SmartPak Monday Morning Feed: Preparing for Spring

As winter begins to woah, equestrians everywhere begin thinking about riding season. This is especially true for those with no indoor and particularly rough winters. Learn how one equestrian gets her horses ready for spring.

Originally published in the SmartPak blog. Written by SmartPaker Jamie Maguire. 

Photo courtesy of SmartPak

I absolutely love my barn. The care is top notch, the horses are well fed and happy, the facility has almost everything you could ask for… the only thing is it missing is an indoor arena. I never minded this because, in exchange for the lack of indoor, we have access to a massive trail system.

The only time being limited to working outside is an issue is during the winter. Since we live in New England, our winters can be especially harsh and unforgiving. We find ourselves plagued by weeklong stretches of snow, rain and bitterly cold weather that results in an arena and trails that simply aren’t safe to ride on.

My two performance horses respond to winter restrictions very differently. My endurance horse, Isadore, has too much energy and the rare times that the footing is safe enough to get out on the trails during the winter result in a horse that has too much excitement to even consider walking for more than a stride. My eventer, T-Rex, takes the opposite approach. He curls up in his blankets with a warm mug of theoretical hot cocoa and enters his hibernation period. This would be fine except he’s a grump when you make him do anything he doesn’t consider hibernation material and this can lead to a very unpleasant experience for his rider.

My solution to these issues has been fairly simple: a complete break from working during the worst of the winter. The only downfall is that they lose a lot of muscle and conditioning. But that’s okay — their bodies are meant to endure the changing weather of New England, and losing and gaining muscle is a very natural process throughout the year for horses and humans alike.

As we get ready to enter spring, now comes the arduous task of reconditioning them to do their respective jobs during the spring, summer, and fall. As much as I would like to, I can’t just take Isadore out for a smooth 30 mile jaunt on the trails without making sure he’s regained the strength and muscle to do so safely. I cannot bring T-Rex on a 2 foot hunter pace until he is muscular and fit enough to make it through without risk of injury.

When I do spring conditioning, I start them off slow, as if I was breaking them under saddle for the first time.

1. In-hand work

In-hand work is something I try to continue to do throughout the winter break. As long as the ground isn’t too icy, it’s important that we keep their brains working even while their bodies area taking some time off. Some in-hand exercises I love doing are:
  • simply walking around on the lead
  • lateral movement off of my hand and voice queues
  • liberty work

2. Groundwork

Groundwork is important year-round, but it’s especially pertinent when you are reconditioning after time off. Groundwork will help you start to develop muscle back without the weight of the rider. My favorite groundwork exercises are:

  • lunging
  • long-lining
  • balance systems, like the Pessoa Lunging System or the Equicore Equiband System

3. Riding/Driving

After we’ve done a few weeks worth of in-hand work and groundwork, it’s time to get back in the saddle! This doesn’t mean I’m going to get on and go galloping through the woods. We start off walking. For miles and miles and hours and hours (not consecutively), we just walk. It’s impressive how much muscle you can build from such a simple thing, walking. We start off with 15-20 minute walk rides, soon graduating to longer rides.

As a general rule, I will only do harder strength training 2-3 times a week at most, and the rest of the time we are working on groundwork or walking. This is true year-round.

Now, some horses don’t like taking it slow, like Isadore. Coming out of winter break, he requires a little more balance to his diet so I like to use SmartCalm Ultimate Pellets to make sure his nutritional requirements are being met. Winter is notoriously hard on horses when it comes to getting full nutritional benefits from forage. He also tends to come out of winter a little chubby, so we add some SmartMuscle Mass Pellets to help convert that extra fat into muscle.

As for T-Rex, chubby doesn’t even begin to describe his winter bod. I put him on SmartMuscle Mass Pellets as well, and also add in some SmartEnergy Pellets to help motivate him to shed the pounds and become my strong workhorse again.

Both of my geldings are also on the Smart & Simple Flax to help them shed out those woolly winter coats when the time comes.

Photo courtesy of SmartPak

I’m excited for the springtime so we can start our conditioning regiment. I have big plans for both of my sporthorses, and can’t wait to see what we can do this coming year!