Spring is coming — but even if we’re ready to hit the trails and the show ring, our horses may not be if they’ve had the winter off. Here are some tips for getting your horse back into shape safely.
We’re just a few days away from the time change, summer birds are starting to show up at the barn, and the horses are shedding… that means spring is just around the corner! Time to saddle up after a winter off and hit the ground running!
Well, not so fast. While it may be tempting to put your horse into a springtime boot camp to knock off some rust, it’s important not to rush the process of returning to work if your horse has had the winter off or has only been in light work. The trails and show pen are calling and you want to get right to loping circles or jumping fences, but it’s critical now to do your homework in bringing your horse back to fitness for his long-term health. Here are some considerations for bringing a horse back into work for the spring.
1. Evaluate the horse’s current physical condition.
For some horses — such as mine — winter is the time to develop a “dad bod.” They’re a little soft in the middle, they’re covered in shaggy hair that requires hours of elbow grease to curry away, and they’ve been doing nothing but lounging around the winter corral wolfing down round bales (basically, living the dream). They look fat, but they’ve certainly lost some muscle tone and some top line development.
Other horses lose weight in the winter, and may need to put on some pounds before they can be reasonably expected to carry the weight of a rider. As you return a horse to work, it’s important to assess his nutritional needs and adjust his feed accordingly to ensure he’s getting appropriate levels of protein and other nutrients.
You may also need to consider a horse’s feet — a horse who had his shoes pulled for the winter might need shoes again as he returns to work, depending on the individual. Spring is also a good time for a dental check-up to make sure those teeth are in good shape — not only for eating, but for having a happy mouth when it’s time to carry a bit and bridle again.
2. Start slow.
Okay, you’ve got your horse shedded out, his feet are done, his teeth have been checked, and his tack still fits him well. Let’s go gallop!
Much the same as if you decided to get up off the couch one day and run a 5K with no preparation, putting your horse back into immediate heavy work is a recipe for injury, even if he feels fresh and ready to go. Some fitness programs may advise a lunging regimen; I personally avoid a lot of lunging for the sake of not turning a hundred tiny circles on hardworking stifles and hocks — I might long-line in brief sessions, mostly walking with a little trotting, and avoiding putting my horse into a tight frame.
If my horse feels a little too spicy to go for a nice safe walking hack (I don’t have an arena!), I’ll actually take him out in-hand and go for some long conditioning hikes to get his mind and body prepared for working again. Usually, if I can go out and navigate some of our natural trail obstacles in-hand before hopping onto his back, my horse is mentally ready for some nice walking trail rides before too long.
It’s difficult (though not impossible) to injure a horse at the walk — those long, slow conditioning miles will pay off, especially once your horse is ready to add some hill work. Start with mostly walking and a little trotting on nice straight miles, and you can work in more trotting and a little cantering after a few weeks.
3. Listen to your horse.
A good skill to develop in spring training is taking your horse’s pulse, if you’re not already good at doing so (it can be tricky to find if you’re not accustomed!) The horse’s heart rate should return to its resting pulse by 15 minutes after exercise — if you notice that it’s taking longer, you may need to scale back your workouts a little bit to allow your horse’s body to get acclimated.
You should also be alert for signs of lameness, as well as muscle or back soreness — watch your horse closely during grooming as well as warm-up and cool-down. Your horse may also appreciate some therapeutic treatments or products to combat muscle soreness as he gets back into shape (and you might too, if you haven’t been riding much this winter either!)
There’s certainly a fine line between overprotecting a horse and overworking a horse — you want to ensure that you’re gradually scaling up your workouts or training sessions to reach your goals for the summer, whether that’s tackling long trail rides on difficult terrain, jumping a full course, or team penning at top speed. Even though the sun might be shining and you might be itching to get out there and ride all day long, take your time and listen to your partner. If you take care of your horses, they will take care of you!