secondly because they spend less time working in circles in the school, and more time working on varied surfaces in straighter lines, and at different speeds.
“Good training is about keeping the horse mentally engaged and physically relaxed. Changing the training environment by including outrides will not only keep the horse stimulated mentally, but also help prepare him to deal with different environments at shows,” Brinkman says.
Riding a horse over uneven ground at any pace will help them become more aware of where they are putting their feet, so the horse will become more sure-footed. Uphill work is great for building muscle and endurance, and going down hills is good for improving balance. On outrides, horses can learn, without pressure and often with the support of company, to cope with anything from climbing up and down banks, crossing ditches or dykes, to negotiating muddy patches or going through water. And if you have a safe place where you are able to gallop, Brinkman explains that this pace will help horses to stretch and release their backs.
Getting out and about
If your horse isn’t used to going on outrides, you can expect him to be more excited, bouncy and reactive than usual when he leaves the familiarity of home. The more a horse gets accustomed to going out, the more settled he will become, but initial exuberant behaviour on outrides can discourage some riders from doing them at all.
It’s a good idea to do the first few outings with one other rider on a calm, well-behaved horse, who can act as a behavioural role model and can give the other horse a lead past scary objects. In fact, a recent Danish study has proved that horses who watch another horse perform a scary task are less spooked about it when it’s their turn to do the same thing.
This concept is known as ‘social facilitation’, and it has shown to provide effective behavioural benefits when horses watch each other from a distance of up to 10m. Another sensible and experienced horse walking ahead, alongside or even behind but ready to take a lead when necessary, can help to settle any excitement and make the ride safer.
Single-horse owners can network with other riders at the yard or in the area to organise riding times. Alternatively, having someone go out with you on foot can provide some company and moral support for you and your horse.
The full article appears in the November issue (116) of HQ > Shop now
Text: Jassy Mackenzie