As spring in the UK is DEFINITELY around the corner now (!!) this weeks Top Tips are about bringing your horse back into work.
There are various things to consider with our horses if they have had time off, or less exercise over the winter months, to bring them back into work safely, so that we don’t risk injury, poor posture developing, or the start of an overuse syndrome in the body.
Tip 1: Make a plan!
I love a good plan with horses, it’s so effective and so much safer to bring your horse back into work, or increase their work, by doing it progressively, meaning increasing a little bit at a time, over weeks and ideally months.
Starting with slow work, and then slowly increasing the time and intensity and demands over a 12 week period is an ideal type of return to work plan.
You all know that I love walk exercise with horses, and at the beginning of any rehab or fittening plan, that is exactly what I will do, normally for 6 weeks. You can make SO much progress just by walking and really strengthen your horse!
We need to give the horses body time to adjust to exercise, asking for too much too soon is where the injury risk lies, if the horse isn’t strong or flexible enough to do what we are asking.
So if you are starting to exercise your horse after time off, or increase their exercise levels now, just take a step back and think about how you can do this in a progressive way, to move you towards your end goals of full fitness. If you were going to go from zero to 5k running, you wouldn’t start with a 5k run! You would spend weeks getting towards the 5k run as the end goal, and it’s the same for our horses!
Tip 2: Start with Walking!
I think you probably know that I love walking with horses, as I talk about it here, on my page, and in my groups A LOT (!), it’s what I have spent a lot of time doing with injured or post surgery horses, but it’s also hugely beneficial for all horses.
Starting the process of bringing your horse back into work should always be with several weeks walking at least, to let your horses body adapt to exercise and the processes that happen within the tissues and bones due to exercise.
6 weeks walking is a really good, safe way of restarting your horses fitness plan! Walk work is low impact, lower injury risk than faster paces, and you are giving your horses body time to get moving, build some stamina, build some respiratory and cardiovascular strength, and build some muscle, before asking too much of a demand on the body.
If you have ever gone through a rehabilitation process with your horse, you will know just how beneficial those first 6 weeks of walking can be, you can literally transform your horse by walking in good posture!
If you are prepared to put the time into walking, you can also be improving your horses posture while you are doing it, buy adding in core strengthening work alongside the walking, so that by the time that you get to the end of a 6 week plan of walking and core strengthening exercises, your horse will be in good shape!!
Tip 3: Body checks
I always advise regular body check for horses, and at the point you are bringing them back into work it’s really important.
What if your horse had a fall or a slip over the winter that you aren’t aware of. What is he has a sore back? What if there is something going on in his body that would mean he shouldn’t start exercising?
If he hasn’t been doing much exercise over the winter, how is his posture, is he comfortable in his body? If you have been on ‘tick over’ and are about to increase exercise, is your horse strong enough to do that?
It’s worth considering all of these points, if you haven’t already!
A check with your vet or a qualified therapist is important as we bring our horses back into work, so that we are clear that our horse is able to move into an exercise plan.
Tip 4: Cross training
I have been talking about taking your horses fitness steady this week, to prevent injury and poor posture developing due to doing too much too soon. A progressive steady return to work is the most beneficial way of getting restarted into exercise with your horse.
Exercising our horses on an artificial arena, working on the roads, and jumping are all pretty unnatural activities for our horses! So we need to let their bodies adapt to what we are asking by slowly progressively increasing the demands on them over a period of time.
Cross training is a really useful way to exercise our horses, so that we include a variety of work for them on a weekly basis, for example, hacking, long reining, pole work, slope/hill work, schooling, jumping, fast work.
Using different muscles and different skills to develop our horse into an all round athlete ensures that he is adaptable, fit, strong, flexible, and able to do any of the activities that we choose!
Is it useful for dressage horses to do some fast work? YES!
Is it useful for jumping horses to do some hacking or long reining? YES!
It is useful for our happy hackers to do some pole work? YES!
Whatever job we like our horses to do, good all round cross training can be really beneficial to our horses, to maintain good all round fitness and strength, as well as the skills they need for specific sports.
I hope this helps to think about applying a progressive plan to how we are exercising our horses, and particularly as we bring them back into work after time off or reduced exercise.
***If you would like more help to support this process with your horse, my online training 'Engage your horses core' is a 'how-to' course where I show to HOW to do all of the most beneficial exercises for training your horse to engage his core, lift his back, and work in good posture! Training details: Engage your horses core