During the Covid-19 lockdown, many of us have had to turn our horses away, take shoes off, or adjusted our riding schedules and management routines, resulting in our horses losing a level of fitness, and quite likely an increase in weight.
Whilst the temptation maybe to bring your beloved horse in from the field, give him a groom, tack up and head off on your first ride, in reality this is a potential recipe for disaster, and possibly a trip to A&E, and/or a visit from the vet. You have waited so long for this moment and it would be awful to have to spend even more time off riding due to an accident or injury that could be prevented.
Bringing a horse back into work after a period of time off takes planning and preparation to ensure both horse and rider come back into work safely and soundly and ensure we are following best practice with regards to our horse’s care and welfare.
Preparation is key!
- No matter how fit your horse was prior to being turned away, conditioning will have been lost.
- Any weight gain means a strain on joints, tendons, muscles and cardiovascular system is highly likely, and must always be at the forefront of our minds when returning horses to work.
- Any changes to routine must be done gradually.
- Be mindful that returning a horse from grass to Riding Club level fitness will take between six-eight weeks, perhaps longer depending on horses’ age, weight, type, and any previous health issues.
- Consider your own fitness levels as well - you may not be as riding fit as you were before lockdown! Give yourself time to get back into it, and have easier days, or a few days off to give yourself time to recover. Rather than riding each day, you could walk your horse in-hand.
You and your farrier may have decided to take your horse’s shoes off during the lockdown period due to reducing their exercise. Ask your farrier whether they would advise putting the shoes back on your horse before you bring them back into work. Monitor how your horse is coping and if you have any concerns contact your farrier.
You will help to ensure your horse’s hooves are in a good, balanced condition by keeping up with regular visits as recommended by your farrier. This is important in both shod and un-shod horses, to detect any changes or abnormalities and ultimately help to maintain soundness.
Ensure you check your horse is sound, your farrier may be able to help you assess your horse. If you're worried that your horse is showing signs of lameness contact your vet.
Many leisure horses do perfectly well on a high forage, low sugar and starch diet with an additional balancer or vitamin and mineral supplement.
It’s unlikely that you will need to adjust this as your horse is brought back into work, but it will depend on your horse’s individual requirements. There may be circumstances where additional concentrate feeds are needed, for example if they struggle to keep weight on. Discuss your horse’s individual requirements with a qualified nutritionist who can advise you by producing a tailored feeding plan.
It can be difficult to notice small changes in your horse’s weight when you see them every day. Weigh tapes are a useful tool to monitor weight changes in your horse. Getting hands-on by fat scoring is also helpful to monitor your horse’s body condition. This will enable you to react to changes in your horse’s weight by adjusting their management gradually.
To help reduce the risk of colic it is important to gradually change your horse’s routine and diet over a minimum of 10-14 days.
It will be important to ensure your horse’s dental health check is up to date as soon as visits can be undertaken by the vet or qualified Equine Dental Technician.
Horses are prey animals so hide their pain really well. As you start to bring your horse back into work it is important to watch out for any behavioural changes as a sign they may not be coping or are in pain.
Behavioural changes to their work may include resistance to the bridle, changing leads regularly in canter, bucking, rearing or showing signs of discomfort when the saddle is being put on. Some signs may be much more subtle such as tilting their head, clamping their tail, or repeatedly opening their mouth.
If you notice any behavioural changes, the first thought should be to check if your horse is in pain by discussing these signs with your vet.
Do not confuse eagerness for fitness. Like us, our horses may be keen and eager to get out and about. This eagerness will get the adrenaline pumping and can make the horse appear to be fitter than they actually are. Be mindful of this when bringing your horse back into work, be aware of their respiration rate i.e. are they blowing? Are they sweating excessively? Know what your horse’s resting respiration and pulse rate are to help you monitor their recovery rates; for further advice watch our video.
While being out of work your horse’s weight and muscle development is likely to have changed. Even small changes can have an influence on how well their saddle now fits. In an ideal world it would be sensible to have the horse’s saddle fit checked by a qualified saddler before bringing the horse back into work. Think of us wearing a shoe that doesn’t fit correctly; we often respond by walking in a slightly different way and if prolonged it could cause us discomfort, rubs or pain. The same could apply to the saddle fit of your horse. A series of short videos that introduces some of the key elements of saddle fitting, provided by The Society of Master Saddlers, are available to view here.
At the end of your fitness programme, it is ideal for the saddle fit to be checked again as your horse can change shape through developing muscle and weight loss.
Make sure your tack is clean and supple. Make sure all boots, bandages and saddlecloths are also clean and free of grime and sweat. Dirty tack can result in sores and/or rubs.
