There are times when we can’t drive our horses.
Where I live in Alberta, we have a winter filled with snow and ice, making driving treacherous most of the winter months, and I am so paranoid about them slipping and getting hurt (and it being my fault!) that I make the choice to simply not drive when there is snow, and give my horses a proper layoff instead.
In addition to weather, there are other reasons that your driving horse might have an extended break from work in harness – an injury to horse or human, something else taking your focus, or a scheduled time off.
But there are things that we can do to help our driving horses come back in good shape and ready to improve.
When I was a kid, our horses would drive a lot from about May to September, and the rest of the year not at all. They’d be turned out in a large herd on a huge pasture (a quarter section) for the winter, and those months of racing around with their friends through the snow meant they came in fit as a fiddle and ready to work in the spring.
Even now, while we aren’t turning them out on a whole quarter in our current situation, they still have a herd and plenty of space. A couple years ago I kept Finnegan, one of our primary driving horses, in a pen through the winter for management reasons, and I noticed a HUGE difference in his fitness come spring, to the point that he never really caught up all summer. The next year, after a winter back out with the main herd in the big pasture pasture, he was back to his usual fit and zoomy self.
While you may not have a big herd or lots of space for them to roam, thinking about how you could maximize their turnout and their time with friends will make a difference!
I’ve incorporated the core strengthening stretches from Dr. Hillary Clayton’s Activating Your Horse’s Core into my post driving routine to great improvement in my horse’s strength and flexibility. If your horse – like most every horse everywhere! – struggles with crookedness, then maintaining a routine of stretching throughout the offseason will help you come back in the spring with a much more supple and strong partner.
Below is a video from my Improving Your Miniature Driving Horse online course (registration now open!) showing the stretches that I do routinely. For added benefit, try doing them on a gym mat to help improve your horse’s proprioception as well!
If you have a bodyworker that regularly works with your horse (another great way to keep your driving horse in tip top condition!) they’ll be able to help you develop a stretching program tailored to your horse’s specific needs. It takes a team to make a great driving horse happen!
Speaking of a team, nearing the end of the layoff, it’s a great idea to have your vet out to take a peek at your equine athlete. Your vet can check and float their teeth to ensure there will be no issues with carrying the bit (if they drive with a bit) and do a general exam and lameness workup to make sure there are no underlying issues and establish a baseline against future potential injuries.
Your equine veterinarian is a critical part of your team, and having them examine and become familiar with your horse BEFORE there is an issue is an investment in your goals. Your veterinarian can find potential issues before they become a problem, and help you make adjustments to your horse’s management, training or feeding program to help you reach your goals with a happy and healthy driving horse. With everything I do with my horses, my veterinary team at Burwash Equine is an important member of the team!
We can all get wrapped up in achieving our goals during driving season, whether that’s heading down the road to competitions or just trying to make the most of the good weather and driving every chance you get.
When you’re in an off season, for whatever reason, it’s a chance to focus on your connection with your horse instead of your goals.
When my Hawk was just starting his competitive driving career, and was still a very challenging horse who did what I asked but never really seemed invested in anything, I decided, on a whim, to teach him some tricks. He LOVED them and I was startled to find that his driving work also improved – that had nothing obviously related to the silly tricks I was teaching him, but because we were having that fun together, he realized that driving could be a fun thing we did together too, and he just got better and better.
Teach your horse a trick. Go for a long walk together. Work through some agility obstacles as a team. Spend some time scratching their favourite itchy spots, or just sit near them while they munch their hay.
The connection and relationship you build will pay off when you have them back in harness, I promise.
While it’s still winter as I type this, spring will be here before I know it, and I can’t wait to get driving – and thanks to these steps my horses will be ready when I am!