January is the time of year when you can take care of things you don't have time to take care of the rest of the year. Your horse is just coming back into work, or maybe you're riding less because of bad weather, so your ability to practice shoulder-in or jumping related distances is limited. However, there are several things you can do now that will make the coming season enjoyable and, more importantly, safer for both you and your horse. The details I have in mind are not directly involved with your ability to sit the trot, but you will sit the trot with a great deal more peace of mind if you have taken care of some, or all, of the following suggestions.
Inspect Your Trailer
Your horse is your best friend, especially when he is thundering down to something that is bigger than anything you have ever seen before and it is cemented in the ground. Don't you think that he deserves a safe and comfortable conveyance when you are hauling him around to lessons and competitions?
Somewhere in that pile of old mail on your desk is the owner's manual that came with your gooseneck. Find it and open it to the page marked "Maintenance." Read it. Do it.
Before you take your trailer in for service, look closely at the interior.
Have any sharp metal edges suddenly appeared? Are any of the partitions bent or out of alignment? Is there anything else in your horse's traveling space that might pose a hazard to him? If so, now is the time to take care of it.
If you have had your trailer for several years and you have been at least normally active, it might be time to replace your tires. If you do not use your trailer on a regular basis, yet have been plagued by
a series of flat tires, you may need to replace your tires due to dry rot rather than loss of tread. Each of your trailer tires rotates with the help of mysterious creatures called "bearings." All you need to know about bearings is that they require care on a regular basis from someone who knows far more about machinery than you and I.
What about your brakes? They need regular service, and your maintenance guidelines will tell you what is needed and how to go about it.
While your trailer is in the shop for its annual rehab, make sure that all of its brake lights, backup lights and running lights are operational. You will need this to pass your state inspection, but you want to take care of these details based solely on your desire to have the safest possible environment for your four-legged friend.
If your trailer is of a certain age, lift the floor mats and make sure that the flooring itself is safe. Some older trailers have wood floors, which have a distressing tendency to rot over time, starting at the back end. However, metal floors can also corrode and deteriorate, and they need to be checked.
While your trailer is in for service, make sure that the hitch apparatus is greased, adjusted and maintained. In addition, if you have been towing your trailer with the same ball hitch on your truck for a long time, have your mechanic check that the ball has not shrunk. It's a long shot, but the ball can become so worn that the trailer hitch pops off and it's preventable.
If you take care of everything we have just talked about, it will cost you a little money. But it is a small investment in your peace of mind about your horse's well-being, and it is a very small down payment on the vet bills you could incur if you don't take care of maintenance.
Inspect Your Tack
You also need the month of January to conduct a rigorous safety examination of all your riding equipment.
Start with the bit itself. If it is a loose-ring snaffle, is it starting to show signs of wear where the ring goes through the bit? Are there tiny cracks appearing in the metal? Is there a flat worn spot visible in the ring? Any of these can be a sign that your bit is about to break. You will probably train in perfect safety all spring, yet it will come undone on you halfway around the season's first cross-country course because that's the way these things work. However, a little attention during the winter months can prevent a dangerous situation from occurring.
Look at the rest of your bridle. Are the cheekpieces worn? Is it time to replace the keepers because they have stretched out so much that they will no longer "keep" the cheekpiece straps? (That's a pet peeve of mine because a horse whose bridle lacks effective keepers looks like a hedgehog coming at you.)
Then move your inspection to your reins: If the leather part that wraps around the bit is beginning to show a groove, it is time to replace them. Undo the reins from the bit and inspect the internal stitching next to the hook stud or buckle that fastens the rein around the bit. The stitching should still be complete, and the hook stud or buckle itself should still be solidly fixed on the inside of the rein. If you have difficulty getting your reins off the bit, that means your tack maintenance program is badly in arrears and now is the time to fix it. Neatsfoot oil is cheaper than a visit to your local tack-repair shop. In my tack room, I have several of my father's bridles. Some of the leather is 75 years old, yet it is supple and the leather glows because it has received regular attention.
Working back along the reins, if you use rubber reins, be sure that the rubber hand grips have not started to separate or fray. A skillful tack-repair service can replace them, which is cheaper than a new pair of reins. This should only be done once because of the extra stitching involved, which will weaken the reins with repetition.
Inspect all of the leather parts of your reins for cracks and gouges. In case of doubt, get your tack-repair person to give you an opinion. If you're still in doubt, then it is time to invest in a new piece of equipment, because you would rather be safe than sorry.
If you are not riding much during the winter, have your saddle's panels restuffed. While you are at it, repair and replace the billet straps as needed and certainly, if your saddle is an older model, make sure that the material to which your billet straps are stitched is sound and in good repair.
