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How to prepare your horse for riding when the snow is falling off the arena roof

February 14, 2017

Yesterday was a beautiful, sunny, warm day. The snow was melting rapidly, it was dripping everywhere. It sure felt like spring! Hard to believe that only a little over a week ago we had temperatures in the minus thirties!! Yesterday was also one of those “the-snow-is-sliding-off-the-arena-roof” days. I am sure many of you who live in northern climates have ridden in an indoor arena when that happens. How does your horse react? Does he stay calm? Does he spook or even bolt? Are you calm?

Not every horse is ok with the sound of big chunks of snow falling off the arena roof, or large areas of the snow-load sliding off the roof at once. I remember a couple of winters ago when I was riding one of our lesson horses, a paint gelding named TS Bold Cody, in our indoor arena. All of a sudden almost the entire snow-load on both sides of the arena roof let go at once. For about 15 seconds it sounded as if a freight train was going right through the arena. The noise was deafening. My heart was beating in my throat. Should I bail or just try to ride out whatever Cody throws at me? Split-second decisions. I decided to try and ride it out, whatever it was going to be. Cody started prancing underneath me, on the spot, and I could not only feel, but also hear his heart beat. He was definitely scared. But he never spooked, never bolted. He stayed on the aids, on the bit, neck arched, with his nose on the vertical, and just pranced. I quietly talked to him, trying to keep both of us calm. When it was all over – and believe me, it seemed like an eternity -, he calmly walked forward again.

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Not every horse would have stayed this connected to his rider and shown this much trust, listening to the rider’s aids and voice and looking for guidance. I know that some of my other horses – even if they are quite used to chunks of snow falling off the roof or some snow sliding off – would have at least spooked in this extreme situation; a couple of them, some of the more volatile ones, maybe even bolted for a few strides.

So what do you do if you’re not sure how your horse is going to react to the sound of big chunks of snow falling, or big loads of snow sliding off the roof?

How do you get him used to these sounds in a safe way?

I personally like to do in-hand work with the horse, a great way to have control of the horse’s body even when he gets nervous. In-hand leading allows me to keep the horse’s head low, which in a nutshell releases endorphins and helps keep him calm(er).

In the non-resistance training methodology based on Irwin Insights that we practice at Falling Star Ranch Academy of Foundational Horsemanship, addressing cause instead of just the symptom is key. Our focus must therefore extend past repetitive exposure to something scary and include the way in which the trainer handles the horse during that exposure. In-hand leading enables the handler to shape the horse’s body in such a way that it helps release endorphins and creates pleasant feelings in the horse, rather than inadvertently causing negative feelings created by misalignment and imbalance. Frame of body is frame of mind!

Make sure you stay aligned with your horse, at his shoulder, with your belly button (core) pointing forward, parallel (congruent) to the middle of the horse’s chest. Don’t force your horse to stand still when he gets scared. Instead, ask him to keep moving forward, ideally in a circle around you, with his ribcage bent away from you and his head low.

Once the horse handles these scary sounds while being in-hand led, I will then progress to lungeing him, before I mount and ride on days where the chance of snow sliding off the roof is big.

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When you are riding and the snow starts sliding off the roof, keep riding as if nothing is going to happen and it isn’t a big deal at all. If your horse spooks or bolts, and you find yourself pulling on the reins and gripping with your legs and going into survival mode – which is a perfectly normal reaction and a first reflex for most riders – tell yourself to breathe deeply, sit tall, deep, centred and balanced, widen your reins and turn in onto a circle. Over time, you can train your body to not go into survival mode first, but to do the correct things instead, which over time will become automatic.

Stay safe and enjoy your ride!

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