Basic Fitness Plan
Fitness plans for any horse can be broken down into three stages:
Step 1 – SLOW & STEADY: Slow work to prepare muscles, tendons and ligaments
Step 2 - STRENGTH & STAMINA: Improve basic fitness and strength
Step 3 – SCHOOLING & SPEED: Faster work, interval training, jump training, schooling sessions
Please note this is general guidance and all horses are individuals. If you have any concerns about progressing to the next phase, keep them at the current workload until you are satisfied they are coping. If your horse has been off due to an injury, continue to follow or seek advice from your vet for their rehabilitation back into work.
Throughout the process of returning your horse to work, safety is the prime concern for the rider. There will be horses who will be feeling very fresh with riders worried that, for example, they may have the potential to buck or spook. If safe, start by walking your horse in-hand. If this isn’t possible and you are concerned for your safety, you may need to consider lungeing, but be aware that circles will add more stress and strain on your horse’s limbs at this early stage so don’t keep your horse on a 20 metre circle – instead move around the school to prevent injury to your horse.
- Week 1 – 20 minutes walk work ideally moving in straight lines on a level surface
- Week 2 – Increase to 30-40 minutes walking
- Week 3 – Continue walk work up to 1 hour, including hill work
- Week 4 – Introduce short bursts of trot work
- Week 5 – Introduce short schooling sessions. Easier lateral work can be reintroduced, again if appropriate, this will help the suppleness and flexibility of the horse and add some interest into their routine. If appropriate lungeing can be used, but keep the circles big, and lunge for no more than 20 minutes in total.
- Weeks 6-8 – Extend your schooling sessions and introduce canter work. Maintain the hill work and hacking, start to introduce pole work and small fences.
KEEP ASSESSING YOUR HORSE’S RECOVERY TIMES AND CAPABILITY. GO BACK A STEP IF NECESSARY.
- Week 9 - onwards – Your horse should now be back to an adequate level of fitness. Competition, show and event organisers will be following the Government guidance closely as to when and how these events can recommence in the future.
Photo by Jon Stroud Media
Fitness work can be completed in an arena, around fields or out hacking, depending on what facilities you have available. Before riding out on the roads consider the temperament of your horse; further advice is available here.
It is important to be aware of the ground conditions you are riding on as this will impact your horse’s physical wellbeing. Is the arena levelled? Has it been raining excessively making the ground slippery or slightly deep? Is the ground hard?
Continually assess your horse’s recovery times, and how he is feeling. Is he coping with this work? If you need to extend your walking weeks, then do so. Slow work now will lay down the foundations for faster work later and will minimise the risk of injury.
Seek guidance from your BHS Accredited Professional Coach (APC) at any stage and riding lessons can commence once your horse is comfortably fit enough, for example in the earlier stages a 30-minute lesson in walk and trot. BHS APC’s will receive guidance from the BHS in relation to the commencement of coaching again in-line with Government / Devolved Nations’ advice.
Warming up and Cooling Down
Warming up and cooling down are an essential part of the process, whether we are bringing our horses back into work, or just on a day to day bases.
They are essential to keep the horse fit and muscle tone elastic, and prevent injuries to ligaments and tendons. It can also prevent conditions such as azoturia (painful muscle cramps) and colic.
Warming up focuses the horse’s mind and gets them thinking about the job they’re about to do. It raises the heart rate, which boosts circulation and increases the oxygen flow to the muscles. This increases elasticity and flexibility.
There are no hard and fast rules, but you will need to bear in mind the weather, ground conditions, temperament of the horse, and whether the horse is stabled or ridden from the field. Those horses being ridden from the stable will need a longer time to warm up.
The cooling down process is equally as important. Again, it prevents injuries occurring, azoturia setting in, and allows the horse a chance to process what he has just done and return to a normal state of mind.
Cooling down brings the heart rate down which draws the lactic acid away from the muscles and reduces the risk of inflammation in the muscles (DOMS, or Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness).
Gradually bring the horse back down the paces, then walking until he is no longer ‘blowing’ and his respiration rate has recovered.
Photo by Jon Stroud Media
Aftercare of your horse is very important. He may need to be washed off and brush off any sweat marks. Check for saddle rubs, girth galls and bit rubs. Check legs for heat and swelling.
Keep walking your horse if he is still breathing heavily. NEVER put a hot blowing horse back in a stable and just leave it. This can cause massive complications and is not good horse welfare.
Photo by Jon Stroud Media
Visual Signs of Fitness
As fitness increases with regular and appropriate training, a number of changes should be apparent over the weeks which include:
- An increased willingness or ability to cope with exercise
- A change in body shape, with better muscle definition
- Ability to maintain a regular and even speed in any gait
- Less sweating for the same amount of work under similar conditions
- More rapid recovery in breathing after finishing work
If you need any additional advice contact the Welfare team on 02476 840517 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
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