Now that spring has sprung those fair weather riders among us are coming out of hibernation. Before you go and jump on your horse there are a few things that I want to mention to prepare your horse to get back to work. There are a couple of physical things that we should be aware of but I am going to focus more on the mental preparation that our horse might need to be safely ridden. The physical things I want to mention are their feet, equipment fit and the possible low level of fitness. The mental things are reestablishing rules and expectations on the ground and in the saddle, allowing a re-tuning period and problem prevention.
The physical horse in the spring has softer muscle tone than when he was laid off last winter. Because of the amount of rain and snow that we deal with over winter a horses feet are usually pretty soft by this time of the year. Before you start riding it is important to make sure his feet have been trimmed or shod and that they are balanced. Equipment fit can also be an issue because of the change in the horse’s muscle tone or lack of muscle tone. A horse that is too soft due to lack of exercise is more likely to develop cinch sores or saddle fitting problems. Make sure your cinches are cleaned regularly because of shedding hair and dirt that can build up on a cinch will add to the irritation of an already tender spot. Most horses that have not been ridden for the winter are not going to have near the same physical condition as they did by the end of last years riding season, make sure to give them time to strengthen their muscles and build their endurance slowly.
The physical side of preparing a horse for spring I think is much more likely to be a concern for many horse owners than the mental preparation. Most of us can see if our horse gained weight and he has lost muscle tone or that his feet are soft but do we see that our horse may not be mentally ready to start being ridden.
I am a believer that ground work should be done on an as needed basis and not as a routine exercise. Some ground work might be needed now, especially if we have let a few things slide over winter like maintaining established behavior, and a respectful attitude. Or if issues have developed for whatever reason that have not been addressed now is the time. It is a good idea to make the first few or as many as necessary sessions to reestablish rules and expectations. If things have not been consistent for a while start with rules that your horse is already aware of. When old boundaries are reset your horse will be getting into a frame of mind that is more “work like”. If there are rules that you want to change or add now is as good a time as any.
When the attitude is good on the ground reestablish expectations under saddle. Work slowly through things you have worked on in the past. This will become a retuning period for you both. Things like balance, feel and timing will all be off just a little. It is likely that neither you nor your horse will be at the same level you were at a few months ago. Back up as far as you need to and regain the confidence necessary to reach the level of riding or training you are used to.
Taking a slow rebuilding approach will play a big part in problem prevention. It will make you aware of both your and your horse’s mental and physical limitations. It should also build confidence in you and your horse when you both realize that you remember more than you thought you might. Most problems that your horse will have will likely develop soon after you put him back to work. This will also be the easiest time to deal with them. The longer you wait the more established things become and the more difficult to correct.
Taking the time to get your horse ready to ride should not be a big chore, assuming that you could ride him before. The urge to jump on and go might be strong, but taking some time to evaluate his state of mind might save you some grief. When your horse is attentive and responding in a familiar way that you are comfortable with it is time to ride. If you are not happy with his behavior or his attitude you might still have some work to do.
© 2006 Will Clinging