The Value of Walking Out on Foot with your Horse - Maisie Wake

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I was lucky enough to discover the virtues of walking out in hand, through taking on a wonderful retired cob, called Bobby. He had done his fair share of hard work, taking beginner riders trekking over glorious Exmoor countryside. By the time he came to be with me, being ridden really wasn't very high up on his agenda anymore! In fact, although he liked my company, I believe his favourite aspect of any walk was the vast array of hedgerow plants for him to chomp his way through at various 'pit stops' on our walks. With that in mind, I often packed myself a picnic so that both of us could feast out at well-chosen beauty spots on our walks.

Horses are excellent at self-selecting which plants they may need for digestive or medicinal value, so these walks can be an excellent opportunity for your horse to pick out any herbs he or she may need. That said, it is still worth picking up a book on poisonous plants for horses, or at least to develop a rough idea of the main plants to look out for. Some pocket books are very handy, and can be packed along with you on your walk. I also ensure that the horse I am leading out has had enough to eat beforehand, that he or she is not so fixated on feeding that they will eat everything and anything on offer. It is far nicer for your horse to look forward to the walk itself, as well as the hedgerow goodies.

Of course, a horse's retirement it is the obvious time to get into your hiking shoes and get out on some rambles with your four legged friend. But the reason I am writing this is to bring to light the virtues of going for walks at any stage of your equine's life. There are so many good reasons for walking out on foot. For one, it is a fantastic way to introduce a nervous or green equine to all manner of different hazards and experiences. It is a wonderful learning experience for youngsters, and the communication between you both whilst out walking will be a vital step in their education. That said, I would always recommend introducing objects, noises, and obstacles to your equine in a safe environment first, such as their familiar field, or an arena. Ideally, the next step would be to go out onto some quiet lanes, where you are least likely to meet unexpected challenges straight away. Be sensible, set yourself goals, and work your way up to walking anywhere that you would safely ride.

Walking together is also a fantastic way to deepen your relationship with your horse. It becomes a two way partnership, in which you and your friend begin to understand each other's nuances. This will show through in the saddle, because you will have reached a deeper understanding in your partnership. You will be able to pre-empt reactions in your horse to certain things which you had no idea were an issue. This knowledge might just give you that 'edge' that you need when competing.

Going for walks can be therapeutic and relaxing, or it can be fun, upbeat and exciting, but however it turns out, it will be a valuable experience for both you and your horse. It provides free exercise for you and your horse, and you are out enjoying the countryside. The thing I like about walking out in hand, is that it puts both you and your horse on equal footing. Although it is still important to play a 'leader' type role, walking out with your horse certainly feels different to being on top of them, controlling the actions they take from up above.

It is also a great confidence builder for the horse, who sometimes wants reassurance, but cannot always get it with us making demands from their back. When we experience a horse spooking at say, a puddle, then completely relaxing when we jump off and walk past, this is a good example of that reassurance. The horse might not quite be ready to be the decision maker, and any frets he/she may have about the spooky looking puddle become exacerbated into real fears. Through regular walking out and working through all sorts of frets with their favourite human at their side, your horse may soon become far more confident when you are on his/her back. They have been there, done that, and conquered any fears!

These are some of the rules I try to stick to when out walking:

  • Try to take a friend with you for additional support...
  • Always carry a mobile phone.
  • It is wise to wear gloves for safety in most situations.
  • Wear sensible footwear, and if you are going a long way ensure that it provides good support for your feet.
  • Wear reflective clothing, and definitely consider putting reflective clothing on your horse too.
  • Ensure your horse is comfortable and happy before you leave.
  • Check all relevant tack is fitted and comfortable, even if it is simply a head collar.
  • Ensure their hooves are in good condition, or that their shoes or hoof boots are not causing any problems.
  • Follow the countryside code.
  • Follow the Highway Code.
  • Give other horses a wide berth if you need to pass them.
  • Give dog walkers a wide berth, and ask them to put their dog on a lead if your horse is not safe around dogs.
  • Carry a hoof pick, and some baler twine in case you need to tie your horse up safely for any reason.
  • Go out in a good mood! Although a walk can be just the ticket to calm a bad mood, this is generally not a pleasant experience for your horse,and a being in a negative mood can affect how you choose to react to your horse.
Have fun out walking!

Reprinted with permission from Maisie Wake