The green horse; getting back to work

Getting back to work after some time off can be difficult. The holiday is never quite long enough so it’s nice to be able to ease back into the job. That is true of the horses that have had some time off. Several of the horses that I am presently riding have had a month off. They are mostly happy enough to go back to work but the first few days there is also reluctance to perform. How much training the horse had before having some time off plays a big role in how long it will take to get them back to the level they were at before their holiday started. They have not forgotten what was taught but it may or may not have become habit either. It is a matter of putting them through a condensed version of the starting process over again. This should only take a few days rather than weeks or months to re establish guidelines for behavior that I had been working on before the layoff.

When I start back I want to give the horse credit for what I know he knows, but I will expect a few things to be challenged by the horse. This challenge could simply be them re confirming what they thought I did or did not want. It is a time when I try to find out how much the horse really learned or how much he was simply coping with what he was expected to do. Often during a layoff the missing pieces of the various puzzles that we call training get found or assembled in the right order. This happens because of the reduced stress levels of the horse and decreased expectations that we have had during his time off have allowed him the time to process all the information I threw at him.

As I work with him I re touch specifically all the major points of training that the horse worked on. The authority will almost certainly need re confirmed; I just put him back in the round pen for a few minutes and get re acquainted.

Equipment shouldn’t really be an issue and I don’t make a lesson of it unless he tells me I need to. Any lesson that I work on that he has exaggerated difficulty with is an indicator that he may not have learned that lesson well enough in the first place. That means I will spend time on it now. If there is no real difficulty then I touch on it quickly and carry on.

Work in hand is important to cover to make sure the horse is still comfortable with contact from the bit. He should be able to perform the lateral work on the ground with relative ease. Moving forward with contact, bending to the inside and doing a turn on the forehand, and a turn on the haunches with him relatively straight and soft will remind him to pay attention to the bit.

Longing with the side reins loosened initially so I can help him remember to go long and low with light contact. I try to remember that the horse’s fitness level has changed for the worse. Muscle tone and strength need developed again so it is important not to force him into a frame that he may have been able to handle a month ago. Rhythm and balance won’t be as good as it was, and he may not be able to perform for as long until his fitness level increases.

I want to make sure that he will park next to the mounting block with little or no help and be able to stand quietly.
When he has accepted my authority again, is comfortable in hand and on the longe and he is willing to wait at the mounting block for me to get on I will start to ride him again. I usually allow a couple of days before I think about too much work under saddle. The first few days will be dictated by how comfortable and responsive he is. If he is apprehensive I will just ride him as if it were his first ride all over again. Things will quickly come back to him if he is not pushed. He may be in a fragile frame of mind for a few days as all the training comes rushing back to him. I like to keep the first few lessons short and sweet. Each day could be the equivalent of a weeks worth of sessions so I won’t try to teach anything new until I am confident that the horse is at least as good as he was before he got a break.
The horse once he has had a chance to get back into the swing of things is about ready to move into the next level of training. The basics are all falling into place and it won’t be long until he will be performing as a reliable horse that shouldn’t need to be treated as a youngster unless his age dictates that he needs more time to mature. It is the horse though that should decide when he is ready to go to more advanced levels of training. This should be a long, slow process with the learning curve not nearly as steep as it has been in his early fundamental training. If the horse is very young I would just continue to build his confidence at the level he is at for another month or two and then give him another month or two off. The older more mature horse should be able to handle longer periods of work before they get an extended break. As with everything in life balance is essential. If we can balance work and rest the horse will be happier for it.
© 2008 Will Clinging