By Jerry Tardif
Spring approaches, the weather is getting milder, and you start thinking about riding again.
If most or all of your riding is in the arena and you're fortunate enough to have an indoor, you've probably been riding all winter.
In that case, it's likely that your horse is already in pretty fair condition and warmer weather just means an accelerated schedule.
But, if you and your horse have been dormant for the winter, you need to start your horse slowly.
The worst thing you can do is to start riding too aggressively with your horse not in sufficient condition.
Horses have died because they were ridden too hard and out of shape at the beginning of the season.
And it's not necessary, but not a bad idea to have your vet give your horse a physical at the season's beginning just to assure everything is ok and that she's ready for more activity.
Also, make sure your horse's feet are ok and ready for more activity.
Even in the winter, your horse should have been receiving regular farrier care.
Let your farrier know when you're about to begin riding, what kind of riding you're going to do, and ask him/her about your horse's feet.
When you've done all this and everything looks good, you're ready to begin.
Start with moderate exercise.
Some horses are naturally active and run around with other horses in a large open paddock.
Others have small paddocks, too little turn-out, or just aren't prone to being as active.
One option is to start with some round pen work.
This is an easy way that doesn't require much space and also re-establishes you as your horse's leader because you're making her move her feet.
But before you do, make sure you take at least two precautions:
- Have someone with experience, such as the barn owner or a trainer, show you how to properly use the round pen and how to stay safe; and
- Don't get too close to your horse or let her get too close to you while going round.
This is especially true should she kick out in defiance.
You need to stay safe in these closed quarters with a 1,000 pound animal running around you.
Begin with her walking around the pen.
After a few laps, bring her up to a trot and keep her there for five or so laps, then let her back down to the walk.
You should be able to alternate her between the walk for a few laps and a trot her for a few laps and then quit after about 15 minutes of this — that's all for the first day.
She's not in shape yet, so don't overdo it.
Then, do it again the next day, but for 20 minutes.
On the third day, add a few short canters.
If she kicks out when you make her canter, some of that could be excitement, but it also could be an objection to working — that's not a problem.
Don't punish her for kicking out, let her express herself, but keep on your routine.
Of course, if there's any indication of a physical problem, stop immediately and investigate.
After a few days of this, tack her up, mount, and go a walking ride of a half mile or so.
If everything seems fine, extend it to a mile.
The next day, do it again, but add some hills to walk up.
As you can see, we're working up the difficulty and duration to build your horse's muscles and cardio-pulmonary system back into a more active state.
You may be able to progess a little faster if she started in better condition, or maybe you've noticed she should be worked more gently, depending on the condition and age of your horse.
Don't ignore these signs, it's better to progress too slowly than too quickly.
The key is to observe her progress, behavior, breathing, etc.
On the first day or two, she may be sweaty and breathing hard just from a little exercise.
A few outings later, she won't break a sweat and will be ready for more — that indicates she's getting into better condition.
Be patient, stick with a routine of exercising at least every other day, but don't push her faster than what she's ready for.
If you're consistent, she'll be in pretty good shape within about a month for typical riding.
If you're discipline requires more athleticism (long trail rides in rough terrain, endurance riding, etc.), it'll take longer.
Take your time and keep aware of how your horse is doing so that you don't push too hard, but continue making each session a little more difficult.
Also, don't forget that your horse is likely still wearing some or most of a winter coat unless you clip.
That's another reason you need to not overdo it so she doesn't overheat.
Stop when she just starts to sweat on her breast and lower neck.
Sweating is allowable once in condition and in warmer weather, but comes easily when a horse is not in condition, not to mention the further contribution of that winter coat.
The foregoing is a short and generalized primer to get your horse into shape.
Each horse is different and has different needs.
Pay attention to your horse as she takes on more work.
If you have any doubts, consult your barn owner and veterinarian about any concerns.
And don't forget your own conditioning.
If you only ride for an hour at a time, you should adjust quickly.
But if you ride for hours on end, make sure you work up to it also and don't overdo it on yourself.
It's important that you and your horse get conditioned together.
And very important for both of you: Have Fun!
Besides being an avid trail rider, Jerry Tardif is a technology consultant and a horse and nature photographer in SE Connecticut — see his work at: www.jerrytardif.com.
He is also co-founder and President of QueryHorse, the largest equine information resource on the Internet.
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