If your winter was anything like mine, you probably didn't ride much. Even with an indoor arena, the temperatures were too cold (yes, it can be too cold to ride). But spring is on its way, and we're all eager to get back to regular riding.
My spring ritual starts with cleaning and conditioning my tack. I inspect it for wear and loose stitching, especially where the reins attach to the bit, as that area takes a beating.
I inspect my saddle pads (all of them) to see which can go another year. Ditto on the girths. Then I put the tack on my horse and check saddle fit.
it's amazing the way a horse's body structure changes with muscle gain/loss, weight gain/loss, and aging, especially if the horse is very young or very old. And body changes can make a difference in saddle comfort.
If the saddle needs tweaking, I decide if a saddle pad change will be enough of an adjustment or if I need to call in a saddle fitter (Dr. Joyce Harman?s saddle-fit book is my bible), and bear in mind that as my horse regains condition her body may change again yet.
My rides the first week are about a half hour or so, mainly at the walk. I judge her attitude, her soundness and her fitness. If all is well, I commit to a regular riding schedule.
Horses build body condition gradually. The respiratory and cardiovascular systems improve first, with increased respiratory and heart efficiency. you'll see changes in muscle development next, followed by the tendons/ligaments, and then bone.
Note that the parts of the body that take longest to condition are the ones we commonly see injured. Consequently, under no circumstances should you grab your out-of-shape horse and go for a two-hour trail ride. Instead, map out your conditioning strategy.
We use a number of exercises to help build our horse's condition:
? Trot on the ?wrong? diagonal. It influences the outside hind leg, instead of the inside hind, helping the horse reach under himself better.
? Use poles (see January 2013), which build core strength.
? Transitions! You can't do enough of them. Use your seat and leg aids as much as possible, while minimizing rein aids. Be sure to include a reinback.
? Leg yielding. Yes, we know it's part of your basic warm-up, but we want to remind you anyway.
? Ride off of the rail. Go down the center line. Use the quarter line. Ride the diagonal. Horses tend to hug the rail because it's easier for them.
? Include hill work if you can. Vary the sizes of the circles and serpentines. Do a lot of trotting.
As you go, listen to your horse. Maybe when you started, he was breathing heavily after just a few canter strides but now he'll go two minutes. that's progress! he'll gain confidence and interest as he gains strength, and you'll both enjoy a long riding season.
Cynthia Foley, Editor-in-Chief