Eeeeeeeeeek! Is that a horse or a woolly mammoth? I'm just kidding ... I love to see a horse get a chance to relax and just be a horse. In my mind, this includes growing a fur coat Lady Gaga would envy and, if possible, going barefoot for a month or so. Frosted whiskers are a plus. At last! The snow is off the ground, you have seen your first robin and the hardy perennials are just starting to show. You know what this means, right? This means it's time to get your eventing freak on.
You have been looking at photos and old DVDs all winter, stalking the chat rooms and websites and spending way too much time looking at horse clips on YouTube. It was demoralizing for a while, when you became convinced that winter would never, not ever, be over. Boy, were you wrong, and thank goodness for that. Now it's time to get ready for spring.
Tackle Paperwork First
You can't event without your horse, and we will talk about him in a minute, but there are some things you have to take care of first. They won't let you into the start box unless you have updated your memberships, so take care of that right away. The Internet has made it easy; go online and make sure all your membership details are correct and that you are signed up for another year. You probably belong to several organizations, beginning with the US Equestrian Federation and the US Eventing Association. Check all of them to make sure your memberships are current.
While you are at it, look into your horse's "paperwork" as well. He needs to have accurate information on his record. If you have never tracked down his breeding, try to find that out and enter it now. If you have started competing at the FEI (International Equestrian Federation) levels, make sure his passport is up to date, that any new marks or blemishes are updated on the identification page and that his required vaccinations are current.
A Good Once-Over for Your Horse
While you are updating your horse's shots, have your vet give him an exam with particular focus on any small conditions that need management. You need to be especially attentive about any past soft-tissue injuries and discuss ongoing treatment and prevention with your vet. Ask for a blood scan; there are several things the blood test can tell you. Red and white cell counts can be indicators of anemia or low-grade infection. Other scan results can alert you to possible dehydration or high worm infestation.
The horseman's adage is "no foot, no horse," so have your vet examine your horse's feet as well to make sure he is shod correctly. If you have difficulty communicating with your farrier, ask your vet for a letter setting out any details that need to be corrected the next time your horse is shod and the overall aspects of his hoof care that will need continual supervision and correction. A good farrier will welcome a consultation with your vet. X-ray and other diagnostic tools can make your farrier's job much more efficient. Your efforts to make sure your horse is as sound and fit as possible will pay off once you start to hit the road for the new season. (If your farrier is resistant to outside advice, think about finding one who is more open to veterinary input.)
And a Good Once-Over for Your Trailer
Considering the amount of time your horse will spend in your trailer, you owe it to him to make sure it is as road worthy as he is. I know enough about machinery to know that I am not very mechanical. Do what I do, and take your trailer to a reputable dealer to have a checkup.
Let me give you some buzzwords to use on the trailer guy, so he does not view you as a total pigeon: "wiring harness," "repack bearings," "brake pads," "tire tread depth" and "floor integrity." While you are at it, make your trailer part of the paperwork exercise you went through with the membership and other information for you and your horse. Check that your license plates are current. In addition, many states require inspection stickers, and you want to make sure you comply. Keep the trailer registration with the tow-vehicle registration, along with the applicable insurance papers.
From Turnout to Work Mode
OK. Now that the paperwork is out of the way, let's get to the fun part and look at your horse. Hopefully, your horse has had some time off over the holidays. He was turned out as much as possible and thinks he is a horse again, instead of a windup toy. If he is not clipped yet, and you have provided him with a windproof, waterproof insulated blanket, he can be turned out in what you and I consider harsh conditions?and thrive.
He needs regular grain, fresh water of course, grazing or access to free-choice hay and shelter from wind and rain. If you can, turn him out with other horses. The socialization of the herd will help him relax, and he will probably be easier to deal with when you put him back in work.
However, once you put your horse back in work, we will need to do something about that pelt he has sprung. Before you get the clippers and coveralls out, stop and think for a moment. What conditions will he live in from now until warm weather? If he has to live outside 24/7, you need a trace clip and some more rugs for him. If he is going to be mostly inside, consider a full body clip.
There is no "right" clip for all horses, but there is a sensible clip for your horse's lifestyle this time of year. Choose that one.
The reason you clip your horse is that he is going back to work, which means he needs to be able to dissipate the heat and moisture that exercise will produce. If the weather is extremely cold, I suggest draping a quarter sheet over his loins until he gets warmed up, and be especially careful about cooling him out.
This is a good time to look over all your tack and make sure it is safe and serviceable before you start your season. Check the stitching of your stirrup leathers, and look them over carefully for wear or weak spots. Do the same with your reins and your saddle. Are your billet straps safe? Do they need to be replaced? What about the buckles and stitching on your girth? You should inspect each piece of tack you plan to use in training or competition, and make any needed repairs or replacements before you start serious exercise with your horse again.
Getting Back into Work
Now, what is this exercise that I have been talking about? Well, at first you should just ask your horse to walk for longer periods every day, until he can walk for an hour. (I am assuming your horse was recently in full work. If he is returning from an injury, you need to consult with your vet about his exercise protocol.) Keep him in a strong, rhythmical, ground-covering walk and, if at all possible, walk him outdoors. I know it is cold and uncomfortable, but there are no such things as unsuitable conditions, just unsuitable clothing. You can bundle up, because at first you will not be practicing anything too technical. Make sure you have safe road or field conditions, and make your horse march, not perambulate. If your feet get too cold, try putting on some toe-warmer packs and insulated boots. If your insulated boots are too big for your stirrups, make a virtue of necessity. As long as he is not doing his famous imitation of Bodacious the bucking bull, you can ride without stirrups. An hour a day for a week or 10 days without stirrups will do wonders for your dressage position.
Once you get your horse up to an hour of walk per day, cut that walk period back and add some work at the trot and canter. Make sure your footing is safe and conducive to soundness. Again, increase this work gradually until your horse is doing half an hour of walk and half an hour of more vigorous exercise for an hour's worth of exercise six days a week. Building up to this will take another week or 10 days, at which point you are ready to start jumping.
At this point in the conditioning process, shift to working on the flat with some dressage work one day, then some simple gymnastic jumping, followed the next day with flatwork, and so on. Do not jump many obstacles at first (25 to 30 total efforts) and certainly do not jump very high (3 feet or less). During this time, intersperse the work with the walk exercise so you're riding your horse for an hour total, six days a week.
I emphasize this long, slow progressive exercise pattern because it is the best way to get your horse fit. Remember that fitness is your horse's best defense against injury. Because fitness is so important to your horse, I plan to dedicate my next column to it entirely. Until then, start putting your ideas into practice, and don't just walk, make him march!
This article originally appeared in the March 2012 issue of Practical Horseman.