Would you work up a sweat jogging and then stand around outside in your damp jogging clothes, getting chilled? Of course not! Yet that's just what you do to your horse if you don't cool him fully before you put him away after work, especially in winter. At best, you're leaving him cold, clammy, and miserable; at worst, you're inviting muscle tie-ups and respiratory problems.
Sure, a cool-down takes time, and time is something we're all short of--but it's an investment that pays off in a healthier, happier horse and lower vet bills. It also gives you a chance to bond with your horse: to hang out with him, get to know him, and make him feel good--the way you feel when you change your damp jogging clothes for a nice, warm bathrobe.
Follow the old saying, "Walk the first mile out and the last mile back"--and cover your horse with a washable knit "holey" cover topped by a wool one; the knit cooler will save on dry-cleaning your wool blanket. Knot up all surcingle straps so neither of you can catch a leg in them. Put the coolers under the pommel so they can't slide back, and under your stirrup irons. To make sure you don't get tangled up in cloth, never put a cooler over your stirrups and buckle it in front, or wrap the front ends around your legs to keep it in place.
After warming up, get off and remove the coolers--don't try to pull them out from under yourself in the saddle, inviting trouble if your horse spooks. Fold them neatly over a fence. Then go to work.
After work, get off, put the coolers back on, remount, and walk your horse for twenty minutes--walk, don't amble on a loose rein chatting with a friend. This allows his heart and breathing to return to normal. (In cool weather, that's 30 to 38 beats and 10 to 20 breaths per minute in most horses.) Then feel for his heart rate in front of his girth with your leg and count his breaths (easy to see in cold weather). If he's still above normal, walk him more; if not . . .
. . . dismount, pull the reins over your horse's head, pull the coolers forward and buckle them to keep his shoulders warm, loosen the noseband (don't undo--a flying buckle could blind an eye), run the stirrups up, and loosen the girth two holes. Walk him two to three more minutes, which allows return of circulation in the saddle area now that your weight is off it. Then walk him back to the barn.
- By now (from this point on we'd normally be inside), his coolers will be damp. Have a dry cooler handy; as you fold the damp coolers back from his shoulders, immediately cover him with the dry one so he doesn't get chilled. Then undo the girth, pull off his saddle but leave the pad on (it's damp, but it's warm; by not disturbing it yet, you'll help his returning circulation and keep warm muscles from cramping in the cold air), and continue replacing his damp coolers with the dry one.
- Top off the dry cooler with your wool cooler , and give him five or ten quiet minutes while you take off his bridle and boots, put him on the crossties, hang up your tack, pick out his feet, maybe take him out to graze if the day isn't windy, or put him in his stall to urinate if he isn't likely to roll (do up his surcingles before you leave him alone).
- Then feel under the coolers for whether he's dry--check the big muscles over his loins and croup, and his shoulders. If he's damp and clammy, walk him for five to ten more minutes. If he's dry, reach up under the coolers and pull off the saddle pad. Then (if you haven't already done so), give him a few minutes in his stall to urinate, and let him have a little water--no more than six or seven big swallows. Now, if you have time, you might go get yourself a cup of coffee or clean your tack before continuing; if you're on a tight schedule, you can bring him right back out in the aisle to finish by grooming him.
- To keep his muscles from chilling, "quarter" his blankets as you groom. Begin in front so you leave his loin area covered and warm as long as possible. Fold the coolers back, uncovering him just to the clip line of your saddle. Curry him to get off any dirt and scurf in this area.
- Then push the cooler back to uncover the saddle area and use a dry towel to dry and fluff the hair there, and on the girth area. Then cover his front, move to the rear, and roll the coolers forward to the clip line so you can work on the hindquarters. Use your stiff curry for the big gluteal muscles, but switch to a soft brush or a towel for the sensitive flank and loin area--where a stiff curry would feel like a steel comb on your own hair. Then cover him with your dry cooler. Now you can put him back in his stall with a clear conscience--or, if you have the time and the weather isn?'t windy, take him out for twenty minutes or so to relax, eat grass, and socialize with you.
Adapted from the February 1996 issue of Practical Horseman magazine.