Although a stitch in time saves nine, nine stitches in your stirrup leather buckle might mean the difference between a successful season and a long time spent on crutches wishing you could ride. The stitching at the buckle end of the stirrup leather is the tack area that I most commonly find in disrepair at lessons.
Check Your Horse
While your horse is not in serious exercise, schedule his annual physical checkup, which should be a complete workup. Unless your regular veterinarian is unusually gifted, this annual checkup should involve a trip to the nearest veterinary school or equine diagnostic clinic.
What should a complete workup include? More than the obvious. It is a given that an examination will include the horse's eyes, lung function and heart as well as external blemishes and superficial injuries or old injury sites. However, you should request flexions on all four limbs, and X-rays should be taken following any positive reaction to a flexion test. Chances are that the reaction is something minor, but you will feel better starting your next training period if you know that you have a minor condition that will be improved, rather than worsened, by exercise.
While you are at it, the clinic team should provide you with a written critique of your horse's feet and his shoeing with suggestions for improvement. (On your return, be sure you go over this carefully with your farrier. If he is resistant to expert advice offered in a constructive fashion, then you need a new farrier.)
Your horse's annual examination should also include a wide spectrum of blood work. This will tell you a great deal about the state of his health, including any mild form of anemia, the effectiveness of your deworming program and the presence of any lingering low-grade systemic infections. These days, you also need tests for any diseases such as EPM or Lyme that are prevalent in your area. As part of these blood tests, remember to obtain a new Coggins test. Ask the clinic staff to keep you apprised of any new transport requirements for instance, whether your state now requires a six-month current Coggins, rather than one year. And so on.
If you are competing in FEI events, be sure to bring your horse's passport to the clinic and make sure it is up to date in every aspect, especially regarding the required flu shots. Also remember that old wounds can heal with white hair rather than hair of his overall coat color. The passport must be changed to reflect this in order to remain current.
While your horse is at the clinic, be sure to bring a label from his feed bag and get advice about his nutrition.
Update Your Info
What are some other things you can do during the winter that will make your warm-weather experience more enjoyable? Go online and make sure that US Equestrian Federation and all the other affiliate organizations to which you belong have correct information in their user-profile database for both you and your horse. One reason to be sure now that the information in the database is correct is that more and more competitions are accepting online entries. If your information is out of date or incorrect, you run the risk of the competition's computer rejecting your entry. Check to make sure everything is correct now to avoid being placed on the waiting list rather than having your entry accepted.
Make several copies of all of your membership numbers and of your horse's registration numbers and competitive records and stash them in various places: your brief case, your vehicle's glove box, your tack trunk so you can access them should a competition not be able to find the required information.
If you have not yet joined the various organizations for the coming year, make sure to do it now.
Continue Your Education
Finally, in case you haven't looked outside yet, it's still winter. It gets dark early and there's not much going on. So?read a book. As a matter of fact, I want you to read three books over the next three months. Read one on dressage, one about stadium jumping and one of your choice. Obviously I think my own books have something to offer to you, and you can read my extended reading list here. However, a good place for you to start would be with Wilhelm Museler's Riding Logic for your dressage book. (Herr Museler includes some advice about show-jumping in the back of Riding Logic--ignore it.) If you have not read Bertalan de Nemethy's classic Show Jumping: The de Nemethy Method, then do so.
For your third book, I prefer you choose one that discusses technique and training rather than one that is autobiographical in nature. There are many autobiographical books out there based on the writers' horse exploits, and they are fascinating and fun to read, but they usually do not increase your knowledge of how to ride and train the way books specifically written for that purpose do.
Anyone with a full-time job will tell you that continuing professional education is a necessity in the modern business world. To continue to improve and succeed in the horse world, you must take the same diligent, disciplined attitude toward continuing education about riding and training as you do toward your professional career.
If you take care of all of these details, I am sure your horse will take better care of you and you will have a safe and enjoyable season.
In a lifetime of riding and competing, Jim Wofford has represented the US in eventing at three Olympics and two World Championships. He won the US National Championship five times on five different horses. As one of the sport's most highly regarded coaches, he has had at least one student on every US Olympic, World Championship, and Pan American team since 1978. He also recently coached the Canadian Team for the 2002 World Championship, the 2003 Pan Am Games and the 2004 Olympics. An author, Jim is based at Fox Covert Farm in Upperville, Virginia, where he lives with his wife, Gail, and his Labrador Retrievers. Find information about his clinics and more at his website, jimwofford.blogspot.com.
See also: The Ideas of March
This article originally appeared in the January 2008 issue of Practical Horseman.