A: Having spent four years in the maternity ward, a 13-year-old mare needs to be brought back to the competition ring very slowly. I suggest you make sure she is dewormed and has her teeth checked and floated and filed, if necessary. Get her inoculations up to date and get her shod so she is well prepared to commence a conditioning program.
Her feed program also will have to be readjusted to her work level. If she appears to be losing weight as her workload increases, gradually increase grain or pellets. A good vitamin supplement also will help her body deal with the increased physical demand you will be putting on her.
Depending on how fit she is when you start to ride her again, conditioning her properly for the show season next year will take from three to six months. Think long, slow and distance for the first month. This period will be the hardest on her, and you must be prepared to go slowly.
Exercise her, but don't drain her muscle tone by overworking her. Remember, it's not just her cardiovascular (heart) system that you want to improve, it's those muscles, tendons and ligaments that need strengthening in order for her to become an athlete again.
Try to increase your workload gradually, week-by-week, not day-by-day. If you find she comes out with energy and is keen to work, perhaps then is a good time to increase the duration of your workload, not the intensity. Recognize the fact that some horses are easier to get fit than others and since she is new to you, you will find this out at the end of your three months.
Start with lots of walking-10 to 20 minutes a day to begin the first week, depending on how she responds. Then add five minutes per week from there. When she walks 25 minutes a day without breaking a sweat or seeming to be out of breath, gradually add short sections of trotting. Begin with one-minute trots and work up to several minutes before you return to walking. She may be out of breath at first, but when she can do four or five, two-minute trotting segments between walks comfortably each day, you are ready to ask her to canter. As you do this, think large circles and turns at slow speeds.
If she gets stressed, breathes too hard or sweats profusely, you are doing too much. The more keenly you observe and monitor how she acts and reacts to her work, the more successful you will be in achieving your goal. When you feel her moving along without prodding, taking longer to begin to sweat and breathing without stress, she is telling you that she is ready to work a little harder. But it's always better to put a horse to bed, so to speak, with a little gas left in the tank, rather than on empty.
If she was well-trained four years before her "leave of absence," the movements of First and Second Level will not be too hard for her to remember if your aids are correct. She may be rusty, but don't confuse this with lack of understanding. Start off on the conservative side and be easy on her, especially when dealing with more specific movements, such as leg yield and shoulder-in. Once she is fit, you will be surprised what she can do.
Lorraine Stubbs was twice a member of Canada's Olympic dressage team and finished in the top 10 at the 1976 Olympics. She won two gold medals at the 1991 Pan-American Games. She has been an FEI dressage judge since 1981 and currently is chair of the newly organized Dressage Canada. She lives at Rock Eden Farm, her breeding, training and sales facility near Toronto. Her Web site is www.rockeden.com.
This article first appeared in the April, 2001 issue of Dressage Today magazine.