After a well-earned vacation for the month of November, the horses have now moved to their winter home and begun working again. Unfortunately the winter home is still in Canada…but at least there is an indoor arena and a nice warm tack room!!
Bringing horses back to work after a break can be exciting, especially if you have not been riding much yourself. While it is tempting to jump right back in where you left off, it is important to contain your excitement and ease back into a routine. Bringing a horse back into work after a simple vacation is less stressful than a break after an injury for example, however similar procedures should still be followed. Regardless of the reason for time off, the horse has still lost fitness and maybe some muscling and strength. This is important to keep in mind before hopping on and flat schooling for an hour the first ride back.
One of the most important steps that should be taken (and the one which requires the most patience!) is doing a little bit of legging up. This does not mean that your horse has to be competition fit, but he does need to gradually start using his muscles and building cardiovascular fitness again. This is an essential step because during work we ask our horses to use their muscles more intensely and in a different manner than they do when frolicking in the fields. A great way to achieve a good quality legging up period is by hacking! Personally I like to hack for at least two to three weeks when a horse is coming back, depending on the length and reason for the time off. I generally spend the first week walking, sometimes up to an hour or more a day, then progressing to short trot sets over the next couple of weeks. As I said earlier, your horse does not need to be competition fit but it is important to establish a base fitness and get his working muscles back in action again. How long it takes your horse regains his fitness can depend on a few variables;
· How fit was he before the break? – a horse that was Training/Preliminary or higher level fit will likely regain fitness quite quickly
· His breed – the lighter, more naturally athletic breeds such as thoroughbreds generally need very little work to fit up compared to the heavier breeds. This is simply due to their physical makeup.
· Nutrition – a horse that receives the right balance of concentrates to forage and receive all the nutrients and necessary components in his diet will find it easier to gain and maintain fitness, than a horse on an insufficient diet.
There are of course many, many other factors as well but the most important of all may simply be time!
If you are not lucky enough to have the space to hack use the arena but stay large as much as possible (no circles!!). After these few weeks of hacking your horse should be ready to get back in the ring and ease into flat and jump schools again. During this time it is still crucial to pay attention to what your horse is telling you. If he is tired after 15 minutes of trotting be sure to give him a break. Even though you have spent the time to build a base fitness, they will be working harder in the ring than hacking with a higher intensity, different footing etc. The last thing you want to do is move too fast and have a sore horse at the beginning of your winter boot camp! Keeping this in mind, it is also a good idea (and fun!) to maintain a hack routine within your regular work regime. I like to have all the horses I work with hack AT LEAST twice a week, if not more. This is not only a great way to maintain and build their fitness throughout the winter, but it is also a good mental break for your horse to get out of the arena. If you are strapped for time, try taking your horse for a hack as his warm up or cool down and incorporate it into you regular riding time. If you have the time however, there are few things better for your horse, physically and mentally, than going for a good hour long hack a few times a week. And to make it even better try getting a group of friends together. The conversations and laughs make the time fly by!