It doesn't matter what your horse's level of fitness was when you stopped riding. By the end of three months of inactivity, all conditioning in your horse is essentially lost. You're starting at ground zero of training your horse again. Even if the horse had plenty of turnout, many horses don't do much more than eat and stand around, especially when the weather and ground conditions are bad. If the horse has gained weight, it will be harder for him to tolerate exercise, too. Arthritic joints or old tendon and ligament problems may stiffen up during periods of inactivity. Even sound, healthy adult horses should be gradually eased back into full work.
Slow But Sure
The basics of bringing your horse back to regular work are pretty much common sense. Before you even start, make sure his feet are in good repair. You don't want to start off with a strike against him that could cause pain, balance problems, uneven movement, or loss of sure-footedness. Don't just hop on the horse and go, unless it's just for a brief, leisurely stroll.
It's a good idea to longe him to get some idea of his exercise tolerance. Walk for 5 to 10 minutes, uninterrupted, with at least one change of direction, then ask for a trot. Stop if the horse starts tripping, breaks a sweat, is obviously breathing hard, or is no longer willing to keep trotting without encouragement. As a rule of thumb, if you repeat the same pattern of exercise with the weight of tack and a rider, the horse will probably show the same level of fatigue in half the time. If you skip the trotting under saddle and just walk, he'll last about the same length of time before getting tired.
Before You "Spring" into Action
- Introduce exercise slowly, taking into account your horse's hoof condition, weight, age, health, and soundness.
- Gradually get your horse in condition before asking him to do anything strenuous.
- Longe before working under saddle.
- Walk before trotting.
- Watch for early signs of fatigue and stop before you overtax your horse.
Don't Be Fooled by Willingness
A horse who hasn't seen much action over the winter can be just as excited about going out on that first ride as you are. Don't mistake this eagerness for fitness, and don't assume that the horse won't do more than he is physically conditioned to do. Odds are that he will, and in two or three days his muscles will really be feeling the effects.
Horses who are very out of shape will benefit from daily longeing until they reach a point where it's actually worth the trouble of tacking them up and riding-that is, when they can tolerate about half an hour under saddle at a walk. If you add 3 to 5 minutes at a time to the walking phase, you'll be surprised at how quickly most horses will improve their exercise tolerance. To do this, first increase the walk time by 3 to 5 minutes, still always stopping the trot when the horse shows signs of fatigue. Once he is trotting comfortably and willingly for 5 minutes longer than your starting point, add 3 to 5 minutes to the walk phase again. When you're up to say a 20-minute walk and a 20-minute trot, you can hit the trails for a 40-minute walk or 20 to 30 minutes of mixed walking and trotting.
Overdoing it when you start to ride again runs the risk of causing problems that can take far longer to correct than the time invested in preventing them would have taken. Muscular aches and pains are not something you can "see" very easily, but they will manifest themselves as back and gait stiffness, sluggishness, poor attitude toward work (who can blame the horse?), and even the development of vices and refusals. Behaviors rooted in pain really aren't training issues, but if misinterpreted as such, they can lead to battles that can ruin your whole riding season.
The Very Young & Very Old
Horses who are just starting under saddle and are under the age of 3½ to 4 years old are still in the process of strengthening their ligaments, tendons, bones, and joints. Exercise remodels these structures so they are better able to withstand exercise, but young horses are easily injured until their
structures are strengthened. However, their muscles, hearts, and lungs become conditioned much more quickly, which means your youngster could be overloading his skeleton before he shows you much along the lines of fatigue. Lots of miles at slow speeds is the proper foundation for a young horse.
Older horses have a different set of problems to deal with. Their heart and lung function may not be as good as in their earlier years, and most horses accumulate one or more arthritic joints or injuries in their lifetimes. If you take things slow, the regular exercise should actually lead to significant improvements in their endurance, flexibility, and comfort. If this isn't happening, it's time to involve your vet to form a game plan.
Stay Clear of Splints
The splint bones are two long, slender bones running down the back of the horse's cannon bone. They are remnants from the days when horses had more than one toe. The medial (inside) splint bone forms part of the lower joint of the knee. Before the age of 4 or 5 years old, the upper portions of the splint bone are held to the cannon bone by a ligament. After this age, the ligament turns to bone. Because the top of the medial splint bone helps bear weight, when a young horse is moving, this force tends to push the splint bone out and stretch the attaching ligament. Over time, it is this tension that stimulates the ligament to calcify and form a tighter attachment. However, if you overdo exercise-either too long or too fast-a young horse can end up with too much strain in this area, resulting in inflammation and swelling that is commonly called a "splint."
Horses whose cannon bones are offset to the outside or twisted in any way are also more prone to developing splint problems, and so are horses with improper amounts or balances of minerals in their diets. To minimize the chances of this problem developing, always introduce exercise to young horses very slowly, especially if their front leg conformation is less than perfect. Feed a diet with correct amounts and balances of minerals for a growing horse. Check the splint area regularly and stop formal exercise at the first sign of heat or swelling. Aggressive treatment with ice packing and/or boots is the best way to control the inflammation.