For many equestrians, our horses get some time off during the cold winter months. Once the frigid temperatures hit and the snow flies, it is difficult to keep your horse in a consistent riding or training program unless you have access to an indoor arena. This extended vacation is wonderful for the well-being of many horses, giving them a break both mentally and physically.
Once spring hits, avid horseback riders are raring to get back in the saddle. However, in order to ensure the safety of the rider and the long-term soundness of your horse, returning your horse to work is a process that should be done gradually. We spoke with Victoria Herbst, the head trainer and riding instructor at Herbst Arabians in Wallingford, CT, to understand more about this delicate process. Victoria graduated from the University of Connecticut with a bachelor’s degree in Animal Science and a master’s degree in Curriculum and Instruction with a certification in Agriculture Education.
Depending on your stabling situation, you may be forced to give your horse time off due to lack of adequate footing or time to ride turning the daylight hours. It is also a great time to give your horse a well-deserved break, which has both physical and mental benefits. Victoria explains, “I think it is important to give horses a couple of weeks off multiple times throughout the year to mentally rest and recover. Especially with lesson horses – they often are ridden by a wide variety of abilities and I know this can be both physically and mentally challenging for them to continue long term. These breaks seem to really help with keeping a horse happy!” For horses suffering from ulcers, tendon and ligament damage, or other injuries, extended time off over the winter months tends to let their bodies heal and begin the next season off with a fresh slate.
However, there are also some disadvantages to your horse taking extended periods of time off. “I think, especially in the winter, we see horses standing around a lot more than in the warmer months. What concerns me most with minimal movement is lack of drinking and the possibility of dehydration and colic,” says Victoria. “For this reason, I think it’s important for horses to keep moving in the winter time.”
Another disadvantage to taking the winter off, is the time it takes to build back up muscle and stamina to eventually get back into regular work. This can be especially challenging for older, more arthritic horses. Consider keeping senior horses who may not fare well in the winter in a modified program to maintain a small amount of cardiovascular endurance and muscular fitness.
Back to Work
While it may be tempting to put your horse into a rigorous spring boot camp, it is important to bring horses back into regular work slowly but consistently. It’s easy to see horses full of energy as they initially return back to work, and we may want to lunge them to let out that energy before we mount up. Lunging and long-lining horses are excellent ways to develop your horse’s fitness safely, provided you keep your horse controlled and prevent them from running out of control.
“If done improperly, it’s easy for the horse to get injured or sore from over exerting themselves without the proper muscling during lunging sessions,” says Victoria. “Tight, fast circles are a horse’s worst enemy in terms of soft tissue injuries, so try to keep your horse controlled if you are lunging or long-lining.”
Many equestrians use lunging as the first step to putting their horses back to work in the spring. A lunging cavesson allows you to control your horse and keep them safely listening to your commands. Initially, ask your horse to walk calmly with short bursts of trotting. Your horse may have pent-up energy after a long winter off, but try to discourage galloping and leaping through the air. It may take patience and consistency to keep your horse working calmly, but this is essential for the soundness of your horse, especially for the tendons and ligaments of your horse’s legs. Watch your horse for signs of fatigue (sweating, stumbling, heavy breathing, stubbornness, etc.), being careful not to push your horse too hard. You will need to get an idea of your horse’s fitness, but ideally you should be working toward 20 minutes of walking and 10 minutes of trotting on the lunge. Try to extend the workout in 3-5 minute increments each week to avoid putting excess stress on your horse’s systems.
After a few lunging sessions working primarily at the walk and trot, your horse will most likely be ready to transition to long-lining or working under saddle. When done correctly, long-lining helps to build the muscles over your horse’s topline, allowing your horse to round over the back without the weight of a rider. “I think it is especially important to add lots of walk breaks and to keep rides short – even if that means only walking and trotting for the first few weeks!” Victoria says. Typically, horses are able to withstand less workload being ridden or long-lined than on the lunge line, so again, be mindful of your horse’s fitness level by beginning with shorter 15-20 minute rides and slowly increasing the duration.
“If I am bringing a horse back into work, I tend to do lots of walking and ask for collections and extensions at the walk,” Victoria explains. “I add trot and canter work in small increments and pay special attention to my horse’s breathing and coordination.” By slowly adding to your riding routine, you are strengthening your horse’s muscles, tendons, and ligaments – while minimizing risk for injury, a process which many horsemen refer to as ‘legging up.’
A lot of work can be done at the walk to increase the general fitness of your horse. Consider integrating poles and lateral work into your rides to add another layer of complexity to your rides. Once your horse is responding to your aids and you are confident in your riding connection, bring them out for walking hacks and hill work as part of their exercise regime. For horses with a solid foundation under saddle, it may only take a few rides before you feel ready to venture out of the ring. Green horses and those with more challenging demeanors may take several weeks or even months before both of you have the confidence for hacking and trail riding.
It is important not to underestimate the power of the walk. In Know Better to Do Better: Mistakes I Made with Horses (So You Don’t Have To), acclaimed eventer Denny Emerson states that one of the earliest concepts he learned is that it is difficult to injure a horse at the walk. Take an unfit horse for extended walks, he writes, and see how slowly and carefully building muscle will make a horse more confident in you and your riding.
It is important to pay attention to your horse’s response to the increased workload and treat them each as individuals. “If they seem to be struggling, I shorten my rides and training sessions as well as increasing walk breaks,” adds Victoria. “ I am also giving my horses a day off every couple of days in order to let them mentally and physically recover.”
Slow and Steady
Horse owners should keep in mind that, like them, their horses are most likely feeling soreness after work if they have been out of regular exercise! When bringing your horse back to work, take it slow. Consider giving your horse a day to recover in between rides in the beginning. Victoria says, “I often spend one day working on cardiovascular fitness and the next day working on other things at the walk like bending and lateral work. For my clients who are getting back in the saddle themselves, I often suggest working on their own fitness with no stirrups and half seats at the walk.”
There are also a number of unmounted exercises that you can work on with your horse to increase their mobility and stretch their muscles between riding sessions. Dynamic mobilization stretches, commonly referred to as “carrot stretches,” allow your horse to gradually develop flexion, extension, and lateral flexibility. Learn how to perform carrot stretches with your horse by referring to our blog post, An Educated Touch: An Introduction to Equine Massage.
The most important piece of building your horse’s physical fitness is to listen to your horse and become in tune to your horses’ limits. “If your horse starts becoming resistant, most likely they are trying to tell you that it’s hard for them,” says Victoria. “Be patient and don’t expect your horse to be in shape in just a few short weeks.” Building fitness in your horse takes both time and a methodical program, but the results are worth it!
We hope we have inspired you to head out to the barn and begin preparations for the riding season! Do you have tips and tricks for putting your horse back to work? Share them in the comments below.