Before Spring Has Sprung

Here are some tips for managing those "middle" months.

Call it the “winter blahs” or the “post-holiday blues” or call it what you will: the early months of the year often find us short of energy and enthusiasm. More than 10 million Americans actually suffer the not-so-pleasant effects of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). To one degree or another, many of us find the winter doldrums are an annual occurrence. For staunch competitors, another year of point-chasing and year-end awards is now history. For those who ride for pleasure, just “getting going” may seem daunting. But cheer up. There are several ways you can boost morale when the mercury—as well as rider motivation—has fallen.

Making the Most of It

Life’s a game, so play more of it. AQHA/APHA trainer and instructor Susan Maxwell of Belvidere, N. J., toughs it out when “it gets very cold here and we don’t ride in an indoor ring.” Maxwell oversees an independent youth club, and not all the kids have their own horses. So she has devised a game that awards trophies to kids who prevail in spite of Mother Nature’s dictums. Her point system gives credit for riding at a certain temperature or in wind or snow. “It provides something to look forward to,” says Maxwell. Plus, she’s quietly creating a student demographic of “no whiners!” Of course, not everyone chooses to participate when the first sign of frost appears, she acknowledges, but Maxwell hasn’t lost a student in 1 1/2 years. Broad-based education matters, so she pilots her group to other locations during cold months: They visit a dressage or Saddlebred facility or a Friesian farm, giving new meaning to the term “field trip.”

Other occasional extracurricular activities include a Sunday afternoon get-together, when parents are welcome, and a costume class. “I might invite a massage therapist in for a demonstration,” says Maxwell. “For the kids who don’t have horses, it’s important to be creative.”

Like Maxwell, Jayne E. Ayers of Hearthstone Farm Inc. shares a “keep going” philosophy when Old Man Winter holds forth in Dousman, Wisc. Her diverse program includes “intensive coaching for active competitors and enhanced lifelong enjoyment for non-competitors.” For her, the post-holiday period presents a prime opportunity for her riders “to get really schooled for the next show season. They can focus intently on ground work, on training for just themselves, or on readying the horse for the next level.”

Ayers, who competed “for a lot of years,” now enjoys preparation even more than coaching at shows. She’s developed a strong trailer-in business that’s not so reliant on boarders, and she, too, looks for ways to stimulate forward thinking. “We’ll watch a video and talk about it, perhaps have a theory session, maybe with some wine or at a potluck supper,” says Ayers. She’s hopeful she can implement regular quadrille practices, too: four riders doing various patterns, two-by-two. And who says freestyle is only for top-level riders? Ayers thinks it’s a fun, different exercise “that allows students to find a relaxed rhythm, accentuate control and build solid riding skills.”

A USEF Dressage Committee member and experienced judge, Ayers nonetheless encourages free-jumping as an ancillary activity, “especially for younger un-broke horses, to get the kinks out. Nine out of ten love it,” she says. And their owners love seeing it too, as “it gives the horse a break, something fun to do,” she adds.

There’s almost no limit to Ayers’s winter activities. Late-winter months are custom-made for using ground poles or low cavaletti incorporated into gymnastics, and for the outdoor lovers, a winter trail ride on a nice sunny day makes a diversion from endless dressage-test practice. Ayers even encourages equine “skijoring,” fitting a horse with a collar and two lunge lines, with a person on skis behind and another in the saddle.

Giving Back to Get Back

A member of the American Saddlebred Horse Association Board of Directors and USEF Saddlebred Horse Committee, Tim Lockard of Oakwoods Farm in Russell, Iowa, looks forward to his “Show-Off Sundays.” These are relaxed events during which he invites students, parents and friends to experience the successes of his program—an “open house” scenario, with cookies and punch. “It’s normally difficult to get new students started in cold months, so this has worked well,” says Lockard, who does note that the purpose is “all business, although not hard-sell, but low key.”

Family-friendly Lockard hosts another special day after Thanksgiving for parents and kids, but it’s an idea that works any time, such as early in the year. “I invite moms to drop the kids off here at no charge, then go shopping. We figure if we give a little something away, it comes back ten-fold. It’s true that you catch a whole lot more flies with sugar.”

At Mickey Hayden Equine Management in Laguna Hills, Calif., veteran hunter/jumper trainer Hayden is always thinking out of the seasonal box. When skies darken, it’s into the clubhouse for “in-house lessons.” He also pairs up same-level riders to meet once a week and help each other. Like others in his profession, he finds between-the-shows months are ideal for honing skills that had best be solid when the buzzer sounds—his exercises become more technical and ask specific questions. Can’t ride “regularly” in deep footing due to rain? It’s amazing what you can do at just the walk! Riders contemplate his dry-erase board for the week’s lesson goals, and are asked to make notes at home so messages are solidified. His philosophy: When you’re not at the show, you’re getting ready to go…and win. Just as in the lesson, “a real champion never stops,” even in off months. Hayden regularly holds “home shows” for all levels, to preview what’s to come at The Oaks or Indio.

The Doctor is In Tune

At her consulting firm, The Performing Edge in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, Dr. Kate Hays specializes in sport psychology, exercise and overall mental health.

Her advice??Take some time off from riding. “It’s very important to make time for recovery and to use the off season; you’ll be a better rider and come back fresher and ready for achievement at a new level,” observes Hays. “Consider cross-training, whether it complements riding or is a totally different sport.”

The first two months are historically set aside for competition goal-setting: “Set ones that bear a relationship to reality,” advises this specialist. “Or remind yourself why you compete in the first place. ‘What is in this for me? Why did I get involved?’ ”

Of course, such self-assessment may actually instigate unexpected change. Perhaps you teach an 18-year-old who’s mentally tired from every-weekend showing, prodded by aggressive parents. Lack of interest on the rider’s part may signal transition: “‘I have loved this, but I have other things in my life now,’” is a possible realization, suggests Hays.

Mature riders, too, may use the New Year for a cost/benefit analysis, for it’s true that the body and mind take longer to recover after the stress of competition, and frequently a Monday morning workplace reality awaits. A revised, lighter show schedule may be advisable for these clients, while adding new activities.

Often a client automatically plans to do this year what he or she thinks should be done—rather than what he or she really wants to do. “Maybe a client is tired of jumping, so you can introduce dressage as an intriguing alternative,” says Hays. “It’s an excellent opportunity for a trainer to utilize ingenuity.” Using traditional goal-setting in fresh new ways can also bring new enthusiasm—and income—to you and your business.

Taking winter lemons and making lemonade means being in control, instead of being at the mercy of circumstances you didn’t create. So take heart and take charge. And remember, spring is just around the corner.






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