The whole point of having horses, for the majority of us, is to ride them – every day if possible. Sometimes though, through illness – theirs or ours – or circumstances – that just isn’t possible and our horses get time off.
Of course, if it is a necessary break because of injury that will need to heal but generally a time off period is a good thing. Horses do appreciate a break, it gives minor injuries time to heal and also the mental ‘downtime’ is good for them and they come back refreshed. Often too, you’ll find that if you have been having problems either with schooling, or handling, a break can help to solve these as everyone, horses and riders come back with a clean sheet.
The Importance Of Conditioning
When they are ridden, even just as a weekend hack, horses are using muscles, stressing joints and ligaments that they wouldn’t while at rest, or just pottering around in the field. The need to have toned muscles and strong ligaments is especially important for a competition horse. Imagine how you’d feel if you went for a long fast run straight after the long Christmas break when you’d been lolling around in front of the television chomping chocolates. You’d come back feeling pretty sore, exhausted and probably feel quite ill. Goes without saying it’s the same with horses.
If you do too much or do the wrong things, such as jumping with a horse that is out of shape you can cause untold damage. If the horse is coming back into work after an injury it is even more important to have the horse in the best possible condition. Competing, especially in England, can throw so much at a horse in terms of the ground. One moment they are in deep mud, the next, working on rock hard ground, both of which can cause havoc to a horse’s body. Regardless of the possibility of injury, an unfit horse can’t possibly perform at his best if he isn’t conditioned properly.
Before You Ride
Before starting work the horse will need to be reshod. Consider using road studs now, if you don’t usually as these may give him better grip while his muscles are weak. It is also a good idea, before you start to work, to check that vaccinations are up to date and give any necessary boosters or wormers that are due.
If your horse has been on box rest for any length of time you will need to hand walk the horse before you can consider riding him. Do this with caution and make sure you wear gloves and a hard hat just in case the horse gets over excited at his new found freedom. When coming back after a long period of box rest try to combine hand walking with a tiny turn out paddock. You want the horse to be able to stretch his legs without going mad and re-injuring himself.
Take It Slowly
It is vitally important to go slowly when bringing a horse back into work. You can’t expect to be able to drag him out of the field, give him a couple of weeks of work and then expect him to perform well. Unless you are very sure of your horse saddle him in the stable and leave him to stand for a while to get used to the feel of the saddle and have someone hold him when you get on, just in case he has mentally reverted to an unbroken three year old!
As a general rule it will take as many weeks of work to achieve peak fitness, as the horse has been laid off. In other words, if he’s off for six weeks, it will take that long to get him back in competition-ready condition. If he’s off for a longer period, it will still take at least three months to get him back in shape. At a minimum, you’ll need to plan on four to six weeks of steady, consistent work, five or six days a week before you can reasonably expect your horse to be in condition to compete.
For the first week just walk, start with a short hack of about twenty minutes and gradually build up over that first week to doing an hour. You’ll achieve very little though if you let your horse slop along on a long rein. He needs to be walking out and taking up the contact with your hand. During the early weeks of getting the horse fit his muscles are weak and so he may be clumsier or he may just take a wrong step. Either way, to prevent injury it is a good idea to protect his legs, either with support boots or knee pads if you are worried he may trip.
During the second week of being back to work introduce some slow, steady trotting. Chose a flat piece of road or track at first so that you aren’t putting undue strain of him. The idea is to bring his respiration rate up slightly, after you’ve warmed him up with a period of walking. Then you can walk again to cool him off. Gradually introduce more trotting, both in the frequency and length of the time your horse is working. Continue to increase the workout through the first month and then introduce a balanced routine that continues to build your horse’s wind and muscle strength.
It would be fair to assume that your horse has been eating a different food during his lay off. He will now need a diet which will accommodate his training and competition needs. Diet changes need to be done slowly as you don’t want to cause laminitis or colic.
When you are riding use your legs to encourage the horse to step well underneath himself, sit lightly so that your seat allows his back to lift and encourages him to reach forward into your hands, where he should find a steady, soft contact. The exercise you do with your horse will build muscle as well as strengthening bones, ligaments and tendons. Unfortunately, if you ride the horse incorrectly, or try to do too much too soon you will make him uncomfortable. This will make the horse carry himself wrongly which will build up the wrong muscles.
By working the horse correctly you can achieve a fabulous strong, muscular topline. Coming back to work after a long layoff is the ideal time to attempt to correct muscles that have been built up through bad riding in the past. While the horse is laid off the muscles that aren’t used will shrink and soften, especially on the underside of the neck. Since muscles grow and harden with use, the ones a horse has been using against his rider will be soft after a lay off, thus if you ride the horse properly, without resistance you will encourages him to use his hindquarters and belly muscles, lift his back, and lift and carry his neck from its base. The correct type of muscles to create a fabulous topline will become larger and stronger.
Once you have built up to a period of walking and trotting, assuming the horse stays sound and that his breathing is returning to normal quickly after the exertion, then you can begin to introduce slow, short periods of canter. Ideally do this against a hill for the first time, just in case the horse uses the increase of pace to forget his manners and explode! Within 6 – 8 weeks your horse should be ready to work properly and hopefully, if you have done the early conditioning work properly – he will stay sound and will be ready for a summer of competitions and fun.
Written by Jacqui Broderick of LAVENDER AND WHITE PUBLISHING0 Comments