Wintering your horses . . . The Last Impression
Wil Howe Ranch Newsletter, Fall 1997
As winter sets in, we bring our first string geldings into the barn every night. We have two box stalls and four tie stalls. They stand tied in the warmth of the barn, standing under lights on wood floors, bedded with straw, bellied up to a full manger of alfalfa, enjoying each other's company. The daily contact of handling them, catching, leading, and tying does wonders for them as they become very dependent on us and rely on us to come turn them out and bring them in for dinner. We notice a big change in their patience and cooperation and how light they lead and respond because we always maintain the leadership and never allow any pushiness or rudeness.
Often in winter two things occur with the average horse person. You either do as we do, start to bring your horses into a barn environment daily, or leave them out in the pasture for several months. To address these two ways of keeping your horses, there are a few things to remember during these long winter months when your time to spend with your horse is limited.
When keeping your horse in a box or tie stall, remember to always maintain the leadership role when leading or handling. Don't let your horse become pushy when coming in or out of the barn or stall. Take the time it takes to correct your horse, and be consistent.
Remember, your horse may be feeling cooped up and want to rip around and let off some steam. Be sure they get turned out daily to romp. If you are using your round pen as your turn out pen, don’t go in with him at first so as not to confuse him with play and work. Just lead him in the pen and turn him around so he’s facing you and your back is to the gate. Always keep your horse's attention as you unhalter him, even if you have to drape the lead rope around his neck so he can’t jerk away from you. Let your horse play, buck, and kick by himself, and leave him out long enough so that all of his shenanigans are out of his system and he becomes bored, maybe even waiting for you at the gate, then go catch him. If he avoids you, then go ahead and round pen him (both sides).
By periodically round penning your horse through the winter (since most of us don’t have the time to ride them as much as we’d like to) you can help keep his attention and attitude cooperative. If your shoer or vet is scheduled to come, take time ahead to round pen your horse. What a difference just 15 minutes will make when they have to shoe or doctor the horse! It will remove all that fussing and resistance.
If your horse is left out to pasture with other horses, this winter or anytime, you’ll notice that he will begin to become very herd-oriented because he’s with the herd and is not having to yield to your leadership on a regular basis. By understanding this, you won't become impatient with your horse if you find him evasive, hard to catch, or flighty when he’s normally not that way. It is only nature and instincts taking over as your horse relies on his natural herd behavior to protect himself in the wild (to him, unconfined out in the pasture is the wild). To remedy this, as we continually preach, an occasional round penning session followed by tying and hobbling to a hitching post for anywhere from an hour to all day really reestablishes who is in charge. They are often pushy and inattentive and spook a lot after being out to pasture. By giving them their guidelines in the round pen and showing them that you're the leader, reminding them of patience by tying and hobbling, you can regain their trust and respect in no time.
By rewarding and leaving your horse on a good note, supple and giving every time you handle him, you are creating a pattern of trust and respect. Your horse's attitude the next time you handle him depends on how you left him the last time. Since your horse learns from repetition, you can see why the last impression that you leave your horse with is so important.