Is Your Rescue Ready for Retraining?

In this excerpt from her book The Ultimate Guide for Horses in Need, veterinarian Dr. Stacie Boswell explains how to determine if a rescue or horse in transition is ready to begin retraining.

Preparing a rescue horse to be a riding horse takes much careful consideration. From nutrition to body condition to mental preparedness, there is a lot to take into account before beginning a horse’s retraining. That’s exactly what Dr. Stacie Boswell’s book addresses.

Physical Considerations

A horse is not healthy enough to begin groundwork (which should precede any ridden work) until he has a Body Condition Score (BCS) of at least 4 (moderately thin), as prior to that time, he is too weak and lacks muscle necessary for athleticism. A starved horse’s body metabolized his fat stores for energy, and used up muscle in the process known as muscle wasting.

There are instances where athletic horses have a BCS of 4 and are under saddle and ridden. I don’t recommend this for rescue horses. There is a significant difference between an extreme athlete that can hardly eat enough (think endurance horses, racehorses, upper-level eventers) and a malnourished individual that is finally on his way out of a metabolic vortex (think neglected horses). A horse with a BCS of 4 that is gaining weight is healthy enough to be trained how to carry a saddle, but not a rider quite yet.

This thin Mustang is not ready for intense training. Photo by Emily Hutton.

If your rescue horse had foot problems, make sure they are completely resolved. You wouldn’t go on a 10-mile hike in high heels; he should not be expected to do proper work or learn if his foot conformation is unbalanced or painful.

Asking your horse to progress through groundwork is critical for his mental training as well as his physical fitness and muscle building. When you prepare him for riding, you are either checking his previous level of training or training him from the beginning. In either case, going through each step is important. If he had previous training, groundwork will increase his fitness, polish your communication with each other, and expose any gaps in his knowledge.

Progressing through groundwork prepares his muscles, tendons, and ligaments for more exercise and riding. Through gradual strengthening, these tissues are protected from injury. This time period also serves as a soundness trial. If he is unable to remain sound during this phase, he will not hold up to riding. If you observe lameness, call your veterinarian.

Mental Considerations

Before starting his training, your horse should be comfortable socially. Each rescue horse’s exercise and groundwork program should be individually tailored, focusing on the areas where he needs the most help. For the most part, working with this horse as if he were an untrained two-year-old is a good idea. His response will set the pace of your training.

An abused horse needs patience during his training time to recuperate and come out of his shell. You won’t know if or where his fear response will show up, so test him with many situations. Try to work with him at home and away from home, with and without other horses, while wearing different types of hats (for example your helmet, ball caps, and cowboy hats), and in both indoor and outdoor arenas. Ask him to go over obstacles such as bridges, ground poles, tarps, and different footing. When you practice with kindness and patience, he will learn to trust you. You’ll also identify specific triggers that can make him wary or nervous. If any are identified, pair approach-and-retreat with positive reinforcement to habituate him to objects or triggers.

The same horse with 90 days of weight gain. He can begin groundwork but is not ready to ride. Photo by Emily Hutton.

This excerpt from The Ultimate Guide for Horses in Need by Dr. Stacie Boswell is reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books (

You can purchase the book here.